RFC 8746 CBOR tags for typed arrays February 2020
Bormann Standards Track [Page]
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Standards Track
C. Bormann, Ed.
Universität Bremen TZI

RFC 8746

Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR) Tags for Typed Arrays


The Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR), as defined in RFC 7049, is a data format whose design goals include the possibility of extremely small code size, fairly small message size, and extensibility without the need for version negotiation.

This document makes use of this extensibility to define a number of CBOR tags for typed arrays of numeric data, as well as additional tags for multi-dimensional and homogeneous arrays. It is intended as the reference document for the IANA registration of the CBOR tags defined.

Status of This Memo

This is an Internet Standards Track document.

This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It represents the consensus of the IETF community. It has received public review and has been approved for publication by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Further information on Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 7841.

Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8746.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR) [RFC7049] provides for the interchange of structured data without a requirement for a pre-agreed schema. [RFC7049] defines a basic set of data types as well as a tagging mechanism that enables extending the set of data types supported via an IANA registry.

Recently, a simple form of typed arrays of numeric data has received interest both in the Web graphics community [TypedArray] and in the JavaScript specification (see Section 22.2 of [ECMA-ES10]) as well as in corresponding implementations [ArrayBuffer].

Since these typed arrays may carry significant amounts of data, there is interest in interchanging them in CBOR without the need of lengthy conversion of each number in the array. This can also save space overhead with encoding a type for each element of an array.

This document defines a number of interrelated CBOR tags that cover these typed arrays, as well as additional tags for multi-dimensional and homogeneous arrays. It is intended as the reference document for the IANA registration of the tags defined.

Note that an application that generates CBOR with these tags has considerable freedom in choosing variants (e.g., with respect to endianness, embedded type (signed vs. unsigned), and number of bits per element) or whether a tag defined in this specification is used at all instead of more basic CBOR. In contrast to representation variants of single CBOR numbers, there is no representation that could be identified as "preferred". If deterministic encoding is desired in a CBOR-based protocol making use of these tags, the protocol has to define which of the encoding variants are used for each individual case.

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.

The term "byte" is used in its now-customary sense as a synonym for "octet". Where bit arithmetic is explained, this document uses familiar notation from the programming language C [C] (including C++14's 0bnnn binary literals [CPlusPlus]) with the exception of the operator "**", which stands for exponentiation.

The term "array" is used in a general sense in this document unless further specified. The term "classical CBOR array" describes an array represented with CBOR major type 4. A "homogeneous array" is an array of elements that are all the same type (the term is neutral as to whether that is a representation type or an application data model type).

The terms "big endian" and "little endian" are used to indicate a most significant byte first (MSB first) representation of integers and a least significant byte first (LSB first) representation, respectively.

2. Typed Arrays

Typed arrays are homogeneous arrays of numbers, all of which are encoded in a single form of binary representation. The concatenation of these representations is encoded as a single CBOR byte string (major type 2), enclosed by a single tag indicating the type and encoding of all the numbers represented in the byte string.

2.1. Types of Numbers

Three classes of numbers are of interest: unsigned integers (uint), signed integers (two's complement, sint), and IEEE 754 binary floating point numbers (which are always signed). For each of these classes, there are multiple representation lengths in active use:

Table 1: Length Values
Length ll uint sint float
0 uint8 sint8 binary16
1 uint16 sint16 binary32
2 uint32 sint32 binary64
3 uint64 sint64 binary128

Here, sintN stands for a signed integer of exactly N bits (for instance, sint16), and uintN stands for an unsigned integer of exactly N bits (for instance, uint32). The name binaryN stands for the number form of the same name defined in IEEE 754 [IEEE754].

Since one objective of these tags is to be able to directly ship the ArrayBuffers underlying the Typed Arrays without re-encoding them, and these may be either in big-endian (network byte order) or in little-endian form, we need to define tags for both variants.

In total, this leads to 24 variants. In the tag, we need to express the choice between integer and floating point, the signedness (for integers), the endianness, and one of the four length values.

In order to simplify implementation, a range of tags is being allocated that allows retrieving all this information from the bits of the tag: tag values from 64 to 87.

The value is split up into 5 bit fields: 0b010, f, s, e, and ll as detailed in Table 2.

Table 2: Bit Fields in the Low 8 Bits of the Tag
Field Use
0b010 the constant bits 0, 1, 0
f 0 for integer, 1 for float
s 0 for float or unsigned integer, 1 for signed integer
e 0 for big endian, 1 for little endian
ll A number for the length (Table 1).

