Uniform Resource Names

A Progress Report

The URN Implementors

D-Lib Magazine, February 1996

ISSN 1082-9873


The development of networked information requires reliable ways to name resources on networks. The Internet community has adopted the term, "Uniform Resource Name (URN)", for a name that identifies a resource or unit of information independent of its location. URNs are globally unique, persistent, and accessible over the network.

The concept of universal names has been warmly embraced by the networking and library communities, but convergence on the details proved difficult until recently. During fall 1995, however, members of the principal groups that are actively working in the field reached outline agreement on most of the major topics. The main characteristics of this agreement are described in this paper.

The catalyst for the recent progress was a meeting in October 1995 hosted by Keith Moore at the University of Tennessee. Invitations were sent to every group that had a current Internet draft on this subject. The URN groups represented are listed at the end of this report. This meeting was followed by a series of discussions including informal sessions at the December meeting in Dallas, Texas, of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Convergence is important because many people who manage large collections of on-line information have been reluctant to commit to using any form of URN during a period of flux. The present consensus has two major results:

This report summarizes the emerging consensus. A strength of the framework is that it allows different approaches to be pursued, and the framework has the ability to evolve over the long term. Naming is a complex issue and the groups are interested in URNs for a variety of different reasons. They bring different philosophies and different technical approaches. Their implementations range in scope and complexity. It is therefore encouraging for the community that they have reached general agreement and are working together to find technical solutions to the outstanding questions.


A good introduction to URNs is Internet RFC 1737, "Functional Requirements for Uniform Resource Names", by Karen Sollins and Larry Masinter, December 1994. The following is an extract from their introduction. It describes the function of URNs and, in particular, how they differ from the Uniform Resource Locators (URL) used by the World Wide Web.

"A URN identifies a resource or unit of information. It may identify, for example, intellectual content, a particular presentation of intellectual content, or whatever a name assignment authority determines is a distinctly namable entity. A URL identifies the location or a container for an instance of a resource identified by a URN. The resource identified by a URN may reside in one or more locations at any given time, may move, or may not be available at all. Of course, not all resources will move during their lifetimes, and not all resources, although identifiable and identified by a URN will be instantiated at any given time. As such a URL is identifying a place where a resource may reside, or a container, as distinct from the resource itself identified by the URN."

The RFC concentrates on the relationship between a locator (URL) and a persistent name (URN), but naming questions arise in many other contexts. For example, the Resource Cataloging and Distribution System (RCDS), developed in the Computer Science department of the University of Tennessee, uses URNs to support cataloging, replication and caching (for high availability and fault-tolerance), and authenticity and integrity assurances using digital signatures. The paper "A Framework for Distributed Digital Object Services" by Robert Kahn and Robert Wilensky, May 1995, also identifies persistent names assigned to objects in repositories as a key component of a framework to manage intellectual property on networks.

A class of names with some characteristics similar to URNs are the domain names (such as "andrew.cmu.edu"), used to identify computer systems on the Internet. Domain names are supported by a well-tuned computer system, the Domain Name System (DNS). Several URN implementations build on domain names and DNS.

URN Requirements

RFC 1737 lays out functional requirements for URNs. It also makes recommendations about the form that such names might take. An updated version of RFC 1737 is under discussion, but, with some important clarifications, the following list of requirements has been widely accepted.

"Global scope: A URN is a name with global scope which does not imply a location. It has the same meaning everywhere.

"Global uniqueness: The same URN will never be assigned to two different resources.

"Persistence: It is intended that the lifetime of a URN be permanent. That is, the URN will be globally unique forever, and may well be used as a reference to a resource well beyond the lifetime of the resource it identifies or of any naming authority involved in the assignment of its name.

"Scalability: URNs can be assigned to any resource that might conceivably be available on the network, for hundreds of years.

"Legacy support: The scheme must permit the support of existing legacy naming systems, insofar as they satisfy the other requirements described here. ...

"Extensibility: Any scheme for URNs must permit future extensions to the scheme.

"Independence: It is solely the responsibility of a name issuing authority to determine the conditions under which it will issue a name."

Notice that these requirements focus on the URN, but make no assertions about the resource that it identifies. A URN may be globally unique and last for ever without any guarantee that the resource identified by the URN is unique or permanent.


To use a URN, there must be a network-accessible service that can map the name onto the corresponding resource. This process is called resolution.

Frequently, the resolution system will return the current location of the resource or a list of locations. RFC 1737 concentrates on the case of a URN that resolves to a URL, but a URN can resolve to any network resource or service. For example, in RCDS, a URN may resolve to one or more location-independent file names (LIFNs), which can themselves be considered a specific type of URN. In the Kahn/Wilensky model a URN, known as a "handle", resolves to the name of the repository that holds the resource. In other contexts, a URN may resolve to a data structure containing meta-information about the resource.

The URN Framework

This section describes the URN framework that has emerged from the discussions of the past few months. Although many details remain, the level of agreement is promising.

General Principles

Multiple independent naming schemes and resolution systems are anticipated. Although the maintainer of a particular URN resolution system may also wish to maintain a registry, it is important to realize that registries and URN schemes are conceptually independent of one another. Any registry is capable of registering resolution services for any URN scheme, and a client may wish to consult multiple registries when attempting to resolve a name.


