Thoughts on the current state of ASN.1 and XML technologies.

XBinder Version 2.6 Release

We recently released a new major version of our XBinder XML Schema Compiler product.  XBinder generates C, C++, Java, or C# code from XML Schema (XSD) definitions, making it easier to create and consume compliant XML documents in a programmatic way.

New features in this release include the following:

    • Generation of C/C++ Code to Better Support 64-bit Architectures
    • Generation of Visual Studio Projects for 64-bits
    • Ability to Use Qt Types
    • Use of Newer Versions of Visual Studio for Windows
    • XML Validation in XBinder Editor
    • Generation of Visual Studio Projects in XBinder Editor

A full list of changes, and additional details on the above changes, are available in the release notes.

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V2X API Updates

The V2X ASN.1 encode/decode API provides functions for encoding and decoding messages defined in the SAE International Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) Message Set Dictionary J2735 standard and equivalent ETSI standards – CAM and DENM.  An updated version of the API is now available for download from the V2X API product page on our web-site.  The updated API was built with ASN1C v7.2.2 and adds the following new features:

  • Generated XER (XML) and JSON code was added making it possible to output binary data to these formats and conversely decode data in these formats back to binary form.
  • The updated API contains generated “print-to-stream” functions rather than standard print functions.  This makes it possible to set up print callbacks to print to output devices or mediums other than stdout (for example, to a GUI display).
  • Versions of the C/C++ API have been added for Linux x86 32-bit and Linux ARM 32-bit platforms.

Also note that the name of the product has changed.  It was formerly known as V2X DLL, but the name was changed to V2X API as the former gave the impression it was a Windows-only product.

 

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Re-using Decoded Items in a Subsequent Encoding

This blog post attempts to provide advice about re-using items from a decoded message in a subsequent encoding of a different message.

Let’s look at the employee sample in the c/sample_ber/employee directory of the ASN1C SDK. The ASN.1 specification for this sample is fairly simple and looks like this:


Employee DEFINITIONS ::= BEGIN
EXPORTS;

PersonnelRecord ::= [APPLICATION 0] IMPLICIT SET {
   Name,
   title [0] IA5String,
   number EmployeeNumber,
   dateOfHire [1] Date,
   nameOfSpouse [2] Name,
   children [3] IMPLICIT SEQUENCE OF ChildInformation
}

ChildInformation ::= SET {
   Name,
   dateOfBirth [0] Date
}

Name ::= [APPLICATION 1] IMPLICIT SEQUENCE {
   givenName IA5String,
   initial IA5String,
   familyName IA5String
}

EmployeeNumber ::= [APPLICATION 2] IMPLICIT INTEGER

Date ::= IA5String

END

Now, suppose the ChildInformation piece and the Name piece need to be used in a different message, called a FamilyRecord, that is going to be encoded after a PersonnelRecord message is decoded. We can change the ASN.1 specification that defines the PersonnelRecord so it looks like this:


Employee DEFINITIONS AUTOMATIC TAGS ::= BEGIN

EXPORTS;

IMPORTS Name, ChildInformation FROM Common;

PersonnelRecord ::= SET {
   employeeName Name,
   title IA5String,
   number EmployeeNumber,
   dateOfHire Date,
   nameOfSpouse Name,
   children SEQUENCE OF ChildInformation
}

EmployeeNumber ::= INTEGER

Date ::= IA5String

END

So we can see now that instead of defining ChildInformation and Name, the specification imports them from a module named Common. The other changes are that we are using an explicit element name called employeeName just to make things neater, and we are using AUTOMATIC TAGS for sanity preservation.

The Common module would look like this:


Common DEFINITIONS AUTOMATIC TAGS ::= BEGIN

EXPORTS ChildInformation, Name;

ChildInformation ::= SET {
   childName Name,
   dateOfBirth Date
}

Name ::= SEQUENCE {
   givenName IA5String,
   initial IA5String,
   familyName IA5String
}

END

And we also need to create a specification that defines FamilyRecord:


Family DEFINITIONS AUTOMATIC TAGS ::= BEGIN

EXPORTS;

IMPORTS Name, ChildInformation FROM Common;

FamilyRecord ::= SET {
nameOfSpouse Name,
ageOfSpouse INTEGER (18..MAX),
children SEQUENCE OF ChildInformation
}

END

So we have a module named Common that defines ChildInformation and Name. And we have two other modules, named Employee (which defines the PersonnelRecord PDU) and Family (which defines the FamilyRecord PDU) that both make use of these two definitions in the Common module.

Now, suppose we have a need to write some C code that decodes a PersonnelRecord and uses the name of the employee’s spouse and and the information about the employee’s children in a new encoding of a FamilyRecord. Below is a complete C program that can accomplish this. The sections that I’m going to talk about in a little more detail are indicated with numbers in square brackets, e.g., [1], [2], [3], etc.


