AFF4 Introduction and basic concepts.


AFF4 is an evolution in forensic imaging technology. It is instructive to examine where forensic images came from, historically, in order to understand what AFF4 is attempting to solve.

Raw images.

The raw image (or sometimes named the dd image) is the oldest forms of forensic images. It was historically obtained by running the dd command to copy raw bytes from a disk into an image file. The dd image has a simple format - each byte in the image corresponds to a precise byte in the source media.

Despite their extreme simplicity, a raw image has several shortcomings:

  1. It can contain no compression - the size of the image is the same as the size of the acquired disk.

  2. It is typically not possible to represent a sparse source media - in some applications (e.g. a memory image), not all source regions are readable. Raw images must pad these regions with something to maintain alignment (typically unavailable regions are padded with zeros).

  3. No metadata is kept with the image. metadata must be kept externally and manually associated with the image.

Despite these limitations, raw images are still very popular since they are very simple - there are a number of hardware based imagers on the marker which can produce raw images making it fairly convenient.

AFF (up to version 3).

AFF, the predecessor to AFF4 make significant improvements to the state of the art in acquisitions. The AFF format offered compression and started storing metadata within the image.

Other similar commercial solutions also offered similar features (such as the EWF format) - more diverse metadata was added to these file formats and features such as encryption and digital signatures were also offered.

Each forensic image format introduced a unique file format. This required a unique tool to read it and often require reverse engineering work (for proprietary tools).

The information model.

Rather than treat metadata as an after thought, the AFF4 format uses metadata as its central abstraction - everything is built around the metadata. In this regard AFF4 is more than simply a file format - it is more akin to a complete evidence management system.

In AFF4 terminology, all known information about the world is stored in an Information Model. The AFF4 information model is centered around the concept of AFF4 objects.

The following are some basic assumptions about the AFF4 information model:

  1. AFF4 Objects are simply entities about which statements are made. AFF4 objects have a globally unique name (called a URN). To make URNs unique we often use a GUID to generate a unique part of the name.

  2. AFF4 uses RDF to model the statement about the object. An RDF statement is simply a tuple of (subject, predicate, value), where subject is the URN we talk about and predicate is a verb from a known lexicon.

  3. AFF4 statements are stored in a Resolver. The resolver is a central point which manages the AFF4 information model. Note that typically the resolver will need to be populated with metadata before any AFF4 objects can be instantiated.

For example, consider the following snippet of RDF encoded in the Turtle encoding:

    aff4:chunk_size 32768 ;
    aff4:chunks_per_segment 1024 ;
    aff4:compression <> ;
    aff4:size 1779 ;
    aff4:stored <aff4://21803da1-a4e4-4cf7-b866-f4f94c6fb041> ;
    a aff4:image .

This clause contains a number of statements about an AFF4 object:

  1. The AFF4 object we are talking about has a URN of aff4://21803da1-a4e4-4cf7-b866-f4f94c6fb041/bin/zcmp. Note that this URN is globally unique but we can see that it represents a file that was found at a path of /bin/zcmp. The choice for the URN is completely up to the implementation. The only requirement is that the URN is globally unique - this implementation chose to append the source filename to the URN for a bit of context but this is only a convenience.

  2. We can see that the object is an aff4:image (more on this later). This simply signifies what type of object this is.

  3. The object is stored in a volume of URN aff4://21803da1-a4e4-4cf7-b866-f4f94c6fb041. More on this later.

Object oriented modeling

We said before that AFF4 is an object oriented model. What does that mean? The AFF4 information model describes information about AFF4 objects. AFF4 objects are real implementations which can be instantiated by AFF4 implementations from the information in the model.

We currently define a number of standard AFF4 objects. Each standard object contains a set of pre-defined predicates which can be used to describe it. An AFF4 implementation can read the information model and re-create an AFF4 object from the RDF triples. Standard AFF4 objects specify their behaviour in sufficient details so that different AFF4 implementations can interchange data freely.

Implicit relations

Since AFF4 is reliant on the information model, all AFF4 objects are described using RDF triples. However, in practice many triples are implicitly stated. Either because they take on a default value, or because their facts are obvious.

For example, the AFF4 predicate aff4:stored describes where an AFF4 object is stored. However, when parsing an AFF4 volume we often already know some objects contained within it, simply by virtue of the volume format itself. It is therefore not needed to state these triples explicitely.

AFF4 standard objects often define implicit relations and therefore allow some RDF statement to be deduced by context. In the following we will describe what triples may be omitted for each AFF4 object type.