Internet-Draft CDDL control operators September 2021
Bormann Expires 31 March 2022 [Page]
Network Working Group
Intended Status:
Standards Track
C. Bormann
Universität Bremen TZI

Additional Control Operators for CDDL


The Concise Data Definition Language (CDDL), standardized in RFC 8610, provides "control operators" as its main language extension point.

The present document defines a number of control operators that were not yet ready at the time RFC 8610 was completed: .plus, .cat and .det for the construction of constants, .abnf/.abnfb for including ABNF (RFC 5234/RFC 7405) in CDDL specifications, and .feature for indicating the use of a non-basic feature in an instance.

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This Internet-Draft will expire on 31 March 2022.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The Concise Data Definition Language (CDDL), standardized in [RFC8610], provides "control operators" as its main language extension point (Section 3.8 of [RFC8610]).

The present document defines a number of control operators that were not yet ready at the time RFC 8610 was completed:

Table 1: New control operators in this document
Name Purpose
.plus Numeric addition
.cat String Concatenation
.det String Concatenation, pre-dedenting
.abnf ABNF in CDDL (text strings)
.abnfb ABNF in CDDL (byte strings)
.feature Indicate name of feature used (extension point)

1.1. Terminology

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

This specification uses terminology from [RFC8610]. In particular, with respect to control operators, "target" refers to the left hand side operand, and "controller" to the right hand side operand. "Tool" refers to tools along the lines of that described in Appendix F of [RFC8610].

2. Computed Literals

CDDL as defined in [RFC8610] does not have any mechanisms to compute literals. To cover a large part of the use cases, this specification adds three control operators: .plus for numeric addition, .cat for string concatenation, and .det for string concatenation with dedenting of both sides (target and controller).

For these operators, as with all control operators, targets and controllers are types. The resulting type is therefore formally a function of the elements of the cross-product of the two types. Not all tools may be able to work with non-unique targets or controllers.

2.1. Numeric Addition

In many cases in a specification, numbers are needed relative to a base number. The .plus control identifies a number that is constructed by adding the numeric values of the target and of the controller.

Target and controller MUST be numeric. If the target is a floating point number and the controller an integer number, or vice versa, the sum is converted into the type of the target; converting from a floating point number to an integer selects its floor (the largest integer less than or equal to the floating point number).

interval<BASE> = (
  BASE => int             ; lower bound
  (BASE .plus 1) => int   ; upper bound
  ? (BASE .plus 2) => int ; tolerance

X = 0
Y = 3
rect = {
Figure 1: Example: addition to a base value

The example in Figure 1 contains the generic definition of a group interval that gives a lower and an upper bound and optionally a tolerance. rect combines two of these groups into a map, one group for the X dimension and one for Y dimension.

2.2. String Concatenation

It is often useful to be able to compose string literals out of component literals defined in different places in the specification.

The .cat control identifies a string that is built from a concatenation of the target and the controller. Target and controller MUST be strings. The result of the operation has the type of the target. The concatenation is performed on the bytes in both strings. If the target is a text string, the result of that concatenation MUST be valid UTF-8.

a = "foo" .cat '
; on a system where the newline is \n, is the same string as:
b = "foo\n  bar\n  baz\n"
Figure 2: Example: concatenation of text and byte string

The example in Figure 2 builds a text string named a out of concatenating the target text string "foo" and the controller byte string entered in a text form byte string literal. (This particular idiom is useful when the text string contains newlines, which, as shown in the example for b, may be harder to read when entered in the format that the pure CDDL text string notation inherits from JSON.)

2.3. String Concatenation with Dedenting

Multi-line string literals for various applications, including embedded ABNF (Section 3), need to be set flush left, at least partially. Often, having some indentation in the source code for the literal can promote readability, as in Figure 3.

oid = bytes .abnfb ("oid" .det cbor-tags-oid)
roid = bytes .abnfb ("roid" .det cbor-tags-oid)

cbor-tags-oid = '
  oid = 1*arc
  roid = *arc
  arc = [nlsb] %x00-7f
  nlsb = %x81-ff *%x80-ff
Figure 3: Example: dedenting concatenation

The control operator .det works like .cat, except that both arguments (target and controller) are independently dedented before the concatenation takes place.