/*
This program does the following:
Reads and decodes an already-encoded PersonnelRecord message.
Uses pieces of that decoded PersonnelRecord to populate the structures for a new FamilyRecord message.
Encodes that FamilyRecord message.
*/

#include "Employee.h"
#include "Family.h"
#include "rtxsrc/rtxDiag.h"
#include "rtxsrc/rtxFile.h"

#define MAXMSGLEN (1024)

int main()
{
   PersonnelRecord tEmployee;
   FamilyRecord tFamily;
   OSCTXT tDecodeContext, tEncodeContext;

   /* Receives the encoded (i.e., not yet decoded) PersonnelRecord message from the message.dat file */
   OSOCTET* pachEmployeeMessage;

   /* Receives the encoded FamilyRecord message from this program's encode call */
   OSOCTET achFamilyMessage[MAXMSGLEN];

   /* Receives a pointer to the encoded FamilyRecord message in order to print it and then write it to a file */
   OSOCTET *pachFamilyMessage;

   OSSIZE iLength;
   int iStatus;
   FILE* ptOutputFile;
   const char szInputFileName[] = "EmployeeMessage.dat";
   const char szOutputFileName[] = "FamilyMessage.dat";
   OSBOOL bTrace = TRUE, bVerbose = FALSE;

   /* Initialize the context structure for the decoding. */
   if (rtInitContext (&tDecodeContext) != 0) { /* [1] */
      printf ("Error initializing decode context\n");
      return -1;
   }
   rtxSetDiag (&tDecodeContext, bVerbose);

   /* Read the input file into a memory buffer. */
   iStatus = rtxFileReadBinary (&tDecodeContext, szInputFileName, &pachEmployeeMessage, &iLength); /* [2] */
   if (0 != iStatus) {
      printf ("Error opening %s for read access\n", szInputFileName);
      return -1;
   }
   iStatus = xd_setp64 (&tDecodeContext, pachEmployeeMessage, iLength, 0, 0, 0);
   if (0 != iStatus) {
      rtxErrPrint (&tDecodeContext);
      return iStatus;
   }

   /* Clear the structures that will receive the decoded message. */
   asn1Init_PersonnelRecord (&tEmployee);

   /* Decode the PersonnelRecord message. */
   iStatus = asn1D_PersonnelRecord (&tDecodeContext, &tEmployee, ASN1EXPL, 0); /* [3] */
   if (0 == iStatus) {
      if (bTrace) {
         printf ("Decode of PersonnelRecord was successful\n");
         printf ("Decoded record:\n");
         asn1Print_PersonnelRecord ("Employee", &tEmployee);
      }
   }
   else {
      printf ("decode of PersonnelRecord failed\n");
      rtxErrPrint (&tDecodeContext);
      return -1;
   }

   /* Now use the spouse's name and the children's names in a new FamilyRecord message. */

   /* Initialize the context structure for the encoding. */
   iStatus = rtInitContext (&tEncodeContext); /* [4] */
   if (0 != iStatus) {
      printf ("encoding context initialization failed\n");
      rtxErrPrint (&tEncodeContext);
      return iStatus;
   }
   rtxSetDiag (&tEncodeContext, bVerbose);

   /* Populate the structures for the FamilyRecord message. */ /* [5] */
   tFamily.nameOfSpouse = tEmployee.nameOfSpouse;
   tFamily.ageOfSpouse = 30;
   tFamily.children = tEmployee.children;

   /* Encode the FamilyRecord message. */
   xe_setp (&tEncodeContext, achFamilyMessage, sizeof(achFamilyMessage));
   if ((iLength = asn1E_FamilyRecord (&tEncodeContext, &tFamily, ASN1EXPL)) > 0) /* [6] */
   {
      pachFamilyMessage = xe_getp (&tEncodeContext);
      if (bTrace) {
         if (XU_DUMP (pachFamilyMessage) != 0)
         printf ("dump of ASN.1 message failed.");
      }
   }
   else {
      rtxErrPrint (&tEncodeContext);
      return iLength;
   }

   /* Write the encoded message out to the output file */ /* [7] */

   if (0 != (ptOutputFile = fopen (szOutputFileName, "wb"))) {
      fwrite (pachFamilyMessage, 1, iLength, ptOutputFile);
      fclose (ptOutputFile);
   }
   else {
      printf ("Error opening %s for write access\n", szOutputFileName);
      return -1;
   }

   /* Now free up our contexts. */ /* [8] */
   rtFreeContext (&tDecodeContext);
   rtFreeContext (&tEncodeContext);

   return 0;
}

In part [1] we’re initializing a context structure for decoding.

In part [2] we’re reading a file that contains an encoded PersonnelRecord. The byte array pachEmployeeMessage will have the bytes of the encoded message.

In part [3] we’re decoding the PersonnelRecord into the tEmployee structure.

In part [4] we’re initializing a context structure for encoding. Note that we’re using different context structures for decoding and encoding.

