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Btrieve File Format

MajorBBS/Worldgroup make use of Actian/Pervasive/Novell Btrieve as a native, persistent database platform.

In this article we'll be discussing the Btrieve File Format as reverse engineered in the course of developing MBBSEmu. There is also an excellent book titled Btrieve Complete, by Jim Kyle which describes the file format is painstaking detail.


  • MajorBBS/Worldgroup used a version of Btrieve <= 6.0
  • MajorBBS/Worldgroup did not make use of Compressed Fields

Basic File Structure

Btrieve uses a Page-based file structure where data is segmented into pre-defined blocks of data known as "Pages". The total size of a Btrieve file can be defined as Number of Pages * Page Size

The first Page in a Btrieve file is known as the File Control Record (FCR). The FCR contains meta-data related to the Btrieve file to give the engine information on the contents, its location and what to expect. The FCR always starts at byte 0

FCR Information

(offsets relative to 0x0)

File Meta-Data

Name Offset Data Type Definition
Page Length 0x08 word Defined length of each PAGE (min. 512/max. 4096, must be multiple of 512)
Key Count 0x14 word Total number of Keys defined
Record Length 0x16 word Defined length of a Record (in bytes)
Physical Record Length 0x18 word Physical spacing in bytes between Records in the database itself. At least as large as Record Length, and likely larger including whatever padding btrieve decides to use.
Record Count 0x1C word Total number of Records across all DATA pages

Using the above, we can determine that Page Count is equal to File Size / Page Length.

Key Definitions

Key Definitions are also in the FCR, located starting at offset 0x110. Each Key Definition record is 0x1E (30) bytes long

(offsets relative to position within the 30 byte Key Definition)

Name Offset Data Type Definition
Total Records 0x06 word Total Number of Records which implement/make use of this Key
Attributes 0x08 word Attributes Flag for the Key (table below)
Offset 0x14 word Offset within the record which the Key is located (more information below)
Length 0x16 word Length of the Key within the record
Key Data Type 0x1C byte Data Type of the Key (table below)
Null Value 0x1D byte For columns marked as allowing NULL (Integers), this value is used to represent NULL

Key Attributes

Each Key Definition has an Attributes Flag which contains multiple attributes about the specified key

Attribute Mask Definition
Duplicates 1 Allow duplicate key values
Modifiable 1 << 1 Key Value can be modified
Old Style Binary 1 << 2 Used when UseExtendedDataType is not set. If true, binary blob, otherwise string.
NullAllSegments 1 << 3 Whether the key supports null values. All segmented keys must have this same bit set.
SegmentedKey 1 << 4 If the given key has any Segments
NumberedACS 1 << 5 Whether the string type uses the ACS table
DescendingKeySegment 1 << 6 Key is stored in descending Sort Order
RepeatingDuplicatesKey 1 << 7 Different representation of duplicate key values
UseExtendedDataType 1 << 8 Whether the key uses the key data types listed below, otherwise type is defined by Old Style Binary.
NullAnySegment 1 << 9 Whether the key supports null values. Any segmented key with this value set indicates the entire key could be null.

Key Data Types

Each Key Definition has a defined Data Type, which specifies the underlying type of the Key. While most are primitive, a couple have implicit logic.

Attribute Code (Byte)

The majority of MajorBBS/Worldgroup modules only make use of STRING, ZSTRING, INTEGER, and AUTOINCREMENT


After the FCR begins the actual Btrieve Pages. There are different Page Types within Btrieve.

Page Type Definition
FCR Contains metadata about the entire database
ACS Page Contains the ACS table used by the database
Key Page Contains the absolute offset in the Btrieve file for the specified Key value
Data Page Contains record data
Variable Record Data Page Contains variable record data

While enumerating through the pages, the best method we've been able to employ to identify Page types is the following: (offsets relative to the start of the Page)

Page Type How to Identify
FCR Always first page
ACS Page Always second page if exists. Starts with 0x000001000000AC
Key Pages Value 0xFFFFFFFF at offset 0x8
Data Pages Bit 7 set in the byte at offset 0x5
Variable Record Data Pages No identifying information. Referenced via pointers inside the Data Pages

Understanding How MajorBBS/Worldgroup uses Btrieve

In it's simplest form, Btrieve allows MajorBBS/Worldgroup Modules to easily save and retrieve STRUCT values quickly. A modern comparison would be a document store database for unstructured data similar to Mongo. Data in Btrieve, while it would appear through the Key Definitions that it is structured similar to modern SQL/RDBMS, it's actually a definition of values within a predefined STRUCT.

For this example we'll use the following STRUCT:

struct Users{
   int   userId;
   char  username[50];
   char  email[50];
   char  address[50];
   char  address[50];
} users; 

If I wanted to quickly look up users based on their userId or username, I would want to define Btrieve Keys as such:

Key         Position        Type            Null Values*  
    Segment          Length           Flags             
  0    1         1       2  Integer             --     
  1    1         3      50  String       M      --       

What we've done now is define the STRUCT for our record, and we've now told Btrieve where the information lives within the record. If I wanted to query the Btrieve engine for the username foo, I might run a command similar to:

int success = GetByKey(key: 1, keyValue: "foo", result: *destinationStruct)

After executing this command, success would be 1 if the command executed successfully, and my desired struct would now be loaded at *destinationStruct. The only value ever retrieved from a Btrieve query is the struct which matched the query criteria. It's then up to the developer to programmatically extract the data needed.

If I wanted to get the most recent user to sign up, I might run a command similar to:

int success = GetLastByKey(key: 0, keyValue: null, result: *destinationStruct)

This would tell the Btrieve engine to get the LAST value (since the key is numeric, highest) in the file for the specified key. This would return to me the user with the highest userId

Btrieve allows MajorBBS/Worldgroup to step through Btrieve records as well relative to the current record. Using the previous query as an example, if I were to execute a query after it similar to:

int success = GetPreviousByKey(key: 0, keyValue: null, result: *destinationStruct)

It would return the Previous record, which in our query would mean the user with the second highest userId


mbbsemu/development/btrieve_file_format.txt · Last modified: 2023/10/06 23:41 by