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RFC 971 - Survey of data representation standards


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Network Working Group                                 Annette L. DeSchon
Request for Comments: 971                                            ISI
                                                            January 1986

               A SURVEY OF DATA REPRESENTATION STANDARDS

Status of This Memo

   This RFC discusses data representation conventions in the
   ARPA-Internet and suggests possible resolutions.  No proposals in
   this document are intended as standards for the ARPA-Internet at this
   time.  Rather, it is hoped that a general consensus will emerge as to
   the appropriate approach to these issues, leading eventually to the
   adoption of ARPA-Internet standards.  Distribution of this memo is
   unlimited.

1. Introduction

   This report is a comparison of several data representation standards
   that are currently in use.  The standards, or system type
   definitions, that will be discussed are the CCITT X.409
   recommendation, the NBS Computer Based Message System (CBMS)
   standard, DARPA Multimedia Mail system, the Courier remote procedure
   call protocol, and the SUN Remote Procedure Call package.

   One purpose of this report is to determine how the CCITT standard,
   which is gaining wide acceptance internationally, compares with some
   of the other standards that have been developed in the areas of
   electronic mail, distributed interprocess communication, and remote
   procedure call.  The CCITT X.409 recommendation, which is entitled
   "Presentation Transfer Syntax and Notation" is an international
   standard which is a part of the X.400 series Message Handling Systems
   (MHS) specifications [1].  It has been adopted by both the NBS and
   the ISO standards organizations.  In addition, some commercial
   organizations have announced intentions to support a CCITT interface
   for electronic mail.  The NBS Computer Based Message System (CBMS)
   standard was developed previously and was published as a Federal
   Information Processing Standard (FIPS Publication 98) in 1983 [3].
   The DARPA Multimedia Mail system is an experimental electronic mail
   system which is in use in the DARPA Internet [2,4,5].  It is used to
   create and distribute messages that incorporate text, graphics,
   stored speech, and images and has been implemented on on several very
   different machines.  Courier is the XEROX network systems remote
   procedure call protocol [7].  The SUN Remote Procedure Call package
   implements "network pipes" between UNIX machines [6].

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

2. Background

   This section presents a brief overview of the basic terminology and
   approach of each data representation standard.

   2.1. Interprocess Communication Standards

      The standards that are oriented towards distributed interprocess
      communication or remote procedure call, between like machines,
      generally favor the use of types that map easily into the types
      defined in the programming language in use on the system.  For
      example, the types defined for the XEROX Courier system resemble
      the types found in the Mesa programming language.  Similarly, the
      SUN Remote Procedure Call system types resemble the types found in
      the C programming language.  An advantage of a system implemented
      using like machines is that the external data representation can
      be defined in such a way that the conversion to and from the local
      format is minimal.

      2.1.1. Courier

         The Courier standard data types are used to define the data
         objects which are transported bi-directionally between system
         elements that are running the Courier remote procedure call
         protocol.  The "standard representation" of a type is the
         encoding of the data which is transmitted.  The "standard
         notation" refers to the conventions for the interpretation of
         the data by higher-level applications.  The standard
         representation of a data object encodes the value of the
         object, but the type of the object is determined by the
         software that generates or interprets the representation.

      2.1.2. SUN Remote Procedure Call Package

         The SUN Remote Procedure Call package includes routines which
         allow a process on one UNIX machine to consume data produced by
         a process on another UNIX machine.  This is called a "network
         pipe" and is an extension of the standard UNIX pipe.  The
         "eXternal Data Representation (XDR)" standard defines the
         routines that are used to encode or "serialize" data for
         transmission, or to decode or "deserialize" data for local
         interpretation. The syntax suggests that perhaps it should be
         called "remote interprocess communication" rather than "remote
         procedure call".

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

   2.2. Message Standards

      The message oriented standards, including DARPA Multimedia Mail,
      NBS CBMS, and the CCITT X.409 standards, seem to favor more
      general, highly extensible type definitions.  This may have
      something to do with the expectation that a system will include
      many different machines, programmed using many different
      programming languages.

