CAMEL and protocol design

CAMEL and protocol design

Today I want to share the pain of running a production 3GPP TCAP/MAP/CAP system and network protocol design in general. The excellent Free Software ASN1/TCAP/MAP/CAP stack (which is made possible by the Pharo live programming environment) I helped creating is in heavy production usage (powering standard off-the-shelf components like a SGSN, an AuC or non-standard components to enable new business cases) and sees roaming traffic from a lot of networks. From time to time something odd comes up.

In TCAP/MAP/CAP messages but also Request/Response and the possible Errors are defined using ASN1. Over the last decades ETSI and 3GPP have made various major versions and minor releases (e.g. adding new optional attributes to requests/responses/errors). The biggest new standard is CAMEL and it is so big and complicated that it was specified in four phases (each phase with their own versions of the ApplicationContext, think of it as an versioned and entry into the definition for all messages and RPC calls).

One issue in supporting a specific module version (application-context-name) is to find the right minor release of 3GPP (either the newest or oldest for that ACN). Then it is a matter to copy and paste the ASN1 definition from either a PDF or a WordDocument into individual files.. and after that is done one can fix the broken imports (or modify the ASN1 parser to make a global look-up) and typos for elements.

This artificial barrier creates two issue for people implementing MAP/CAP using components. Some use inferior ASN1 tools or can’t be bothered to create the input files and decide to hardcode the message content (after all BER/DER is more or less just nested TLV entries). The second issue is related to time/effort as well. When creating the CAMEL ASN1 files I didn’t want to do the work four times (once for each phase) and searched for shortcuts too.

The first issue materialized itself by equipment sending completely broken messages or not sending mandatory(!) elements. So what happens if a big telco sends you a message the stack can’t decode, you look up the oldest and youngest release defining this ACN and see the element that is attempted to be parsed was always mandatory? Right, one adds an OPTIONAL modifier to be able to move forward…

The second issue is on me though. I started with a set of CAMEL phase3 files and assumed that only the operations (and their arguments/response) would be different across different CAMEL phases but the support structs they use would stay the same. My assumption (and this brings us to protocol design) was that besides the versioning of the module they would be conservative and extend supporting types in a forward compatible way and integrated phase2 and phase1 into the same set of files.

And then reality sets in and the logs of the system showed a message that caused an exception during parsing (normally only happens for the first kind of issue). An extension to the Request structure was changed in a not forward compatible way. Let’s have a look:

InitialDPArgExtension ::= SEQUENCE {

-naCarrierInformation [0] NACarrierInformation OPTIONAL,
-gmscAddress [1] ISDN-AddressString OPTIONAL,
+ gmscAddress [0] ISDN-AddressString OPTIONAL,
*more new optional elements*
+ …,
+ enhancedDialledServicesAllowed [11] NULL OPTIONAL,
*more elements after the extension marker*

So one element (naCarrierInformation) got removed and then every following element was renumbered and the extension marker was moved further down. In theory the InitialDPArgExtension name binding exists once in the phase2 to definition and once in phase3 and 3GPP had all rights to define a new binding with different. An engineering question is if this was a good decision?

A change in application-context allows to remove some old cruft and make room for new. The tag space might be considered a scarce resource and making room is saving a resource. On the other hand in the history of GSM no other struct had ran out of tags and there are various other approaches to the problem. The above is already an extension to an extension and the step to an extension of an extension of an extension doesn’t seem so absurd anymore.

So please think of forward compatibility when designing protocols, think of the implementor and make the definition machine readable and please get the imports right so one doesn’t need to resort to a global symbol search. If you are having interesting core network issues related to TCAP, MAP and CAP consider contacting me.

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