ASN.1

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ASN.1
Abstract Syntax Notation One
StatusIn force; supersedes X.208 and X.209 (1988)
Year started1995
Latest version(08/15)
August 2015
OrganizationITU-T
Base standardsASN.1
Related standardsX.208, X.209, X.680, X.681, X.682, X.683
Domaincryptography, telecommunications
Websitehttps://www.itu.int/rec/T-REC-X.680/en

Abstract Syntax Notation One (ASN.1) is a standard interface description language for defining data structures that can be serialized and deserialized in a cross-platform way. It is broadly used in telecommunications and computer networking, and especially in cryptography.

Protocol developers define data structures in ASN.1 modules, which are generally a section of a broader standards document written in the ASN.1 language. The advantage is that the ASN.1 description of the data encoding is independent of a particular computer or programming language (other than ASN.1.) Because ASN.1 is both human-readable and machine-readable, an ASN.1 compiler can compile modules into libraries of code, CODECs, that decode or encode the data structures. Some ASN.1 compilers can produce code to encode or decode several encodings, e.g. packed, BER or XML.

ASN.1 is a joint standard of the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) in ITU-T Study Group 17 and ISO/IEC, originally defined in 1984 as part of CCITT X.409:1984.[1] In 1988, ASN.1 moved to its own standard, X.208, due to wide applicability. The substantially revised 1995 version is covered by the X.680 series.[2] The latest revision of the X.680 series of recommendations is the 5.0 Edition, published in 2015.

Language support[edit]

ASN.1 is a data type declaration notation. It does not define how to manipulate a variable of such a type. Manipulation of variables is defined in other languages such as SDL (Specification and Description Language) for executable modeling or TTCN-3 (Testing and Test Control Notation) for conformance testing. Both these languages natively support ASN.1 declarations. It is possible to import an ASN.1 module and declare variable of any of the ASN.1 types declared in the module.

Applications[edit]

ASN.1 is used to define a large number of protocols. Its most extensive uses continue to be telecommunications, cryptography, and biometrics.

Protocols that use ASN.1
Protocol Specification Specified or Customary Encoding Rules Uses
Interledger Protocol https://interledger.org/rfcs/asn1/index.html Octet Encoding Rules
NTCIP 1103 - Transport Management Protocols NTCIP 1103 Octet Encoding Rules Traffic, Transportation, and Infrastructure Management
X.500 Directory Services The ITU X.500 Recommendation Series Basic Encoding Rules, Distinguished Encoding Rules LDAP, TLS (X.509) Certificates, Authentication
Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) IETF RFC 4511 Basic Encoding Rules
PKCS Cryptography Standards PKCS Cryptography Standards Basic Encoding Rules and Distinguished Encoding Rules Asymmetric Keys, certificate bundles
X.400 Message Handling The ITU X.400 Recommendation Series An early competitor to email
EMV EMVCo Publications Payment cards
T.120 Multimedia conferencing The ITU T.120 Recommendation Series Basic Encoding Rules, Packed Encoding Rules Microsoft's [Remote Desktop Protocol] (RDP)
Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) IETF RFC 1157 Basic Encoding Rules Managing and monitoring networks and computers, particularly characteristics pertaining to performance and reliability
Common Management Information Protocol (CMIP) ITU Recommendation X.711 A competitor to SNMP but more capable and not nearly as popular
Signalling System No. 7 (SS7) The ITU Q.700 Recommendation Series Managing telephone connections over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)
ITU H-Series Multimedia Protocols The ITU H.200, H.300, and H.400 Recommendation Series Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP)
BioAPI Interworking Protocol (BIP) ISO/IEC 24708:2008
Common Biometric Exchange Formats Framework (CBEFF) NIST IR 6529-A Basic Encoding Rules
Authentication Contexts for Biometrics (ACBio) ISO/IEC 24761:2019
Computer-supported telecommunications applications (CSTA) https://www.ecma-international.org/activities/Communications/TG11/cstaIII.htm Basic Encoding Rules
Dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) SAE J2735 Packed Encoding Rules
Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) http://www.ttfn.net/techno/smartcards/gsm11-11.pdf Mobile Phone Communications
General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) / Enhanced Data Rates for Global Evolution (EDGE) http://www.3gpp.org/technologies/keywords-acronyms/102-gprs-edge Mobile Phone Communications
Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UTMS) http://www.3gpp.org/DynaReport/25-series.htm Mobile Phone Communications
Long-Term Evolution (LTE) http://www.3gpp.org/technologies/keywords-acronyms/98-lte Mobile Phone Communications
Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) http://docs.oasis-open.org/emergency/cap/v1.2/CAP-v1.2-os.html XML Encoding Rules Exchanging Alert Information, such as Amber Alerts
Controller–pilot data link communications (CPDLC) Aeronautics communications
Space Link Extension Services (SLE) Space systems communications
Manufacturing Message Specification (MMS) ISO 9506-1:2003 Manufacturing
File Transfer, Access and Management (FTAM) An early and more capable competitor to File Transfer Protocol, but its rarely used anymore.
Remote Operations Service Element protocol (ROSE) ITU Recommendations X.880, X.881, and X.882 An early form of Remote procedure call
Association Control Service Element (ACSE) ITU Recommendation X.227
Building Automation and Control Networks Protocol (BACNet) ASHRAE 135-2012 BACNet Encoding Rules Building automation and control, such as with fire alarms, elevators, HVAC systems, etc.
Kerberos IETF RFC 4210 Basic Encoding Rules Secure authentication
WiMAX 2 Wide Area Networks
Intelligent Network The ITU Q.1200 Recommendation Series Telecommunications and computer networking

