If you have some data that you can’t afford to lose, having a good backup strategy is critical. Proper online backup solutions such as Tarsnap create snapshots of your data, which means you can never destroy your backup by accident. Tarsnap is also the only online backup solution that I could recommend. However, it can get very expensive for the large datasets. It would be insane to use it for hundreds of gigabytes of music, for example. Dropbox is a much better choice in such case, but it’s not really a backup solution. You could accidentally delete or modify some file, and notice only when it’s too late to recover it.

That is why I recently implemented a small integrity checking tool for my backup folders. It calculates checksums of all files in specified directories and stores them in an immutable SQLite database (each time the tool is invoked it creates the new file instead of keeping everything in a single database). It can also calculate the difference between the two databases, therefore allowing me to verify that no files were modified or removed in the meantime. I could have used a simple file instead of an SQLite database, but SQLite is almost always a better choice for an application file format (read this to see why). Also, file consistency is hard.

In order to prevent my program from accidentally overwriting the data in some of the previous databases, I wanted to satisfy two safety related requirements:

  • When comparing the two databases, I wanted to open them in read-only mode, thus making it impossible to destroy anything.
  • When creating the new database, I wanted to always create the new file, and fail if the file with the same name already exists. Again, this makes doing destructive changes impossible.

First requirement can easily be satisfied with both ordinary files and SQLite databases. Second requirement is often source of security problems with ordinary files, but it is also easy to satisfy. With SQLite, however, situation is very different, and that’s the topic of my blog post.

Safely creating a new file

First, let’s talk a little about opening files. I will focus on the Unix system call open, but the general idea is also applicable to Windows (see the CreateFile documentation for more details).

When you want to open or create a file on Unix, whether it’s for reading, writing, or both, you use the open system call. Its signature looks like this:

int open(const char *pathname, int flags);

Here are the two most common ways of using the open function:

// Open the file in read-only mode.
int fd1 = open("file1", O_RDONLY);

// Open the file for both reading and writing.
// Create it if it doesn't exist.
int fd2 = open("file2", O_RDWR | O_CREAT);

First call is fine, but the second call could be problematic. If the file already exists before this call, it will be opened. This is sometimes source of symbolic link attacks, where instead of opening a new file, attacker can trick you into overwriting some other, often security critical file. But that was not my main concern; I was more worried about the situation where I could overwrite some old database, only because I named the new one with the same name by accident. Is there a way to create a file only if it does not exist? Of course—that is exactly what the O_EXCL flag is for:

Ensure that this call creates the file: if this flag is specified in conjunction with O_CREAT, and pathname already exists, then open() will fail.

This does the trick for plain files. Can we do something similar when working with SQLite databases?

Safely creating a new SQLite database

SQLite databases are opened using the sqlite3_open_v2 function (you could also use the sqlite3_open or sqlite3_open16 functions, but they are not as powerful as sqlite3_open_v2, so we can ignore them in this discussion):

int sqlite3_open_v2(const char *filename, sqlite3 **ppDb, int flags, const char *zVfs);

It looks very similar to the open function, which should not be surprising, because SQLite developers clearly state that SQLite databases should be used instead of ad-hoc files in most situations. SQLite uses its own set of flags, but they also look very similar to their open counterparts. We are interested in only four of them at this moment:

#define SQLITE_OPEN_READONLY         0x00000001  /* Ok for sqlite3_open_v2() */
#define SQLITE_OPEN_READWRITE        0x00000002  /* Ok for sqlite3_open_v2() */
#define SQLITE_OPEN_CREATE           0x00000004  /* Ok for sqlite3_open_v2() */
#define SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE        0x00000010  /* VFS only */

This looks like the O_RDONLY, O_RDWR, O_CREAT, and O_EXCL flags have their direct equivalents (people often think that SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE opens the database for exclusive access, but that is not what it does). But why are the first three flags compatible with the sqlite3_open_v2 call, but SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE is not? Why the comment says it’s “VFS only”, and what is VFS, actually?