For the first rule in Figure 3, the result is equivalent to Figure 4.

oid = bytes .abnfb 'oid
oid = 1*arc
roid = *arc
arc = [nlsb] %x00-7f
nlsb = %x81-ff *%x80-ff
Figure 4: Dedenting example: result of first .det

For the purposes of this specification, we define dedenting as:

  1. determining the smallest amount of left-most blank space (number of leading space characters) in all the non-blank lines, and
  2. removing exactly that number of leading space characters from each line. For blank (blank space only or empty) lines, there may be less (or no) leading space characters than this amount, in which case all leading space is removed.

(The name .det is a shortcut for "dedenting cat". The maybe more obvious name .dedcat has not been chosen as it is longer and may invoke unpleasant images.)

Occasionally, dedenting of only a single item is needed. This can be achieved by using this operator with an empty string, e.g., "" .det rhs or lhs .det "", which can in turn be combined with a .cat: in the construct lhs .cat ("" .det rhs), only rhs is dedented.

3. Embedded ABNF

Many IETF protocols define allowable values for their text strings in ABNF [RFC5234] [RFC7405]. It is often desirable to define a text string type in CDDL by employing existing ABNF embedded into the CDDL specification. Without specific ABNF support in CDDL, that ABNF would usually need to be translated into a regular expression (if that is even possible).

ABNF is added to CDDL in the same way that regular expressions were added: by defining a .abnf control operator. The target is usually text or some restriction on it, the controller is the text of an ABNF specification.

There are several small issues, with solutions given here:

   CRLF = %x0A / %x0D.0A

These points are combined into an example in Figure 5, which uses ABNF from [RFC3339] to specify one each of the CBOR tags defined in [RFC8943] and [RFC8949].

; for RFC 8943
Tag1004 = #6.1004(text .abnf full-date)
; for RFC 8949
Tag0 = #6.0(text .abnf date-time)

full-date = "full-date" .cat rfc3339
date-time = "date-time" .cat rfc3339

; Note the trick of idiomatically starting with a newline, separating
;   off the element in the concatenations above from the rule-list
rfc3339 = '
   date-fullyear   = 4DIGIT
   date-month      = 2DIGIT  ; 01-12
   date-mday       = 2DIGIT  ; 01-28, 01-29, 01-30, 01-31 based on
                             ; month/year
   time-hour       = 2DIGIT  ; 00-23
   time-minute     = 2DIGIT  ; 00-59
   time-second     = 2DIGIT  ; 00-58, 00-59, 00-60 based on leap sec
                             ; rules
   time-secfrac    = "." 1*DIGIT
   time-numoffset  = ("+" / "-") time-hour ":" time-minute
   time-offset     = "Z" / time-numoffset

   partial-time    = time-hour ":" time-minute ":" time-second
   full-date       = date-fullyear "-" date-month "-" date-mday
   full-time       = partial-time time-offset

   date-time       = full-date "T" full-time
' .det rfc5234-core

rfc5234-core = '
   DIGIT          =  %x30-39 ; 0-9
   ; abbreviated here
Figure 5: Example: employing RFC 3339 ABNF for defining CBOR Tags

4. Features

Commonly, the kind of validation enabled by languages such as CDDL provides a Boolean result: valid, or invalid.

In rapidly evolving environments, this is too simplistic. The data models described by a CDDL specification may continually be enhanced by additional features, and it would be useful even for a specification that does not yet describe a specific future feature to identify the extension point the feature can use, accepting such extensions while marking them as such.

The .feature control annotates the target as making use of the feature named by the controller. The latter will usually be a string. A tool that validates an instance against that specification may mark the instance as using a feature that is annotated by the specification.

More specifically, the tool's diagnostic output might contain the controller (right hand side) as a feature name, and the target (left hand side) as a feature detail. However, in some cases, the target has too much detail, and the specification might want to hint the tool that more limited detail is appropriate. In this case, the controller should be an array, with the first element being the feature name (that would otherwise be the entire controller), and the second element being the detail (usually another string), as illustrated in Figure 6.

foo = {
  kind: bar / baz .feature (["foo-extensions", "bazify"])
bar = ...
baz = ... ; complex stuff that doesn't all need to be in the detail
Figure 6: Providing explicit detail with .feature

Figure 7 shows what could be the definition of a person, with potential extensions beyond name and organization being marked further-person-extension. Extensions that are known at the time this definition is written can be collected into $$person-extensions. However, future extensions would be deemed invalid unless the wildcard at the end of the map is added. These extensions could then be specifically examined by a user or a tool that makes use of the validation result; the label (map key) actually used makes a fine feature detail for the tool's diagnostic output.