The URN implementors have agreed on the following syntax, with one outstanding difference of opinion; opinions differ whether the leading characters "urn:" should be part of the name. This syntax is acceptable in all proposed naming schemes and resolution systems. There are many details that need to be discussed (for example the precise character sets allowed in URNs).

The following are examples of URNs:

urn:inet:library.bigstate.edu:aj17-mcc {Correction to this entry made with permission from the authors. Ed., 2/19/96.}

Notice that the syntax of a URN explicitly indicates the naming scheme, by including a naming scheme identifier, "hdl", "lifn", "path", "inet", etc. This is followed by a colon and a string that has a syntax defined by the specific naming scheme.

As can be seen from the examples, the different naming schemes use different formats. Some naming schemes divide the name into two parts, a naming authority followed by a unique string, which is assigned by the naming authority. Thus the handle "cnri.dlib/august95" consists of a naming authority, "cnri.dlib" followed by a unique string, "august95". The path URN "/A/B/C/doc.html" consists of a naming authority (or path), "/A/B/C", and a unique string, "doc.html".

The Internet community is developing a general framework of uniform resource identification (URIs), of which URNs are a component. The URI framework was originally outlined in RFC 1630. Under the proposed framework, each participating naming schemes is a URI as defined in the RFC.

Management of Naming Schemes

The long term value of URNs requires the naming schemes to be well managed. Initially, a small number of schemes are under development. Hopefully, a small number of high quality naming schemes will be added in the future.

The criteria for an acceptable URN scheme will be outlined more formally as the URN framework is defined. They are likely to include a requirement that each naming scheme must have a verifiable management system to ensure the integrity of the naming scheme and of the URNs within it. This includes the process for assigning unique URNs within the naming scheme. It must also make sure that there is at least one resolution system able to resolve the names.

Those URN schemes that include naming authorities (e.g., handles, paths) will determine the names of the authority names themselves. Thus, it is possible that different organizations may get the same naming authority string under different naming schemes.

URN Registries

A URN registry is a network service that stores data about URN naming schemes, naming authorities, and resolution systems. A registry provides two types of service. It may provide rules for extracting the naming authority from URNs in a particular naming scheme. In this case, the first step of the URN resolution service may be to provide information on how to find the naming authority in the URN string. The second function is to know which resolution systems are capable of resolving a given URN, from the name scheme and, when appropriate, the naming authority.

The concepts of URN registries and resolution systems are not tied to any specific computing system or set of software. This is important since URNs are intended to be valid for long periods of time, much longer than any computer system can be expected to last. The format of data to be stored in a registry is currently under development. It has been given the working name NAPTR ("Naming Authority PoinTeR"). In practice, it is probable that several URN resolution systems will include URN registries, but every registry need not hold full information for all naming schemes. One proposed implementation is a modified version of DNS. Another uses the handle system.

Flexibility within the URN Naming Schemes and Resolution Systems

This report emphasizes the areas where the various URN developments are converging on a common framework. In a number of key areas, the URN implementors have carefully agreed to support flexibility rather than to enforce unnecessary conformity.

The value of a naming scheme or a resolution system depends upon a number of assertions. Are the names unique? Can a resource have many names? Can it change? Is it guaranteed to exist? What is the retention scheme? Does a URN resolve to untyped data, typed data, entity-attribute pairs, a URL, the address of a repository, etc.? Within the general URN framework, such assertions about names, semantic decisions, and management issues may be enforced by the naming scheme or the resolution system, or they may be left to external systems. Variations in these important areas will give the schemes their distinctive features and will determine which are most suitable for specific application areas. The objective of the URN framework is to encourage wide flexibility within a stable system of naming and resolution.

URN Implementors

The following projects were represented at the University of Tennessee meeting in October 1995 and have continued to work together to reach agreement on the URN framework.

Resource Cataloging and Distribution Service (RCDS)
This work is led by Keith Moore, Shirley Browne, Stan Green and Reed Wade of the University of Tennessee. Its aim is to provide transparent replication along with integrity/authenticity assurances, and alleviate the problem of huge demand for some random network resource.

The Handle System
This work is led by David Ely and William Arms of the Corporation of National Research Initiatives. It is based on the ideas in the Kahn/Wilensky framework.

This is a scheme developed by Paul E. Hoffman of Proper Publishing and Ron Daniel, Jr. of Los Alamos National Laboratory. As the name implies it is based on the Internet domain name system (DNS).

URN Services
This is a proposal by Keith E. Shafer, Eric J. Miller, Vincent M. Tkac, and Stuart L. Weibel of OCLC. It focuses on the syntax and functions of URNs.

Path URN
This is another scheme that make use of DNS. It has been developed by Dan LaLiberte and Michael Shapiro at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Several groups are working towards using Whois++ as an Internet Directory Service. Work done by Michael Mealling of Georgia Tech and Patrik Faltstrom and Leslie Daigle of Bunyip Information Systems, Inc., focuses on the distribution of URN resolution data and maintenance responsibility in a global publishing environment.

Contributors to this report

The following URN implementors contributed to this report: William Arms (CNRI), Leslie Daigle (Bunyip), Ron Daniel (Los Alamos National Laboratory), Dan LaLiberte (NCSA), Michael Mealling (Georgia Institute of Technology), Keith Moore (University of Tennessee), and Stuart Weibel (OCLC).

Home Page |  D-Lib Magazine Contents Page | 
Next Story

February 12, 1996

revised handle assigned, April 9, 1998, Editor