Encodings[edit]

ASN.1 is closely associated with a set of encoding rules that specify how to represent a data structure as a series of bytes. The standard ASN.1 encoding rules include:

ASN.1 Encoding Rules
Encoding Rules Object Identifier OID-IRI Object Descriptor Value Specification Unit of Serialization Encoded Elements Discernable without Foreknowledge of Specification Octet Aligned Encoding Control Notation Rules Defined Description
Basic Encoding Rules (BER)[3] 2.1.1 /ASN.1/Basic-Encoding Basic Encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.690 Octet Yes Yes No The first specified encoding rules. Encodes elements as tag-length-value (TLV) sequences. Typically provides several options as to how data values are to be encoded. This is one of the more flexible encoding rules.
Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER)[4] 2.1.2.1 /ASN.1/BER-Derived/Distinguished-Encoding Distinguished encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.690 Octet Yes Yes No A restricted subset of the Basic Encoding Rules (BER). Typically used for things that are digitally-signed because, since the DER allow for fewer options for encoding, and because DER-encoded values are more likely to be re-encoded on the exact same bytes, digital signatures produced by a given abstract value will be the same across implementations and digital signatures produced over DER-encoded data will be less susceptible to collision-based attacks.
Canonical Encoding Rules (CER)[5] 2.1.2.0 /ASN.1/BER-Derived/Canonical-Encoding Canonical encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.690 Octet Yes Yes No A restricted subset of the Basic Encoding Rules (BER). Employs almost all of the same restrictions as the Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER), but the noteworthy difference is that the CER specify that many large values (especially strings) are to be "chopped up" into individual substring elements at the 1000-byte or 1000-character mark (depending on the data type).
Basic Packed Encoding Rules (PER) Aligned[6] 2.1.3.0.0 /ASN.1/Packed-Encoding/Basic/Aligned Packed encoding of a single ASN.1 type (basic aligned) ITU X.691 Bit No Yes No Encodes values on bits, but if the bits encoded are not evenly divisible by eight, padding bits are added until an integral number of octets encode the value. Capable of producing very compact encodings, but at the expense of complexity, and the PER are highly dependent upon constraints placed on data types.
Basic Packed Encoding Rules (PER) Unaligned[6] 2.1.3.0.1 /ASN.1/Packed-Encoding/Basic/Unaligned Packed encoding of a single ASN.1 type (basic unaligned) ITU X.691 Bit No No No A variant of the Aligned Basic Packed Encoding Rules (PER), but it does not pad data values with bits to produce an integral number of octets.
Canonical Packed Encoding Rules (CPER) Aligned[6] 2.1.3.1.0 /ASN.1/Packed-Encoding/Canonical/Aligned Packed encoding of a single ASN.1 type (canonical aligned) ITU X.691 Bit No Yes No A variant of the Packed Encoding Rules (PER) that specifies a single way of encoding values. The Canonical Packed Encoding Rules have a similar relationship to the Packed Encoding Rules that the Distinguished Encoding Rules (BER) and the Canonical Encoding Rules (CER) have to the Basic Encoding Rules (BER).
Canonical Packed Encoding Rules (CPER) Unaligned[6] 2.1.3.1.1 /ASN.1/Packed-Encoding/Canonical/Unaligned Packed encoding of a single ASN.1 type (canonical unaligned) ITU X.691 Bit No No No A variant of the Aligned Canonical Packed Encoding Rules (CPER), but it does not pad data values with bits to produce an integral number of octets.