Leaving out the entire extension point would mean that instances that make use of an extension would be marked as whole-sale invalid, making the entire validation approach much less useful. Leaving the extension point in, but not marking its use as special, would render mistakes such as using the label organisation instead of organization invisible.

person = {
  ? name: text
  ? organization: text
  * (text .feature "further-person-extension") => any

$$person-extensions //= (? bloodgroup: text)
Figure 7: Map extensibility with .feature

Figure 8 shows another example where .feature provides for type extensibility.

allowed-types = number / text / bool / null
              / [* number] / [* text] / [* bool]
              / (any .feature "allowed-type-extension")
Figure 8: Type extensibility with .feature

A CDDL tool may simply report the set of features being used; the control then only provides information to the process requesting the validation. One could also imagine a tool that takes arguments allowing the tool to accept certain features and reject others (enable/disable). The latter approach could for instance be used for a JSON/CBOR switch, as illustrated in Figure 9.

SenML-Record = {
; ...
  ? v => number
; ...
v = JC<"v", 2>
JC<J,C> = J .feature "json" / C .feature "cbor"
Figure 9: Describing variants with .feature

It remains to be seen if the enable/disable approach can lead to new idioms of using CDDL. The language currently has no way to enforce mutually exclusive use of features, as would be needed in this example.

5. IANA Considerations

This document requests IANA to register the contents of Table 2 into the registry "CDDL Control Operators" of [IANA.cddl]:

Table 2: New control operators to be registered
Name Reference
.plus [RFCthis]
.cat [RFCthis]
.det [RFCthis]
.abnf [RFCthis]
.abnfb [RFCthis]
.feature [RFCthis]

6. Implementation Status

This section is to be removed before publishing as an RFC.

An early implementation of the control operator .feature has been available in the CDDL tool described in Appendix F of [RFC8610] since version 0.8.11. The validator warns about each feature being used and provides the set of target values used with the feature. The other control operators defined in this specification are also implemented as of version 0.8.21 and 0.8.26 (double-handed .det).

Andrew Weiss' [CDDL-RS] has an ongoing implementation of this draft which is feature-complete except for the ABNF and dedenting support (

7. Security considerations

The security considerations of [RFC8610] apply.

8. References

8.1. Normative References

IANA, "Concise Data Definition Language (CDDL)", <>.
Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <>.
Crocker, D., Ed. and P. Overell, "Augmented BNF for Syntax Specifications: ABNF", STD 68, RFC 5234, DOI 10.17487/RFC5234, , <>.
Kyzivat, P., "Case-Sensitive String Support in ABNF", RFC 7405, DOI 10.17487/RFC7405, , <>.
Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, , <>.
Birkholz, H., Vigano, C., and C. Bormann, "Concise Data Definition Language (CDDL): A Notational Convention to Express Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR) and JSON Data Structures", RFC 8610, DOI 10.17487/RFC8610, , <>.

8.2. Informative References

Weiss, A., "cddl-rs", n.d., <>.
Klyne, G. and C. Newman, "Date and Time on the Internet: Timestamps", RFC 3339, DOI 10.17487/RFC3339, , <>.
Jones, M., Nadalin, A., and J. Richter, "Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR) Tags for Date", RFC 8943, DOI 10.17487/RFC8943, , <>.
Bormann, C. and P. Hoffman, "Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR)", STD 94, RFC 8949, DOI 10.17487/RFC8949, , <>.


Jim Schaad suggested several improvements. The .feature feature was developed out of a discussion with Henk Birkholz. Paul Kyzivat helped isolate the need for .det.

.det is an abbreviation for "dedenting cat", but Det is also the name of a German TV Cartoon character created in the 1960s.

Author's Address

Carsten Bormann
Universität Bremen TZI
Postfach 330440
D-28359 Bremen