Part [5] is the crucial part. Here we’re populating the members of the tFamily structure before we use it to encode a FamilyRecord message. For two of those members we’re using members of the tEmployee structure, which contains the decoded information from the PersonnelRecord message. In both cases the members are structures in the generated C code, so the assignment results in a shallow copy of the structure from tEmployee to tFamily. So all pointers within the tEmployee structures stay the same in the tFamily structures. The crucial part to remember here is that the memory used for the decoding of the PersonnelRecord message (i.e., the tEmployee structure) must remain intact until we’re completely done with the tFamily structure, since the tFamily structure now has pointers to that memory.

In part [6] we’re encoding a FamilyRecord message using the tFamily structure that we just populated in part [5].

In part [7] we’re writing the encoded FamilyRecord message out to a file.

In part [8] we’re freeing the two contexts that we used, one for decoding and one for encoding. As pointed out in part [5] it’s crucial that the context, and hence the memory, used for the decoding remain intact until we’re completely done with the encoding, since the structure used for the encoding has pointers to the memory used for the decoding.

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Compact code generation in ASN1C

ASN.1 is used in a lot of different areas and a new area that is within the Internet of Things (IoT).  In particular Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) uses ASN.1 UPER-based messaging.

One characteristic of these devices is they are small, so code size is critical.  We have been working on ways to make our ASN1C generated code and run-time libraries as compact as possible for applications such as these.   In our latest ASN1C v7.2.1 patch release, we are now including a new set of compact libraries for Linux.  These can be found in the c/lib_compact directories.  They are built with gcc using maximum space optimization settings and with a lot of non-critical code stripped out.  The compact libraries are roughly 25% smaller than the standard libraries.

In addition to using the compact libraries, additional steps can be taken to reduce the size of the generated code.  We touched on some of these in a past blog post entitled “Optimizing PER Encoding and Code Footprint“.  We would also recommend using the following command-line options (the equivalent GUI option is in parentheses):

  • -compact  (Generate compact code)
  • -noinit  (uncheck the Generate Initialization Functions checkbox)
  • -noenumconvert (do not generate enum-to-string conversion functions – should only be enabled if print functions are generated)

Other options that you may or may not be able use:

  • -lax (Do not generate constraint checks)
  • -strict-size (Interpret size constraints strictly)

If all of these measures are employed, users could potentially see the size of their application reduced by one half or more.

 

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ASN1C 7.2 Improved Comment Handling

In version 7.2, we improved our handling of ASN.1 comments, as follows.

  • When using the “Pretty-print ASN.1” (-asn1)  option, comments from type assignments and elements (SEQUENCE/SET/CHOICE components) are now included in the output.  Previously, pretty-printed ASN.1 did not include any ASN.1 comments in the output.
  • When generating C/C++ code, we previously put ASN.1 comments only for types into the C/C++ comments.  We now include ASN.1 comments from elements as well.
  • When writing comments, we now try to preserve the position of the comment as it appeared in the ASN.1.  We formerly printed all comments before the type assignment with which we associated the comment, even if the comment actually appeared after the type assignment.

When we output ASN.1 comments and ASN.1 syntax, whether the context is pretty-printed ASN.1 or C/C++ comments, we are not simply writing out everything as it appeared in the input.  This means we have to associate comments with syntax.  Since ASN.1 comments don’t have a syntactic relationship to other parts of the ASN.1 syntax, such associations involve a heuristic.  In the example below, the comment is potentially associated with either BigNumber or SmallNumber, though common practice suggests it’s most likely related to SmallNumber.

BigNumber ::= INTEGER (500..1000)

-- This is the type to use for speeds

SmallNumber ::= INTEGER (0..30)

Here’s a rough description of the heuristic rules we use:

  • If the start of a comment comes after some other ASN.1 syntax appearing on the same line, the comment is considered related to that syntax.
  • If the start of a comment is preceded, on the same line, only by whitespace, the comment may be related either to syntax that precedes or succeeds the comment.
    • If the comment is followed by a type assignment or an element, the first such comment that is not indented, relative to the type assignment or element, is associated with that type assignment or element.  Successive comments are also associated with the same item, regardless of indentation.
    • Any comments that preceded the first non-indented comment (all of which are indented) are associated with something which precedes those comments.  If these comments are immediately preceded by a type assignment or an element, they are associated with that type assignment or element.  In any case, they will not be associated with an element or type assignment that follows those comments.

Some examples:

-- comment for Person
Person ::= SEQUENCE {
   -- comment for age
   age INTEGER, -- another comment for age
      -- yet another comment for age
   -- comment for name
   name UTF8String
} -- another comment for Person
   -- yet another comment for Person

-- comment for Winnings
Winnings::= INTEGER (500..1000)

It is possible that these heuristics will associate a comment differently than a human reader would have.  Consider this example:

BigNumber ::= INTEGER (500..1000)

   -- SmallNumber is used for speeds

SmallNumber ::= INTEGER (0..30)

Because of the indentation, the comment will be associated with BigNumber, but it obviously actually relates to SmallNumber.  Since we try to preserve location when printing, we’ll print the comment after the definition of BigNumber, which can give the reader a hint that the comment might actually relate to something else (if the content of the comment were different, this might not be so obvious to the reader).

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