Cybersecurity/Trust | Emerging Trends | Infrastructure
November 13, 2013

ASN.1: Driving innovation for 30 years

Abstract Syntax Notation One (ASN.1) epitomizes the role of standards as a basis for interoperability and its story makes a strong case for standards’ power in driving innovation. ASN.1 is one of the stalwarts of the over 4000 ITU-T Recommendations in force today, so widely implemented that it has weaved itself into the most fundamental aspects of communications.

As a cornerstone of security, authentication and cryptography, ASN.1 is perhaps best known for its use in specifying ITU-T X.509 digital certificates. X.509 certificates are at the foundation of the security infrastructure of the Internet and many other security applications. They are the mechanisms that enable trusted exchange of financial information over the Internet, and without X.509 (and the broader Public-key Infrastructure) the rise of e-business would have been impossible.

ASN.1 specifies a range of protocols in the ITU-standardized Signaling System #7 (SS7), the set of signaling protocols that underpins telephone calls in both fixed and mobile networks. ASN.1 is also at the heart of cellular technologies, being used to specify many of the protocols comprising the industry’s best-known standards, such as GSM, UMTS, LTE, and LTE Advanced.

In aviation, ASN.1 specifies some of the standard protocols that constitute the Aeronautical Telecommunication Network (ATN), an internetworking architecture endorsed by the International Civil Aviation Organization that manages digital data transfer between aircraft and civil air traffic control facilities.

And the list of application areas goes on, with ASN.1 today embedded in fields as diverse as spaceflight; healthcare and genetics; biometrics; electronic cards and tags; parcel tracking; energy distribution; banking; and transportation…

First published as an international standard in 1984, ASN.1 (Recommendation ITU-T X.680 | ISO/IEC 8824‑1) is a standardized notation used to describe the data structures representing messages exchanged between communicating parts. Alongside its standardized encoding rules (which derive transfer syntax from ASN.1’s abstract syntax), ASN.1 is used as a language to represent, encode and decode data in telecoms and computer networking; this enables information exchange among heterogenous information systems.

ASN.1 standardization work reignited

Nearing its 30th anniversary, ASN.1 is as well-trusted and effective as ever, and the market continues to find new opportunities to apply this time-tested standard.

OSS Nokalva has proposed a new ITU-T work item on the standardization of the ASN.1 Octet Encoding Rules (OER). The proposal builds on the success of OER in the transportation sector and the results of performance tests conducted within the Financial Information eXchange standards organization (FIX), a body naturally interested in ultra-low latency structured information exchange.

ASN.1 is deeply engrained in industry sectors that prize interoperability and high-speed information exchange, and it meets the low-latency requirements of the financial services sector. In a high-frequency trading environment, a millisecond shaved off the time taken to execute a trade can equate to thousands of dollars lost or gained, and OER can be an effective means to gain crucial fractions of a second on the (electronic) trading floor. In the context of high-frequency trading of financial instruments, OER has several advantages over the Packed Encoding Rules (PER); it is compact and easy to implement, forcing no trade-off between speed and other features.

The new work item was accepted at a recent meeting of ITU-T Study Group 17 (Security), so OER will soon join the stable of ITU-standardized ASN.1 encoding rules, which today includes Basic, Canonical, Distinguished, Packed and XML encoding rules (BER, CER, DER, PER and XER). (Read news on the outcomes of Study Group 17’s August/September 2013 meeting here.)

Study Group 17 is the expert group responsible for the standardization of security mechanisms and technical languages and description techniques, and it is a group with which OSS Nokalva has enjoyed a long and very fruitful relationship – both in developing standards and in applying them.

29 years on from ASN.1’s arrival and 24 from OSS Nokalva’s founding, there is certainly tremendous life in the standard yet, and at OSS we look forward to working with ITU-T in shaping future generations of interoperable ICTs.

By:Alessandro Triglia

Alessandro Triglia is a member of the technical staff at OSS Nokalva, Inc. He was actively involved in the development of ASN.1 standards as a member of the joint ISO/IEC/ITU-T committee for ASN.1 for several years since 2001. In the field of ASN.1 standardization, his main interests were the addition to ASN.1 of features related to XML (including the Extended XML Encoding Rules and the mapping from XML Schema to ASN.1), and new applications of ASN.1, such as Fast Infoset. As a member of IEEE 802, he contributed to the addition of ASN.1 in IEEE Std 802.16.1™-2012(WiMAX 2), leading the effort for the conversion of the existing tabular definitions to ASN.1. As a member of FIX Protocol Ltd., he developed a specification for the mapping of FIX messages to ASN.1 in support of high-performance trading. Within FIX Protocol Ltd., he also led a testing effort that measured the relative performance of several encoding schemes including both ASN.1 encodings and non-ASN.1 encodings applied to a large stream of financial market data. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association for two years in representation of OSS Nokalva. He spoke about ASN.1 at several conferences and workshops. He gave tutorials on ASN.1 to IEEE 802 (2010), ISO TC 204 (2011 and 2013), and IEEE 1609 (2013).
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