Basic XML Encoding Rules (XER)[7] 2.1.5.0 /ASN.1/XML-Encoding/Basic Basic XML encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.693 Character Yes Yes Yes Encodes ASN.1 data as XML.
Canonical XML Encoding Rules (CXER)[7] 2.1.5.1 /ASN.1/XML-Encoding/Canonical Canonical XML encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.693 Character Yes Yes Yes
Extended XML Encoding Rules (EXER)[7] 2.1.5.2 /ASN.1/XML-Encoding/Extended Extended XML encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.693 Character Yes Yes Yes
Octet Encoding Rules (OER)[8] 2.1.6.0 Basic OER encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.696 Octet No Yes A set of encoding rules that encodes values on octets, but does not encode tags or length determinants like the Basic Encoding Rules (BER). Data values encoded using the Octet Encoding Rules often look like those found in "record-based" protocols. The Octet Encoding Rules (OER) were designed to be easy to implement and to produce encodings more compact than those produced by the Basic Encoding Rules (BER). In addition to reducing the effort of developing encoder/decoders, the use of OER can decrease bandwidth utilization (though not as much as the Packed Encoding Rules), save CPU cycles, and lower encoding/decoding latency.
Canonical Encoding Rules (OER)[8] 2.1.6.1 Canonical OER encoding of a single ASN.1 type ITU X.696 Octet No Yes
JSON Encoding Rules (JER)[9] ITU X.697 Character Yes Yes Yes Encodes ASN.1 data as JSON.
Generic String Encoding Rules (GSER)[10] 1.2.36.79672281.0.0 Generic String Encoding Rules (GSER) IETF RFC 3641 Character Yes No An incomplete specification for encoding rules that produce human-readable values. The purpose of GSER is to represent encoded data to the user or input data from the user, in a very straightforward format. GSER was originally designed for the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and is rarely used outside of it. The use of GSER in actual protocols is discouraged since not all character string encodings supported by ASN.1 can be reproduced in it.
BACNet Encoding Rules ASHRAE 135 Octet Yes Yes Yes Encodes elements as tag-length-value (TLV) sequences like the Basic Encoding Rules (BER).
Signalling Specific Encoding Rules (SER) France Telecom R&D Internal Document Octet Yes Yes Used primarily in telecommunications related protocols, such as GSM and SS7. Designed to produce an identical encoding from ASN.1 that previously-existing protocols not specified in ASN.1 would produce.
Lightweight Encoding Rules (LWER) Internal document by INRIA. Memory Word Yes Originates from an internal document produced by INRIA detailing the "Flat Tree Light Weight Syntax" (FTLWS). Abandoned in 1997 due to the superior performance of the Packed Encoding Rules (PER). Optionally Big-Endian or Little-Endian transmission as well as 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit memory words. (Therefore, there are six variants, since there are six combinations of those options.)
Minimum Bit Encoding Rules (MBER) Bit Proposed in the 1980s. Meant to be as compact as possible, like the Packed Encoding Rules (PER).
NEMA Packed Encoding Rules Bit An incomplete encoding rule specification produced by NEMA. It is incomplete because it cannot encode and decode all ASN.1 data types. Compact like the Packed Encoding Rules (PER).
High Speed Coding Rules "Coding Rules for High Speed Networks" Definition of these encoding rules were a byproduct of INRIA's work on the Flat Tree Light Weight Syntax (FTLWS).

