SOMERSET, N.J. The ASN.1 Consortium will be launched later this summer to hawk Abstract Syntax Notation One as the preferred communications standard for achieving interoperability between computing platforms sharing the Extensible Markup Language (XML). As digital communications spreads from cell phones to wireless personal organizers and XML-powered information appliances, the consortium claims to have the interoperability "Rosetta stone" in place.
"ASN.1 is already the enabling technology for cell phone messages, radio paging, streaming audio and video over the Internet, 800-number services, ISDN telephone services, digital certificates and secure e-mail," said Bancroft Scott, founder and president of OSS Nokalava here. "But with the ongoing work in the engineering community to deliver digital information with XML, we want to get the word out on how you go about getting these devices talking to one another."
ASN.1 was invented in 1984 and has become an international standard published jointly by the International Standards Organization, the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Telecommunications Union. The telephone companies popularized it as a method of gluing together all the various computers that must route messages between handsets through a maze of diverse switches.
Once a message is encoded in ASN.1's formal language, any other computing device along a telecommunications route can securely decode it whether it's a billion-dollar supercomputer or a $50 cell phone. In the '90s, ASN.1 tool kits were ported to nearly 100 computing platforms running C, C++, Java, Pascal and proprietary operating systems for embedded devices like cell phones.
Despite its widespread use, ASN.1 is not widely recognized in the engineering community as a route to interoperability. In fact, the emergence of XML has begun to overshadow ASN.1 as the preferred universal data-formatting methodology. XML allows application developers to encode their data into HTML-like text files that encapsulate the information about the data its application-specific "tags" along with its raw alphanumerical values. XML allows computers of all sizes from supercomputers to those embedded in cell phones to share the same data files, such as accessing an appointment calendar from a PC in the office or from a cell phone while on the road.
The new consortium, however, argues that the venerable ASN.1 specification can be the preferred method of telecommunicating raw XML database information from device to device.
"Raw XML is very verbose it's not a good technology for the telecommunication of data unless you combine it with ASN.1," said Scott. "Together they can solve the problem without wasting bandwidth. An XML data set encoded into ASN.1 will be orders of magnitude less verbose than the raw XML." How much depends on the application, he said. "In one benchmark I have read about, a 200-byte message was reduced to 20 bytes with normal compression methods, but ASN.1 encoded it into just 2 bytes and a few bits," said Scott.
To get this message out, OSS Nokalva, Griffin Consulting, France Telecom and other leading ASN.1 vendors have banded together with John Larmouth, the co-author of ASN.1, to champion its use as the standard for XML transactions. The vendors have also begun to incorporate XML encoder/decoders into their ASN.1 tool kits, to assist developers with translating XML data between compressed ASN.1, for telecommunications, and tagged XML for display to the user.
For instance, Griffin Consulting has put a free tutorial online that shows how ANS.1 encodings can mesh with not only XML data formats, but also HTML, plain text and the proprietary ASN.1 encodings called BER and PER (Basic Encoding Rules and Packed Encoding Rules, respectively). Likewise, OSS Nokalva is readying for release this fall its run-time functions to automatically encode and decode ASN.1 data to and from XML.
"ASN.1 is a mature, stable schema for XML markup. That's the message we want to get out of the consortium," said Scott. "We want to show engineers how easy it is to translate ASN.1 encodings into XML for visual display."
Alternative telecommunications methodologies for XML abound at ISO and other standards organizations, and some XML applications don't even bother with translating into a compressed encoding for telecommunications, but just send the whole XML text file with each transaction. However, ASN.1 Consortium founders argue that developers will eventually want to save telecommunications bandwidth with ASN.1 or an alternative compressed encoding.
"The viewpoint of the ASN.1 Consortium is that everybody will eventually want to minimize the size of the files they telecommunicate rather than waste bandwidth," said Scott.