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URI Usage

According to RFC 3986 a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) "is a compact sequence of characters that identifies an abstract or physical resource." URIs are an important concept, which are used extensively in OSCAL.

Uniform Resource Identifier Overview

According to RFC 3986, a URI has the following syntax, which is represented in Augmented Backus-Naur Form (ABNF) below.

URI         = scheme ":" hier-part [ "?" query ] [ "#" fragment ]
hier-part   = "//" authority path-abempty
            / path-absolute
            / path-rootless
            / path-empty

The scheme and path components are required, though the path may be empty (no characters). When authority is present, the path must either be empty or begin with a slash ("/") character. When authority is not present, the path cannot begin with two slash characters ("//"). These restrictions result in five different ABNF rules for a path (Section 3.3), only one of which will match any given URI reference.

The following are two example URIs and their component parts:

  \_/   \______________/\_________/ \_________/ \__/
   |           |            |            |        |
scheme     authority       path        query   fragment
   |   _____________________|__
  / \ /                        \

According to RFC 3986, a URI can be used in a few different ways. Recognizing these URI forms is important in understanding how URIs are used in OSCAL.

URI with a Required Scheme

As indicated above with the required scheme and path components.

Relative Reference

A URI that is a relative reference, references a resource relative to another base URI. Such a URI is resolved using reference resolution.

The syntax of a relative reference is:

relative-ref  = relative-part [ "?" query ] [ "#" fragment ]

relative-part = "//" authority path-abempty
              / path-absolute
              / path-noscheme
              / path-empty

URI Reference

A typical use of a URI, allowing a URI with a required scheme or a relative reference to be used.

The syntax of a URI reference is:

URI-reference = URI / relative-ref

Absolute URI

According to RFC 3986, the syntax of an absolute URI is:

absolute-URI  = scheme ":" hier-part [ "?" query ]


According to RFC 3986 section 1.1.3, "a URI can be further classified as a locator, a name, or both." A given URI scheme is not limited to being only a name or a locator; both characteristics can be associated.

  • To be a locator, the resource pointed to by a URI needs to have persistence.

  • To be a name, the URI needs to be used consistently to refer to the thing that is named. A URI used only as a name is not required to resolve to a location. URIs schemes requiring an authority element provide a means to use a registered DNS name to assert organizational control over a naming value space or namespace.

A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) "refers to the subset of URIs that, in addition to identifying a resource, provide a means of locating the resource by describing its primary access mechanism (e.g., its network "location")."

A URL, when applied consistently, can be used as a name. Optionally in such cases, the resource it resolves to can provide information about how to use the URL as a name.

A Uniform Resource Name (URN) "has been used historically to refer to both URIs under the urn scheme RFC2141, which are required to remain globally unique and persistent even when the resource ceases to exist or becomes unavailable, and to any other URI with the properties of a name.

A URN is often not a good fit for use as a locator, since it requires a secondary resolution process that maps the URN's name to a specific location.

Due to the specific characteristics of a URL or URN, the term URI is often used to refer more broadly to all types of resource identifiers.


The following sections discuss how URIs are used in OSCAL.

OSCAL URI Data Types

OSCAL uses two data types for representing URIs.

  1. uri - A URI which must provide the required scheme and path components. This means the URI will point directly to a resolvable resource.

    The uri data type is used in cases where a URI with a required scheme or an absolute URI is required. As a result, a relative reference or a URI reference is not allowed for use with this data type.

  2. uri-reference - A URI reference, which may be a URI with a required scheme or a relative reference. This allows all forms of URIs.

Common OSCAL URI Use Cases

URIs are used in OSCAL to provide pointers to resources in the following ways.

Linking to a network resolvable resource

URIs are used to point directly to a network resolvable resource.

In such cases, the URI may be:

URIs serving this purpose need to be used as a locator. URLs are typically used for this purpose since the URI must resolve to a specific location.

Linking to another OSCAL object

A pointer to an OSCAL object identified by the referenced identifier, may be a human-oriented token or a machine-oriented uuid.

This approach uses a relative reference consisting of only a URI fragment containing the identifier or UUID of the referenced object within the current documents effective data model. The effective data model of a document includes all objects identified with the document and any directly or transitively imported documents. Identifiers with a cross-instance scope are available to importing documents.

URIs serving this purpose need to be used as a locator.

Any data fields supporting this use case will have the uri-reference data type.

A typical use of OSCAL object identifier linking is referencing a resource in the document's back-matter or an imported document's back-matter. For example, the back-matter resource identified by the UUID f5a2bdb3-55ad-431e-a7ea-c0fd28fc08a0 can be referenced as follows.

<link rel="related" href="#f5a2bdb3-55ad-431e-a7ea-c0fd28fc08a0"/>

More information about the use of links to reference back-matter resources can be found in the Referencing Back-Matter Resources section of the Extending OSCAL Models with Props and Links tutorial.

Use as a naming system identifier

An absolute URI that identifies the naming system. URIs serving this purpose are used as a name. Data fields supporting this use case will have the uri data type.

OSCAL supports a number of name/value and other controlled value collections. To allow independent organization to organize these value collections, namespaces are used to partition the value spaces on an organization-by-organization basis. An absolute URI is used as the namespace identifier for these situations.

When used in this way, the authority component of the URI must use a value that the organization has control over. Typically, a DNS domain name controlled by the organization is used for this purpose.

OSCAL examples include:

A key example of this approach is how property names are partitioned using a ns data element.

For example, the namespace is used in an OSCAL property as follows.

<prop ns="" name="example-name" value="example-value"/>

To learn more about the use of namespaces in properties, refer to the Extending Existing Prop Values section of the Extending OSCAL Models with Props and Links tutorial.

This page was last updated on January 29, 2024.