Encoding Control Notation[edit]

ASN.1 recommendations provide a number of predefined encoding rules. If none of the existing encoding rules are suitable, the Encoding Control Notation (ECN) provides a way for a user to define his or her own customized encoding rules.

Relation to Privacy-Enhanced Mail (PEM) Encoding[edit]

Privacy-Enhanced Mail (PEM) encoding is entirely unrelated to ASN.1 and its codecs, however, encoded ASN.1 data (which is often binary) is often PEM-encoded. This can aid with transport over media that is sensitive to textual encoding, such as SMTP relays, as well copying and pasting.

Example[edit]

This is an example ASN.1 module defining the messages (data structures) of a fictitious Foo Protocol:

FooProtocol DEFINITIONS ::= BEGIN

    FooQuestion ::= SEQUENCE {
        trackingNumber INTEGER,
        question       IA5String
    }

    FooAnswer ::= SEQUENCE {
        questionNumber INTEGER,
        answer         BOOLEAN
    }

END

This could be a specification published by creators of Foo Protocol. Conversation flows, transaction interchanges, and states are not defined in ASN.1, but are left to other notations and textual description of the protocol.

Assuming a message that complies with the Foo Protocol and that will be sent to the receiving party, this particular message (protocol data unit (PDU)) is:

myQuestion FooQuestion ::= {
    trackingNumber     5,
    question           "Anybody there?"
}

ASN.1 supports constraints on values and sizes, and extensibility. The above specification can be changed to

FooProtocol DEFINITIONS ::= BEGIN

    FooQuestion ::= SEQUENCE {
        trackingNumber INTEGER(0..199),
        question       IA5String
    }

    FooAnswer ::= SEQUENCE {
        questionNumber INTEGER(10..20),
        answer         BOOLEAN
    }

    FooHistory ::= SEQUENCE {
        questions SEQUENCE(SIZE(0..10)) OF FooQuestion,
        answers   SEQUENCE(SIZE(1..10)) OF FooAnswer,
        anArray   SEQUENCE(SIZE(100))  OF INTEGER(0..1000),
        ...
    }

END

This change constrains trackingNumbers to have a value between 0 and 199 inclusive, and questionNumbers to have a value between 10 and 20 inclusive. The size of the questions array can be between 0 and 10 elements, with the answers array between 1 and 10 elements. The anArray field is a fixed length 100 element array of integers that must be in the range 0 to 1000. The '...' extensibility marker means that the FooHistory message specification may have additional fields in future versions of the specification; systems compliant with one version should be able to receive and transmit transactions from a later version, though able to process only the fields specified in the earlier version. Good ASN.1 compilers will generate (in C, C++, Java, etc.) source code that will automatically check that transactions fall within these constraints. Transactions that violate the constraints should not be accepted from, or presented to, the application. Constraint management in this layer significantly simplifies protocol specification because the applications will be protected from constraint violations, reducing risk and cost.

To send the myQuestion message through the network, the message is serialized (encoded) as a series of bytes using one of the encoding rules. The Foo protocol specification should explicitly name one set of encoding rules to use, so that users of the Foo protocol know which one they should use and expect.