      2.2.1. DARPA Multimedia Mail

         The DARPA Multimedia Mail system was developed for use in DoD
         Internet community.  The set of data elements used in the
         Multimedia Message Handling Facility (MMHF) is referred to as
         its "presentation transfer syntax".  The encoding of these data
         elements varies with the data type being represented. Each
         begins with a one-octet "element-code".  Some data elements are
         of a pre-determined length.  For example, the INTEGER data
         element occupies five octets, one for the element-code, and
         four which contain the "value component".  Other data elements,
         however, may vary in length.  For example, the TEXT data
         element, is made up of a one-octet element-code, a three-octet
         count of the characters to follow, and a variable number of
         octets, each containing one right-justified seven bit ASCII
         character.  The element-code and the length constitute the "tag
         component".

         A "base data element" is self contained, while a "structured
         data element" is formed using other data elements.  The LIST
         data element is used to create structures composed of other
         elements.  The tag component of a LIST is made up of a
         one-octet element-code, a three-octet count of the number of
         octets to follow, and a two-octet count of the number of
         elements that follow.  The PROPLIST data element is used to
         create a structure that consists of a set of unordered
         name-value pairs.  The tag component of a PROPLIST is made up
         of a one-octet element-code, a three-octet count of the number
         of octets to follow, and a one-octet count of the number of
         name-value pairs in the PROPLIST.  Both the LIST and the
         PROPLIST elements are followed by an ENDLIST data element.

      2.2.2. NBS Computer Based Message System

         The NBS Computer Based Message System (CBMS) standard was
         developed to specify the format of a message at the interface
         between different computer-based message systems.  Each data
         element consists of a series of "components".  The five

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

         possible types of component are the "identifier octet", the
         "length code", the "qualifier", the "property-list" component,
         and the "data element contents".  Every data element contains
         an identifier octet and a length code.  The identifier octet
         contains a one-bit flag that signifies whether the data element
         contains a property-list, and a code identifying the data
         element and signifying whether it contains a qualifier. In the
         NBS standard, the property-list is associated with a data
         element and contains properties such as a "printing-name" or a
         "comment".  The meaning of the qualifier depends on the data
         element code.  The length code indicates the number of octets
         following, and is between one and three octets in length.

         Each data element is inherently a "primitive data element",
         which contains a basic item of information, or a "constructor
         data element", which contains one or more data elements.  The
         "field" data element (itself a constructor) uses a qualifier
         component, which contains a "field identifier" to indicate
         which specific field is being represented within a message.

      2.2.3. CCITT Recommendation X.409

         The CCITT recommendation X.409 defines the notation and the
         representational technique used to specify and to encode the
         Message Handling System (MHS) protocols.  The following is a
         description of the CCITT approach to encoding type definitions.
         A data element consists of three components, the "identifier"
         (type), the "length", and the "contents".  An element and its
         components consist of a sequence of an integral number of
         octets.  An identifier consists of a "class" ("universal",
         "application-wide", "context-specific", or "private-use"), a
         "form" ("primitive" or "constructor"), and the "id code".
         There is a convention defined for both single-octet and
         multi-octet identifiers.  The length specifies the length of
         the contents in octets, and is itself variable in length.
         There is also an "indefinite" value defined for the length;
         this means that no length for the contents is specified, and
         the contents is terminated with the the "end-of-contents" (EOC)
         element.  In X.409 it is possible to determine whether a data
         element is a primitive or a constructor from the form part of
         the identifier.  In addition it is possible to "tag" the data
         by attaching meaning to an id code within the context of a
         specific application.

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

3. Implicit Versus Explicit Representation

   In both the SUN Remote Procedure Call system and the XEROX Courier
   system the type definitions of external data are implicit.  This
   means that for a given type of call, or message, the type definitions
   which is to be used to interpret the data, are agreed upon by the
   sender and the receiver in advance.  In other words, parameters (or
   message fields) are assumed to be in a predefined order.  Each
   parameter is assumed to be of a predefined type.  This means the data
   cannot be reformated into the local form until it reaches a process
   that knows about the types of specific parameters.  At this point,
   the conversion can be accomplished using system routines that know
   how to convert from the external format to the local format.  If the
   system is homogeneous there may be very little conversion required.
   In addition, no extra overhead of sending the type definitions with
   the data is incurred.