The number of bytes in each array element can then be calculated by 2**(f + ll) (or 1 << (f + ll) in a typical programming language). (Notice that 0f and ll are the two least significant bits, respectively, of each 4-bit nibble in the byte.)

In the CBOR representation, the total number of elements in the array is not expressed explicitly but is implied from the length of the byte string and the length of each representation. It can be computed from the length, in bytes, of the byte string comprising the representation of the array by inverting the previous formula: bytelength >> (f + ll).

For the uint8/sint8 values, the endianness is redundant. Only the tag for the big-endian variant is used and assigned as such. The tag that would signify the little-endian variant of sint8 MUST NOT be used; its tag number is marked as reserved. As a special case, the tag that would signify the little-endian variant of uint8 is instead assigned to signify that the numbers in the array are using clamped conversion from integers, as described in more detail in Section 7.1.11 of the ES10 JavaScript specification (ToUint8Clamp) [ECMA-ES10]; the assumption here is that a program-internal representation of this array after decoding would be marked this way for further processing providing "roundtripping" of JavaScript-typed arrays through CBOR.

IEEE 754 binary floating numbers are always signed. Therefore, for the float variants (f == 1), there is no need to distinguish between signed and unsigned variants; the s bit is always zero. The tag numbers where s would be one (which would have tag values 88 to 95) remain free to use by other specifications.

3. Additional Array Tags

This specification defines three additional array tags. The Multi-dimensional Array tags can be combined with classical CBOR arrays as well as with Typed Arrays in order to build multi-dimensional arrays with constant numbers of elements in the sub-arrays. The Homogeneous Array tag can be used as a signal by an application to identify a classical CBOR array as a homogeneous array, even when a Typed Array does not apply.

3.1. Multi-dimensional Array

A multi-dimensional array is represented as a tagged array that contains two (one-dimensional) arrays. The first array defines the dimensions of the multi-dimensional array (in the sequence of outer dimensions towards inner dimensions) while the second array represents the contents of the multi-dimensional array. If the second array is itself tagged as a Typed Array, then the element type of the multi-dimensional array is known to be the same type as that of the Typed Array.

Two tags are defined by this document: one for elements arranged in row-major order and another for column-major order [RowColMajor].

3.1.1. Row-Major Order

Data Item:
Array (major type 4) of two arrays: one array (major type 4) of dimensions, which are unsigned integers distinct from zero; and one array (any one of a CBOR array of major type 4, a Typed Array, or a Homogeneous Array) of elements.

Data in the second array consists of consecutive values where the last dimension is considered contiguous (row-major order).

Figure 1 shows a declaration of a two-dimensional array in the C language, a representation of that in CBOR using both a multi-dimensional array tag and a typed array tag.

uint16_t a[2][3] = {
  {2, 4, 8},   /* row 0 */
  {4, 16, 256},

<Tag 40> # multi-dimensional array tag
   82       # array(2)
     82      # array(2)
       02     # unsigned(2) 1st Dimension
       03     # unsigned(3) 2nd Dimension
     <Tag 65> # uint16 array
       4c     # byte string(12)
         0002 # unsigned(2)
         0004 # unsigned(4)
         0008 # unsigned(8)
         0004 # unsigned(4)
         0010 # unsigned(16)
         0100 # unsigned(256)
Figure 1: Multi-dimensional Array in C and CBOR

Figure 2 shows the same two-dimensional array using the multi-dimensional array tag in conjunction with a basic CBOR array (which, with the small numbers chosen for the example, happens to be shorter).

<Tag 40> # multi-dimensional array tag
   82       # array(2)
     82      # array(2)
       02     # unsigned(2) 1st Dimension
       03     # unsigned(3) 2nd Dimension
     86     # array(6)
       02      # unsigned(2)
       04      # unsigned(4)
       08      # unsigned(8)
       04      # unsigned(4)
       10      # unsigned(16)
       19 0100 # unsigned(256)
Figure 2: Multi-dimensional Array Using Basic CBOR Array

3.1.2. Column-Major Order

The multi-dimensional arrays specified in the previous sub-subsection are in "row major" order, which is the preferred order for the purposes of this specification. An analogous representation that uses "column major" order arrays is provided in this subsection under the tag 1040, as illustrated in Figure 3.