Example encoded in DER[edit]

Below is the data structure shown above encoded in DER format (all numbers are in hexadecimal):

30 13 02 01 05 16 0e 41 6e 79 62 6f 64 79 20 74 68 65 72 65 3f

DER is a type-length-value encoding, so the sequence above can be interpreted, with reference to the standard SEQUENCE, INTEGER, and IA5String types, as follows:

30 — type tag indicating SEQUENCE
13 — length in octets of value that follows
  02 — type tag indicating INTEGER
  01 — length in octets of value that follows
    05 — value (5)
  16 — type tag indicating IA5String 
     (IA5 means the full 7-bit ISO 646 set, including variants, 
      but is generally US-ASCII)
  0e — length in octets of value that follows
    41 6e 79 62 6f 64 79 20 74 68 65 72 65 3f — value ("Anybody there?")

Example encoded in XER[edit]

Alternatively, it is possible to encode the same ASN.1 data structure with XML Encoding Rules (XER) to achieve greater human readability "over the wire". It would then appear as the following 108 octets, (space count includes the spaces used for indentation):

<FooQuestion>
    <trackingNumber>5</trackingNumber>
    <question>Anybody there?</question>
</FooQuestion>

Example encoded in PER (unaligned)[edit]

Alternatively, if Packed Encoding Rules are employed, the following 122 bits (16 octets amount to 128 bits, but here only 122 bits carry information and the last 6 bits are merely padding) will be produced:

01 05 0e 83 bb ce 2d f9 3c a0 e9 a3 2f 2c af c0

In this format, type tags for the required elements are not encoded, so it cannot be parsed without knowing the expected schemas used to encode. Additionally, the bytes for the value of the IA5String are packed using 7-bit units instead of 8-bit units, because the encoder knows that encoding an IA5String byte value requires only 7 bits. However the length bytes are still encoded here, even for the first integer tag 01 (but a PER packer could also omit it if it knows that the allowed value range fits on 8 bits, and it could even compact the single value byte 05 with less than 8 bits, if it knows that allowed values can only fit in a smaller range).

The last 6 bits in the encoded PER are padded with null bits in the 6 least significant bits of the last byte c0 : these extra bits may not be transmitted or used for encoding something else if this sequence is inserted as a part of a longer unaligned PER sequence.

This means that unaligned PER data is essentially an ordered stream of bits, and not an ordered stream of bytes like with aligned PER, and that it will be a bit more complex to decode by software on usual processors because it will require additional contextual bit-shifting and masking and not direct byte addressing (but the same remark would be true with modern processors and memory/storage units whose minimum addressable unit is larger than 1 octet). However modern processors and signal processors include hardware support for fast internal decoding of bit streams with automatic handling of computing units that are crossing the boundaries of addressable storage units (this is needed for efficient processing in data codecs for compression/decompression or with some encryption/decryption algorithms).

If alignment on octet boundaries was required, an aligned PER encoder would produce:

01 05 0e 41 6e 79 62 6f 64 79 20 74 68 65 72 65 3f

(in this case, each octet is padded individually with null bits on their unused most significant bits).

Tools[edit]

Most of the tools supporting ASN.1 do the following:

  • parse the ASN.1 files,
  • generates the equivalent declaration in a programming language (like C or C++),
  • generates the encoding and decoding functions based on the previous declarations.

A list of tools supporting ASN.1 can be found on the ITU-T Tool web page.

Comparison to similar schemes[edit]

ASN.1 is similar in purpose and use to protocol buffers and Apache Thrift, which are also interface description languages for cross-platform data serialization. Like those languages, it has a schema (in ASN.1, called a "module"), and a set of encodings, typically type-length-value encodings. However, ASN.1, defined in 1984, predates them by many years. It also includes a wider variety of basic data types, some of which are obsolete, and has more options for extensibility. A single ASN.1 message can include data from multiple modules defined in multiple standards, even standards defined years apart.