   In the DARPA Multimedia Mail system, the NBS CBMS standard, and the
   CCITT X.409 recommendation, type definitions are explicit.  In this
   case the type definitions are encoded into the message.  There are
   several advantages to this approach.  One advantage is that it allows
   a low level receiver process in the destination host to convert the
   data from the standard form to a form appropriate for the local host,
   as it received.  This can increase efficiency if it allows the
   destination host to avoid passing around data that does not conform
   to the local word boundaries.  Another advantage is that it provides
   flexibility for future expansion.  Since the overall length is a part
   of the type definition, it allows a host to deal with or ignore data
   of types that it does not necessarily understand.  Since the
   interpretation of the data is not dependent on its position, message
   fields (or parameters) can be reordered, or optionally omitted.  The
   disadvantages of this approach are as follows.  Assuming that no
   field could be omitted, the external representation of the message
   may be longer than it would have been if an implicit representation
   had been used.  In addition, extra time may be consumed by the
   conversion between external format and local format, since the
   external format almost certainly will not match the local format for
   any of the participants.

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

4. Data Representation Standards Scorecard

   The following table is a comparison of the data elements defined for
   the various standards being discussed.  It is provided in order to
   give a general idea of the types defined for each standard, but it
   should be noted that the grouping of these types does not indicate
   one type corresponds exactly to any other.  Where it is applicable,
   the identifier code appears in parantheses following the name of the
   data element.  Under "NUMBER", "S" stands for signed, "U" stands for
   unsigned, "V" stands for variable, and the number represents the
   number of bits.  For example, "Integer S16" means a "signed 16-bit
   integer".

 Type       CCITT        MMM         NBS         XEROX       Sun
 -----------------------------------------------------------------------
 END    | End-of-   | ENDLIST   | End-of-    |    --     |    --
        |  Contents |   (11)    | Constructor|           |
        |    (0)    |           |    (1)     |           |
        |           |           |            |           |
 PAD    | Null (5)  | NOP (0)   | No-Op (0)  |    --     |    --
        |           | PAD (1)   | Padding    |           |
        |           |           |   (33)     |           |
        |           |           |            |           |
 RECORD | Set (17)  | PROPLIST  | Set (11)   |    --     |    --
        |           |   (14)    |            |           |
        | Sequence  | LIST (9)  | Sequence   | Sequence  | Structure
        |   (16)    |           |   (10)     |           |
        |           |           |            | Record    |
        |           |           | Message    |           |
        |           |           |   (77)     |           |
        |    --     |    --     |     --     | Array     | Fixed Array
        |           |           |            |           | Counted Array
        | "Choice"  |    --     |     --     | Choice    |Discriminated-
        | "Any"     |           |            |           |   Union
        |           |           |            |           |
        | "Tagged"  | "name"    | Field (76) |    --     |    --
        |           |           |Unique-ID(9)|           |
        |    --     | SHARE-TAG |     --     |    --     |    --
        |           |   (12)    |            |           |
        |           | SHARE-REF |            |           |
        |           |   (13)    |            |           |
        |           |           |            |           |
        |    --     |    --     | Compressed |    --     |    --
        |           |           |   (70)     |           |
        |    --     | ENCRYPT   | Encrypted  |    --     |    --
        |           |   (14)    |    (71)    |           |

