The specification is available at iso.org and it's gotten really complicated; this is just an introduction to the generalities of the specification. There is actually a really good article on Wikipedia covering the whole spec and its different versions.
ISO 8583 specifies a lot of data types, the most common of which are implemented directly in j8583 through the IsoType enum. Here is a table of the most common ISO types and their j8583 counterpart:
|ISO type||j8583 type||Description|
|NUMERIC||Fixed-width numeric values, padded with zeroes to the left.|
|ALPHA||Fixed-width alphanumeric values, padded with spaces to the right.|
|Date||DATE10||Date in format mmddHHMMSS, fixed width of 10.|
|Date||DATE4||Date in format mmdd, fixed width of 4.|
|Expiration Date||DATE_EXP||Date in format yymm, fixed width of 4. Used for credit card expiration dates.|
|Time||TIME||Time of day in format HHMMSS, fixed width of 6.|
|Amount||AMOUNT||Currency amount, a positive number expressed in cents, with a fixed width of 12. For example one dollar is encoded as 000000000100|
|LLVAR||LLVAR||Variable-width alphanumeric value, up to 99 characters long. The length of the value is encoded in the first 2 characters of the value, for example "HEY" is encoded as 03HEY|
|LLLVAR||LLLVAR||Variable-width alphanumeric value, up to 999 characters long. The length of the value is encoded in the first 3 characters of the value, for example "HEY" is encoded as 003HEY|
|BINARY||Similar to ALPHA, but stores byte arrays directly instead of text.|
|LLBIN||Similar to LLVAR, but stores byte arrays directly instead of text.|
|LLLBIN||Similar to LLLVAR, but stores byte arrays directly instead of text.|
ISO8583 implementations can vary a lot, depending on the provider, and the type of products and transactions it is being used for; but there are certain fields which are almost always used in a very similar manner. I will describe those here. DISCLAIMER: This is only something I have learned from experience, and I must say my experience has been rather limited to mobile carrier providers. Here I focus more on the field number and type, rather on the usage of the field itself.
These are some of the most common message types. There is some logic to this, if you look at the message types as 2-byte hex values: The first byte states the type of operation: 02 are payments, 04 reversals, 08 tests; the second byte indicates if it's a request or a response. And sometimes repeated requests should end in 1 instead of 0, for example reversals are 0400 the first time but 0401 the next time you send them.
|0200||A payment or sale request.|
|0210||A payment or sale response.|
|0400||A reversal request (to undo a previous 0200 operation).|
|0410||A reversal response.|
|0600||A query (to check the status of a previous operation, or check an account's balance, etc).|
|0610||A query response.|
|0800||An echo request (just to keep the connection alive and make sure the other side is responsive).|
|0810||An echo response.|
Some implementations require you to send 0400 for a reversal when you only have the request (so in case of timeout you use 0400) and 0420 when you did get the response (so in case of some other error in your system).
When communicating two systems with ISO8583, usually the communication is asynchronous and all messages are handled through a single connection. Between a terminal and a bigger system the communication will be synchronous.
In asynchronous communications, the client can send any number of requests to the server, and the server may respond to those requests in a different order in which they were sent. This is why the trace number (field 11) is very important and should not be reused; if the client sends requests with traces 123000, 123001 and 123002, the server may send back first 123001, then 123002, then 123000. The client will know which response corresponds to which request by checking the trace of the responses.
The messages can vary in length depending on the message type and the fields it contains. The protocol was designed so that a message can be read in parts; first the message type, then the primary bitmap, and from there the rest of the fields (secondary bitmap included) can be read and processed one by one. This is very convenient for small devices like POS terminals, but is not very efficient in larger systems with a high transaction volume. In these cases, the sender first encodes the whole message, measures it, and sends the length as a 2- or 4-byte unsigned integer (most significant bit first). This way the receiver knows to read 2 or 4 bytes, interpret them as an unsigned integer, and read those many bytes to get an ISO message. Using 2 bytes allows for messages of up to 65535 bytes, and 4 bytes allows for 2.14 billion bytes long, which is a bit of overkill, given that a message can be as long as 127290 bytes, if it's encoded in ASCII and has 127 LLLVAR fields each with 999 characters.
The length header that is sent before a message is very useful to separate the reading operation from the parsing of the message; you can dedicate a thread to read from a socket, and put those buffers on a queue where another thread parses them. However, a length header only says how many bytes to read and so the reader must read all those bytes, but what if the message is invalid because it is longer than the length says? To avoid this error, some systems use a message terminator. This is just a character that must be found at the end of every message. If messages are encoded as text, a common terminator is ASCII 0x03. The terminator may or may not be counted as part of the message, that depends on the implementation. You can specify the terminator via the etx property of an IsoMessage, of preferably in the MessageFactory so that all new messages already will have the property set. To keep the messages from using a terminator, set etx to -1.
Many ISO8583 implementations use plain text for the messages (even if the length header is binary). But some implementations encode the messages as binary. The main differences are that the message type is only 2 bytes long instead of 4 (the ASCII version is actually a hex representation of the message type), the bitmap is not hex-encoded, so it's only 8 bytes long; and all numeric values (including date/time fields) are encoded using BCD (including the headers for LLVAR and LLLVAR fields).
You can encode messages in binary by setting the binary property of IsoMessages, or in the MessageFactory directly by setting the useBinaryMessages so that it gets set on all new messages. It must be set in the MessageFactory if you want it to parse binary messages.