VFS stands for “Virtual File System”, and it’s a portability layer for abstracting the file system operations across different operating systems. SQLite ships with multiple Unix and Windows implementations, but you can even write your own VFS if you want. But this doesn’t answer our question—what does it mean that the flag we are interested in is marked as VFS only? Let’s write a simple program to see what happens when we use the SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE flag.

#include "sqlite3.h"
#include "stdio.h"
#include "stdlib.h"

int main()
  sqlite3 *db;
  char *sql, *err;
  int flags, rc;


  if ((rc = sqlite3_open_v2("test.db", &db, flags, NULL)) > 0)
    fprintf(stderr, "%s\n", sqlite3_errstr(rc));

  sql = "CREATE TABLE IF NOT EXISTS foo(value); \
    INSERT INTO foo(value) VALUES('value');";

  if ((rc = sqlite3_exec(db, sql, NULL, NULL, &err)) > 0)
    fprintf(stderr, "%s\n", err);

  return 0;

This program should open the database for reading and writing, and fail if it already exists. But that is not what happens: it completes without any errors when we run it. SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE has clearly been ignored, which we could have suspected from its description. To find out what is going on, we have to dig deeper.

Analyzing the SQLite source code

The easiest way to analyze and compile the SQLite source is to download so called amalgamation. It is a single file called “sqlite3.c”, which is just a concatenation of all SQLite source files. That makes compilation, navigation, and searching much easier.

The first function from the SQLite library that we are calling in our sample program is sqlite3_open_v2, so let’s find its definition, and follow the propagation of the flags from there. The function looks like this:

int sqlite3_open_v2(
  const char *filename,   /* Database filename (UTF-8) */
  sqlite3 **ppDb,         /* OUT: SQLite db handle */
  int flags,              /* Flags */
  const char *zVfs        /* Name of VFS module to use */
  return openDatabase(filename, ppDb, (unsigned int)flags, zVfs);

It’s just a simple wrapper around the openDatabase, so let’s continue our search there. Immediately at the top of the openDatabase is the answer to our question why the SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE flag is being ignored:

/* Remove harmful bits from the flags parameter
** dealt with in the previous code block. Besides these, the only
** valid input flags for sqlite3_open_v2() are SQLITE_OPEN_READONLY,
** SQLITE_OPEN_PRIVATECACHE, and some reserved bits. Silently mask
** off all other flags.
             SQLITE_OPEN_MAIN_DB |
             SQLITE_OPEN_TEMP_DB | 
             SQLITE_OPEN_NOMUTEX |

This code is being executed before any other useful action takes place (even before the VFS is instantiated). We now know that our flag is being silently masked off, but the code still doesn’t explain why the flag is not valid. Another comment in the same function says which combinations of flags are allowed:

/* Parse the filename/URI argument
** Only allow sensible combinations of bits in the flags argument.  
** Throw an error if any non-sense combination is used. If we
** do not block illegal combinations here, it could trigger
** assert() statements in deeper layers. Sensible combinations
** are:

Again, this is not really an explanation. Why is the combination of SQLITE_OPEN_READWRITE, SQLITE_OPEN_CREATE, and SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE missing from the list of sensible combinations, when it’s actually pretty sensible? It turns out I’m not the only one who’s wondering about that—other people were asking the same question, too. I found the closest thing to a real explanation on the SQLite mailing list post called sqlite3_open() exclusive?, where the author of the library says:

SQLite databases are designed to be shared by two or more processes, so no it does not use O_EXCL.

This is a sane default choice, but it still doesn’t say why the flag is explicitly forbidden. Now that we have concluded that the SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE flag is definitely not allowed, let’s find out what does it mean that it’s VFS only.