ASN.1 also includes built-in support for constraints on values and sizes. For instance, a module can specify an integer field that must be in the range 0 to 100. The length of a sequence of values (an array) can also be specified, either as a fixed length or a range of permitted lengths. Constraints can also be specified as logical combinations of sets of basic constraints.

Values used as constraints can either be literals used in the PDU specification, or ASN.1 values specified elsewhere in the schema file. Some ASN.1 tools will make these ASN.1 values available to programmers in the generated source code. Used as constants for the protocol being defined, developers can use these in the protocol's logic implementation. Thus all the PDUs and protocol constants can be defined in the schema, and all implementations of the protocol in any supported language draw upon those values. This avoids the need for developers to hand code protocol constants in their implementation's source code. This significantly aids protocol development; the protocol's constants can be altered in the ASN.1 schema and all implementations are updated simply by recompiling, promoting a rapid and low risk development cycle.

If the ASN.1 tools properly implement constraints checking in the generated source code, this acts to automatically validate protocol data during program operation. Generally ASN.1 tools will include constraints checking into the generated serialization / deserialization routines, raising errors or exceptions if out-of-bounds data is encountered. It is complex to implement all aspects of ASN.1 constraints in an ASN.1 compiler. Not all tools support the full range of possible constraints expressions. XML schema and JSON schema both support similar constraints concepts. Tool support for constraints in these varies. Microsoft's xsd.exe compiler ignores them.

ASN.1 is visually similar to Augmented Backus-Naur form (ABNF), which is used to define many Internet protocols like HTTP and SMTP. However, in practice they are quite different: ASN.1 defines a data structure, which can be encoded in various ways (e.g. JSON, XML, binary). ABNF, on the other hand, defines the encoding ("syntax") at the same time it defines the data structure ("semantics"). ABNF tends to be used more frequently for defining textual, human-readable protocols, and generally is not used to define type-length-value encodings.

Many programming languages define language-specific serialization formats. For instance, Python's "pickle" module and Ruby's "Marshal" module. These formats are generally language specific. They also don't require a schema, which makes them easier to use in ad-hoc storage scenarios, but inappropriate for communications protocols.

JSON and XML similarly do not require a schema, making them easy to use. However, they are both cross-platform standards, and are broadly popular for communications protocols, particularly when combined with an XML schema or JSON schema.

Some ASN.1 tools are able to translate between ASN.1 and XML schema (XSD). The translation is standardised by the ITU. This makes it possible for a protocol to be defined in ASN.1, and also automatically in XSD. Thus it is possible (though perhaps ill-advised) to have in a project an XSD schema being compiled by ASN.1 tools producing source code that serializes objects to/from JSON wireformat. A more practical use is to permit other sub-projects to consume an XSD schema instead of an ASN.1 schema, perhaps suiting tools availability for the sub-projects language of choice, with XER used as the protocol wireformat.

For more detail, see Comparison of data serialization formats.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "ITU-T Recommendation database". ITU. Retrieved 2017-03-06.
  2. ^ ITU-T X.680 - Specification of basic notation
  3. ^ ITU-T X.690 - Basic Encoding Rules (BER)
  4. ^ ITU-T X.690 - Distinguished Encoding Rules (DER)
  5. ^ ITU-T X.690 - Canonical Encoding Rules (CER)
  6. ^ a b c d ITU-T X.691 - Packed Encoding Rules (PER)
  7. ^ a b c ITU-T X.693 - XML Encoding Rules (XER)
  8. ^ a b ITU-T X.696 - Octet Encoding Rules (OER)
  9. ^ ITU-T X.697 - JavaScript Object Notation Encoding Rules (JER)
  10. ^ [rfc:3641 IETF RFC 3641 - Generic String Encoding Rules (GSER)]

External links[edit]