Data Item:
The same as tag 40, except the data in the second array consists of consecutive values where the first dimension is considered contiguous (column-major order).
<Tag 1040> # multi-dimensional array tag, column-major order
   82       # array(2)
     82      # array(2)
       02     # unsigned(2) 1st Dimension
       03     # unsigned(3) 2nd Dimension
     86     # array(6)
       02      # unsigned(2)
       04      # unsigned(4)
       04      # unsigned(4)
       10      # unsigned(16)
       08      # unsigned(8)
       19 0100 # unsigned(256)
Figure 3: Multi-dimensional Array Using Basic CBOR Array, Column-Major Order

3.2. Homogeneous Array

Data Item:
Array (major type 4)

This tag identifies the classical CBOR array (a one-dimensional array) tagged by it as a homogeneous array, that is, it has elements that are all of the same application model data type. The element type of the array is therefore determined by the application model data type of the first array element.

This can be used in application data models that apply specific semantics to homogeneous arrays. Also, in certain cases, implementations in strongly typed languages may be able to create native homogeneous arrays of specific types instead of ordered lists while decoding. Which CBOR data items constitute elements of the same application type is specific to the application.

Figure 4 shows an example for a homogeneous array of booleans in C++ [CPlusPlus] and CBOR.

bool boolArray[2] = { true, false };

<Tag 41>  # Homogeneous Array Tag
   82           #array(2)
      F5        # true
      F4        # false
Figure 4: Homogeneous Array in C++ and CBOR

Figure 5 extends the example with a more complex structure.

typedef struct {
  bool active;
  int value;
} foo;
foo myArray[2] = { {true, 3}, {true, -4} };

<Tag 41>
    82  # array(2)
       82  #  array(2)
             F5  # true
             03  # 3
       82 # array(2)
             F5  # true
             23  # -4
Figure 5: Homogeneous Array in C++ and CBOR

4. Discussion

Support for both little- and big-endian representation may seem out of character with CBOR, which is otherwise fully big endian. This support is in line with the intended use of the typed arrays and the objective not to require conversion of each array element.

This specification allocates a sizable chunk out of the single-byte tag space. This use of code point space is justified by the wide use of typed arrays in data interchange.

Providing a column-major order variant of the multi-dimensional array may seem superfluous to some and useful to others. It is cheap to define the additional tag so that it is available when actually needed. Allocating it out of a different number space makes the preference for row-major evident.

Applying a Homogeneous Array tag to a Typed Array would usually be redundant and is therefore not provided by the present specification.

5. CDDL Typenames

For use with CDDL [RFC8610], the typenames defined in Figure 6 are recommended:

ta-uint8 = #6.64(bstr)
ta-uint16be = #6.65(bstr)
ta-uint32be = #6.66(bstr)
ta-uint64be = #6.67(bstr)
ta-uint8-clamped = #6.68(bstr)
ta-uint16le = #6.69(bstr)
ta-uint32le = #6.70(bstr)
ta-uint64le = #6.71(bstr)
ta-sint8 = #6.72(bstr)
ta-sint16be = #6.73(bstr)
ta-sint32be = #6.74(bstr)
ta-sint64be = #6.75(bstr)
; reserved: #6.76(bstr)
ta-sint16le = #6.77(bstr)
ta-sint32le = #6.78(bstr)
ta-sint64le = #6.79(bstr)
ta-float16be = #6.80(bstr)
ta-float32be = #6.81(bstr)
ta-float64be = #6.82(bstr)
ta-float128be = #6.83(bstr)
ta-float16le = #6.84(bstr)
ta-float32le = #6.85(bstr)
ta-float64le = #6.86(bstr)
ta-float128le = #6.87(bstr)
homogeneous<array> = #6.41(array)
multi-dim<dim, array> = #6.40([dim, array])
multi-dim-column-major<dim, array> = #6.1040([dim, array])
Figure 6: Recommended Typenames for CDDL

6. IANA Considerations

IANA has allocated the tags in Table 3 using this document as the specification reference. (The reserved value is for a future revision of typed array tags.)

The allocations were assigned from the "specification required" space (24..255) with the exception of 1040, which was assigned from the "first come first served" space (256..).

