Quick `n' Easy DER library
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Quick (and Easy) DER, a Library for parsing ASN.1

Quick DER logo

Quick DER, or if you like, "Quick and Easy DER", is a library for handling DER, which is a widely used binary representation of ASN.1 syntax in binary formats. The library describes ASN.1 syntax in a parser table that can be fed into library routines, resulting in pointer/length descriptors for the individual data fragments.

See also:

Basic Usage

Quick DER is a three-pronged fork:

  • you can use the library to process DER data at a low level (e.g. as a sequence of nested tags with a data payload),
  • you can use the data structures provided by the library for a wide variety of RFCs to process data from those RFCs at a higher level (e.g. LDAP messages with named fields),
  • the tools provided with the library can be used to translate ASN.1 syntax into (C language) data structures and Python bindings for use as above.

Since Quick DER handles binary data (rather than character strings), all data is described in so-called dercursor structures; each containing a pointer and a size of the data pointed at.

Low Level Interface

The routine der_header() can be used to examine the component at the start of the DER data. This provides information on the tag and payload length of the component.

There are routines der_iterate_first() and der_iterate_next() routines to manually iterate over a DER structure's components. This can be used to analyse structures that have not been unpacked (yet). The der_countelements() routine can be used to predict the number of iterations.

There are also routines to manually walk through packaged DER structures, namely der_enter() and der_skip() to enter into a nested structure and to find the next element in a concatenation of such elements.

A more advanced form of such walks through a DER structure exists in the form of der_walk(), which is fed a sequence of enter/skip statements with tags that will be validated.

Higher Level Interface

The preferred approach of using this library is translating the ASN.1 syntax into a parser table. This is done when building your software, as a phase preceding the compilation of your Quick DER using program. The translation from ASN.1 to C code can be done manually or integrated into the buildsystem for your project (see below).

The resulting path walks are used in calls like der_unpack() to transform DER into C-style structures, and der_pack() to make the opposite transformation. The C-style structures are derived from the ASN.1 syntax, and permits access to the information with no further need of understanding the depths of processing DER.

The output from mapping ASN.1 to a parser table is an include file for the C programming language. This defines the various path walks that can be used to unpack and pack DER data. The output and input of these routines takes the form of an array of dercursor values.

To simplify use of the unpacked data, there are overlay structures for the dercursor array. These overlay structures use the same labels that are used in the ASN.1 syntax, so it is possible to walk around in the structures.

Some parts of the syntax indicate OPTIONAL elements. Such elements result in the respective dercursor variables to be NULL values; specifically, the function der_isnull() returns a true value for these elements.

The storage structure for the SEQUENCE OF and SET OF elements is not the usual dercursor field with uint8_t *derptr and size_t derlen attributes, but another field type dernode which can take a number of forms, namely a dercursor with uint8_t *wire.derptr and size_t wire.derlen or a derarray with an array of similar entries under info.derray and an array length under info.dercnt. It is the caller's responsibility to keep track of which parsing-phase is active, and so which kind of data is stored in the dernode.

ASN.1 Compiler

We have provided a simple asn2quickder compiler based on asn1ate to generate both the overlay data structures and the byte codes for der_pack() and der_unpack(). For most everyday ASN.1 this should suffice to produce a header file from an ASN.1 module.

To use the compiler (and the associated MacroASN1Module), you will need to build the Python bindings and tools. See the Python install documentation.

The compiler generates annotations for external callers that wish to unpack SEQUENCE OF and SET OF syntax elements. These annotations can be used for invoking the sub-unpacking and sub-packing procedures in a reasonably general manner. We think this is the best trade-off between simplicity on the side of Quick DER, and ability on the side of a potentially more demanding ASN.1 application.

The tool can generate C language headers and Python bindings for an ASN.1 description. An additional tool, asn1literate produces documentation from an ASN.1 description.

For users of CMake, the macros in cmake/MacroASN1Module.cmake may be an inspiration to automate ASN.1 compilation in those projects. The macros should not be used verbatim, since they are tied up with compiling ASN.1 before the tools are installed.


Quick DER accepts a liberal superset of DER, while making no memory allocations (although it can use extra memory for handling variable- length structures if you help it). It provides a library of pre- compiled headers and bindings to common protocols that use DER.

No Memory Allocation

The entire library has been designed to operate without dynamic memory allocation. This means that there will never be a memory leak as a result of using Quick DER.

When DER information is unpacked, it is assumed to be loaded into a memory buffer by the calling program, and the dercursor structures point to portions of that buffer. The data is stored in dercursor arrays which the user program may overlay with meaningful, ASN.1-labelled structures. In many applications, such structures can be allocated on the stack.