Function openDatabase doesn’t open the database file directly—it actually opens the file using the function provided by the VFS implementation for the current operating system. Files on the Unix-like operating systems are opened using the unixOpen function:

static int unixOpen(
  sqlite3_vfs *pVfs,           /* The VFS for which this is the xOpen method */
  const char *zPath,           /* Pathname of file to be opened */
  sqlite3_file *pFile,         /* The file descriptor to be filled in */
  int flags,                   /* Input flags to control the opening */
  int *pOutFlags               /* Output flags returned to SQLite core */

Unlike the sqlite3_open_v2, unixOpen does handle SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE flag correctly. And not just that, but the flag is actually used internally in several places. For example, temporary databases are created using this flag—it’s only the external users of SQLite who are being prevented from using it.

So, where does that leave us? We could modify the SQLite source code to stop masking the flag, but that’s not really an acceptable solution to this problem. Can we do better than that?

Writing a custom VFS

I was ready to give up at this point, because by this time I already lost countless hours on what was really a minor problem (if you could call it a problem at all). But for some reason I couldn’t leave the job unfinished, so I decided it was time for the nuclear option: writing a custom VFS implementation.

Implementing the VFS requires overriding the sqlite3_vfs structure. It contains more than a dozen functions and several fields. Default implementations for Unix and Windows are huge and complicated; doing something like that from scratch would be an enormous and error-prone job.

When you think more about it, it’s not actually necessary to implement all of these functions from scratch. Almost all of them should just be reused; the only one that we really have to override is the xOpen function:

int *xOpen(sqlite3_vfs*, const char *zName, sqlite3_file*, int flags, int *pOutFlags);

Even this function doesn’t have to be implemented from scratch—we only have to reapply the SQLITE_OPEN_EXCLUSIVE flag, and then call the original xOpen function, because we know that it’s capable of handling it.

So, the solution is to just write a small wrapper around the default VFS that would just forward the calls to the original functions, but also add the SQLITE_OPEN_EXLUSIVE flag in the xOpen function before calling the real version. SQLite documentation was again super helpful because it contains the example of a VFS shim that writes diagnostic output for each VFS call.

I wanted to apply the flag only when SQLITE_OPEN_READWRITE and SQLITE_OPEN_CREATE flags were already applied, so my initial attempt to override the xOpen function looked something like this:

int xOpen(sqlite3_vfs *vfs, const char *name, sqlite3_file *file, int flags, int *outFlags)
  sqlite3_vfs *root = (sqlite3_vfs *)vfs->pAppData;

  if ((flags & test) == test)

  return root->xOpen(root, name, file, flags, outFlags);

This kinda worked, but was not really the correct solution. The problem with this code is that the xOpen function was not used only for creating the database: SQLite is also using it internally for other purposes, like creating the journal, write-ahead log, and many other temporary files. I couldn’t guarantee that adding the SQLITE_OPEN_EXLUSIVE flag wouldn’t break some of the internal operations.

Is there a way to add the flag only when we are opening the main database file? If your answer is yes, you are correct: SQLite applies an additional flag for each type of file it creates, and the main database is marked with the SQLITE_OPEN_MAIN_DB flag (you can see the list of all additional flags here). Armed with this knowledge, I just had to slightly modify my previous attempt:

int xOpen(sqlite3_vfs *vfs, const char *name, sqlite3_file *file, int flags, int *outFlags)
  sqlite3_vfs *root = (sqlite3_vfs *)vfs->pAppData;

  if ((flags & test) == test)

  return root->xOpen(root, name, file, flags, outFlags);

As far as I’m concerned, this looks like correct and portable solution. Also, you should know that even with this custom VFS, SQLite will still open the database, but in read-only mode (default VFS implementations have a fallback to opening the database in read-only mode if the main open call fails for any reason). That’s fine, though: we only wanted to be sure that we won’t overwrite any data by accident, and opening the database in read-only mode satisfies that requirement.


Opening an SQLite database safely should have been a very simple thing to do, but it turned into a week-long pointless, yet fun exercise. You can find the complete implementation of my custom VFS here. It is just a proof of concept, so be careful if you want to use in the real-world code (but you probably don’t need it, anyway).