Table 3: Values for Tags
Tag Data Item Semantics
40 array of two arrays* Multi-dimensional Array, row-major order
41 array Homogeneous Array
64 byte string uint8 Typed Array
65 byte string uint16, big endian, Typed Array
66 byte string uint32, big endian, Typed Array
67 byte string uint64, big endian, Typed Array
68 byte string uint8 Typed Array, clamped arithmetic
69 byte string uint16, little endian, Typed Array
70 byte string uint32, little endian, Typed Array
71 byte string uint64, little endian, Typed Array
72 byte string sint8 Typed Array
73 byte string sint16, big endian, Typed Array
74 byte string sint32, big endian, Typed Array
75 byte string sint64, big endian, Typed Array
76 byte string (reserved)
77 byte string sint16, little endian, Typed Array
78 byte string sint32, little endian, Typed Array
79 byte string sint64, little endian, Typed Array
80 byte string IEEE 754 binary16, big endian, Typed Array
81 byte string IEEE 754 binary32, big endian, Typed Array
82 byte string IEEE 754 binary64, big endian, Typed Array
83 byte string IEEE 754 binary128, big endian, Typed Array
84 byte string IEEE 754 binary16, little endian, Typed Array
85 byte string IEEE 754 binary32, little endian, Typed Array
86 byte string IEEE 754 binary64, little endian, Typed Array
87 byte string IEEE 754 binary128, little endian, Typed Array
1040 array of two arrays* Multi-dimensional Array, column-major order

*40 or 1040 data item: The second element of the outer array in the data item is a native CBOR array (major type 4) or Typed Array (one of tag 64..87)

7. Security Considerations

The security considerations of [RFC7049] apply; special attention is drawn to the second paragraph of Section 8 of [RFC7049].

The tag for homogeneous arrays makes a promise about its tagged data item, which a maliciously constructed CBOR input can then choose to ignore. As always, the decoder therefore has to ensure that it is not driven into an undefined state by array elements that do not fulfill the promise, and that it does continue to fulfill its API contract in this case as well.

As with all formats that are used for data interchange, an attacker may have control over the shape of the data delivered as input to the application, which therefore needs to validate that shape before it makes it the basis of its further processing. One unique aspect that typed arrays add to this is that an attacker might substitute a Uint8ClampedArray for where the application expects a Uint8Array, or vice versa, potentially leading to very different (and unexpected) processing semantics of the in-memory data structures constructed. Applications that could be affected by this will therefore need to be careful about making this distinction in their input validation.

8. References

8.1. Normative References

International Organization for Standardization, "Information technology - Programming languages - C", ISO/IEC 9899:2018, Fourth Edition, .
International Organization for Standardization, "Programming languages - C++", ISO/IEC 14882:2017, Fifth Edition, .
ECMA International, "ECMAScript 2019 Language Specification", Standard ECMA-262 10th Edition, , <https://www.ecma-international.org/ecma-262/10.0/index.html>.
IEEE, "IEEE Standard for Floating-Point Arithmetic", IEEE 754-2019, DOI 10.1109/IEEESTD.2019.8766229, , <https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8766229>.
Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2119>.
Bormann, C. and P. Hoffman, "Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR)", RFC 7049, DOI 10.17487/RFC7049, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7049>.
Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/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, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8610>.

8.2. Informative References

Mozilla Developer Network, "JavaScript typed arrays", , <https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Web/JavaScript/Typed_arrays>.
Wikipedia, "Row- and column-major order", , <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Row-_and_column-major_order&oldid=917905325>.
Vukicevic, V. and K. Russell, "Typed Array Specification", , <https://web.archive.org/web/20110207024413/http://www.khronos.org/registry/typedarray/specs/latest/>.


Jim Schaad provided helpful comments and reminded us that column-major order still is in use. Jeffrey Yaskin helped improve the definition of homogeneous arrays. IANA helped correct an error in a previous draft version. Francesca Palombini acted as Shepherd, and Alexey Melnikov as responsible Area Director. Elwyn Davies as Gen-ART reviewer and IESG members Martin Vigoureux, Adam Roach, Roman Danyliw, and Benjamin Kaduk helped in finding further improvements to the text; thanks also to the other reviewers.


The initial draft version of this specification was written by Johnathan Roatch <roatch@gmail.com>. Many thanks for getting this ball rolling.

Glenn Engel suggested the tags for multi-dimensional arrays and homogeneous arrays.

Author's Address

Carsten Bormann (editor)
Universität Bremen TZI
Postfach 330440
D-28359 Bremen