Some portions of the data may be dynamically sized, notably the SEQUENCE OF and SET OF structures, which indicate that the structural description following it may be repeated in the binary data. Such data portions will be stored and not yet unpacked by der_unpack(). Based on the stored DER data in a dercursor, the calling application can choose to use iterators, der_walk() and so on to avoid actually unpacking it; or it may allocate memory dynamically, and use that to repeatedly call der_unpack() to find the individual entries.

In short, the Quick DER library never needs to perform memory allocation, and it provides the calling program with a lot of control to avoid it too. This is ideal for embedded applications, but is also beneficial for a secure programming style.

Optional Memory Allocation for Sequences

Software built around Quick DER, such as LillyDAP for example, may well have its own regime of memory management. If this is the case, it is quite possible to unpack SEQUENCE OF and SET OF elements. The dernode type can be overlaid on a regular dercursor, and the caller can subsequently allocate memory sufficient for handling the array of dercursors.

The structure inserting the extra symbols wire for wire format and info for the array is union named dernode; der_unpack() will fill it with the wire form, but it is assumed that the caller's post-parser will invoke der_unpack() again on the components, and deliver the result in info, thereby overwriting the original wire format. Before sending out an info structure with der_pack(), the calling application should revert to wire form again through preparing calls to der_pack().


The library can be built for static linking, and can be optimized for code size when linking. See the embedded Quick DER file for details.

RFC Collection

We have started a collection of RFC's, stripped down to ASN.1 modules, that can be mapped to header files that can simply be include in a C program:

#include <quick-der/rfc5280.h>
#include <quick-der/rfc4120.h>
#include <quick-der/rfc4511.h>

These examples are included with Quick DER:

  • X.509 certificate and CRL structures,
  • Kerberos packet formats and messaging,
  • LDAP as a protocol description,
  • .. a dozen other RFC protocol descriptions.

Most ASN.1 descriptions do things that confuse the compiler, so small changes have been made, and clearly marked with asn1ate and an explanation in the ASN.1 files in the rfc/, itu/ and arpa2/ directories. The issues found were usually quite simple:

  • Using uppercase initial characters in type names
  • Removing complex constraints (Quick DER does not implement them anyway)
  • Cutting an infinitely circular reference for Filter.not in LDAP.

There are some specifications that go far beyond the abilities of asn1ate, by using such concepts as macros. This applies to the SNMP RFC's (which are not included).

Python Bindings

There are Python (both Python 2 and Python 3) bindings that can be generated when building the library.

See Python and Quick DER for a plan that greatly simplifies ASN.1 processing with Python.

Relation to BER

This is for ASN.1 experts; others can safely skip this subsection.

The Quick DER library is designed to process DER, although it will also accept some of the more general BER format. If a length or value is written in more than the minimal space, the library is still likely to accept it. Note that the BIT STRING type is somewhat likely to run into overflow problems, so there the full restrictiveness of DER is applied.

Integer types longer than four octets (i.e. 32 bit) are not supported directly.

Typical Use

The library comes with a collection of tests which may also be used as examples of the library's use. The test / example ldapsearch is extensively documented; it reads a binary dump (DER) of an LDAP search request, and prints out the filter expression that is found in that search.

The example works with the low level interface: it explicitly calls routines like der_enter() to explore the DER data.

Validation of DER

To validate the structures written in DER, both der_unpack() and der_walk() can be used. Most other routines are coded for flexibility and should not be assumed to validate DER in more detail than strictly required.

The der_unpack() routine runs through the entire structure, and validates the tags it runs by, as well as the complete nesting structure it encounters. It is a complete validation of the structures.

The der_walk() routine performs lazy validation, meaning that it will carefully check tags and nesting inasfar as it is needed to get from its starting point to its end point. Anything but the paths explored will be accepted without question.

LDAP Handling

The LillyDAP framework builds on top of Quick DER to process LDAP messages. It uses the headers for LDAP (RFC 4511) from Quick DER and the higher level API to translate DER data into C structures.

LillyDAP, in turn, is a framework for building miniature LDAP services. These can help you centralise your data storage under own control; for instance, your PGP key ring or your vCard collection are good candidates for sharing locally.

Future Plans

There are a few things that this library can use:

  • More testing. The current test directory is far too small; we can take a PKIX certificate apart and re-compose it, so we're definately doing something good, but this is nowhere near thorough testing. If you run into a problem case, then please share it so we can solve it and extend our test base.
  • Compiler output testing. The compiler output is currently compiled to see if there are C syntactical problems, but that is all. They have been visually compared to manually crafted code, too. More exhaustive tests, including a full application, would be in order.

And of course, there are many useful things we may do with this library:

  • Kerberos in PKIX. Certificates wrapping Kerberos Tickets for use with TLS-KDH,
  • Remote PKCS #11. The main issue in doing this well is proper encapsulation, but with Quick and Easy DER, and the emphasis of both on security and well-defined sizes, it appears to be a perfect match to wrap PKCS #11 arguments in DER structures.