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

 Type       CCITT        MMM         NBS         XEROX       Sun
 -----------------------------------------------------------------------
 BOOLEAN| Boolean(1)| BOOLEAN(2)| Boolean(8) | Boolean   | Boolean
        |           |           |            |           |
 NUMBER | Integer(2)| EPI (5)   | Integer(32)| Integer   | Integer
        |   SV      |   SV      |   SV       |   S16     |  S32
        |           | INDEX (3) |            | Cardinal  | Unsigned Int
        |           |   U16     |            |   U16     |  U32
        |           | INTEGER(4)|            |Unspecified|Enumeration
        |           |   S32     |            |   16      |  32
        |           |           |            | Long Int  |Hyper Integer
        |           |           |            |   S32     |  S64
        |           |           |            | Long Card |Uns Hyper Int
        |           |           |            |   U32     |  U64
        |           |           |            |           | Double Prec
        |           |           |            |           |   64
        |    --     | FLOAT (15)|     --     |    --     | Float Pt
        |           |   64      |            |           |   32
        |           |           |            |           |
 BIT-   | Bit String| BITSTR(6) | Bit-String |    --     |    --
  STRING|   (3)     |           |   (67)     |           |
        | Octet-    |    --     |     --     |    --     | Opaque
        |  String(4)|           |            |           |
        |           |           |            |           |
 STRING | IA5 (22)  | TEXT (8)  | ASCII-     | String    | Counted-
        |           |           |  String (2)|           |  Byte String
        |           | NAME (7)  |            |           |
        | Numeric   |           |            |           |
        |   (18)    |           |            |           |
        | Printable |           |            |           |
        |   (19)    |           |            |           |
        | T.61 (20) |           |            |           |
        | Videotex  |           |            |           |
        |   (21)    |           |            |           |

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

 Type       CCITT        MMM         NBS         XEROX       Sun
 -----------------------------------------------------------------------
 OTHER  | UTC Time  |    --     | Date (40)  |    --     |    --
        |   (23)    |           |            |           |
        | Gen Time  |           |            |           |
        |   (24)    |           |            |           |
        |    --     |    --     | Property-  |    --     |    --
        |           |           |   List (36)|           |
        |    --     |    --     |Property(69)|    --     |    --
        |           |           |            |           |
        |    --     |    --     |    --      | Procedure |    --
        |           |           |            |           |
        |    --     |    --     | Vendor-    |    --     |    --
        |           |           |  Defined   |           |
        |           |           |   (127)    |           |
        |           |           | Extension  |           |
        |           |           |   (126)    |           |

5. Conclusions

   Of the standards discussed in this survey, the CCITT approach (X.409)
   has already gained wide acceptance.  For a system that will include a
   number of dissimilar hosts, as might be the case for an Internet
   application, a standard that employs explicit representation, such as
   the CCITT X.409, would probably work well.  Using the CCITT X.409
   standard it is possible to construct most of the data elements that
   are specified for the other standards, with the possible exception of
   the "floating point" type. However, some of the flexibility that has
   been built into this standard, such as the "private-use class" may
   lead to ambiguity and a lack of coordination between implementors at
   different sites.  If a standard such as the CCITT were to be used in
   an Internet experiment a fully defined (but large) subset would
   probably have to be selected.

RFC 971                                                     January 1986
A Survey of Data Representation Standards

6. References

   [1]  "Message Handling Systems: Presentation Transfer Syntax and
        Notation", Recommendation X.409, Document AP VIII-66-E,
        International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee
        (CCITT), Malaga-Torremolinos, June, 1984.

   [2]  J. Garcia-Luna, A. Poggio, and D. Elliot, "Research into
        Multimedia Message System Architecture", SRI International,
        February, 1984.

   [3]  "Specification for Message Format for Computer Based Message
        Systems", FIPS Pub 98 (also published as RFC 841), National
        Bureau of Standards, January, 1983.

   [4]  J. Postel, "Internet Multimedia Mail Transfer Protocol", USC
        Information Sciences Institute, MMM-11 (RFC-759 revised), March,
        1982.

   [5]  J. Postel, "Internet Multimedia Mail Document Format", USC
        Information Sciences Institute, MMM-12 (RFC-767 revised), March,
        1982.

   [6]  "Extended Data Representation Reference Manual", SUN
        Microsystems, September, 1984.

   [7]  "Courier: The Remote Procedure Call Protocol", XSIS-038112,
        XEROX Corporation, December, 1981.

 

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