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Developer's Guide



What is ASN.1?

ASN.1 is an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) standard, also known as the Abstract Syntax Notation version 1. It is formed of two parts - a set of language standards used to describe some structured data, and a set of rules for representing that data as sequences of bits and bytes. Think of something like a powerful IDL. Unlike other systems which provide serialization and deserialization libraries, ASN.1 is standards based, and has almost 40 years of development and design.

The beauty of ASN.1 lies in the amount of usage and testing. ASN.1 is involved in every secure web browser request. It forms the basis of most secure messaging. It is used in most telco applications (cell phones, and landlines alike). There are hundreds of competing implementations, which means the interoperability is unmatched.

There are other serialization and interoperability libraries and mechanisms. Flat XML, and JSON data is one example. Google's Protocol Buffers, and Apache Thrift are two popular libraries. We believe ESNACC's ASN.1 is a competitive alternate to these ecosystems, as it has been in production use for decades, and is built on the powerful ASN.1 standards.

How does ESNACC's implementation of ASN.1 work?

eSNACC is composed of two parts. The first part is a compiler which will take the ASN.1 translation units and output code in the backend format. This code will be in source form, and should generally not be edited.

The second part is a back-end library. Each back-end will have a langauge specific set of calls to provide the various features to integrate and exchange ASN.1 data.


The following aims to demonstrate a simple request-response network based communication system. However, it merely aims to highlight one aspect of ASN.1 applications programming.

Setting up data structures

First, the set of data to be exchanged is spelled out in the ASN.1 language and saved in a .asn1 file. Each ASN.1 translation unit contains a DEFINITIONS stanza, which defines all of the data structures to appear. As an example, the following definitions illustrate a simple set of heart-beat and status messages:

    RunningProcess ::= SEQUENCE {
        processId INTEGER,
        processName UTF8String,
        processUser UTF8String OPTIONAL,
        processGroup UTF8String OPTIONAL,

    ProcessList ::= SEQUENCE OF RunningProcess

    -- This is the request --
    HeartbeatRequest ::= SEQUENCE {
        transactionId INTEGER,
        requestProcesses BOOLEAN,

    HeartbeatErrorMessage ::= SEQUENCE {
        errorId INTEGER,
        errorString UTF8String OPTIONAL

    HeartbeatReplyNoProcesses ::= SEQUENCE {

    HeartbeatReplyProcesses ::= SEQUENCE {
        processes ProcessList,
    HeartbeatResponses ::= CHOICE {

    -- This is the response --
    HeartbeatResponse ::= SEQUENCE {
        transactionId INTEGER,
        response HeartbeatResponses,

Notice in the example message definitions, there is a request, and it will always yield a response, which will have the corresponding transactionId and either an error message, a reply without processes, or a reply with the processes list.

The ... notation above implies that new fields can be added without breaking backwards compatibility. Older code will simply ignore the new field. The automatic tagging implies that ESNACC will generate tags.

Compiling to your back-end language

At this point, the definitions are ready to be compiled down to an implementation language. In this case, let's assume you're using C++. You can then use the ESNACC compiler with the -C flag, and it will generate a .cpp and .h file for the heartbeat example code. That will generate the classes in the following list:

class RunningProcess;
class HeartbeatErrorMessage;
class HeartbeatReplyNoProcesses;
class ProcessList;
class HeartbeatReplyProcesses;
class HeartbeatResponses;
class HeartbeatRequest;
class HeartbeatResponse;

Interact with the library and generated code

These classes will represent the types defined in the ASN.1 file above. A simple request, for instance, can be generated as:

HeartbeatRequest req;
req.transactionId = globalTransaction++;
if (globalShouldGetProcesses) {
    req.requestProcesses = true;

socketStream << SNACC::EncodeBER << req;

And a response can be processed, for example, with the below code:

HeartbeatResponse rep;
socketStream >> SNACC::EncodeBER >> rep;
if (rep.transactionId != globalTransaction - 1) {
    std::cout << "No transaction lists" << std::endl;
switch (rep.choiceId) {
case SNACC::HeartbeatResponses::heartbeatErrorMessageCid:
    std::cerr << "Oh No - an error!" << std::endl;
case SNACC::HeartbeatResponses::heartbeatReplyNoProcessesCid:
    std::cout << "Response" << std::endl;
case SNACC::HeartbeatResponses::heartbeatReplyProcessesCid:
    std::cout << "Response with processes" << std::endl;
    for (SNACC::ProcessList::iterator it = 
         it != rep.heartbeatReplyProcesses->processes.end();
         ++it) {
        std::cout << "Process #" << it->processId << " << std::endl;

The whole application will get compiled and linked with -lcxxasn1 and will then be ready to execute.

A more complete C++ tutorial can be found here.