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A Trivial Convention for using HTTP in URN Resolution

The information below is for an old version of the document that is already published as an RFC.
Document Type
This is an older version of an Internet-Draft that was ultimately published as RFC 2169.
Author Dr. Ron Daniel
Last updated 2021-12-10 (Latest revision 1996-11-22)
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Intended RFC status Experimental
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INTERNET DRAFT                                                  Ron Daniel
draft-ietf-urn-http-conv-00.txt             Los Alamos National Laboratory
                                                              21 Nov, 1996

         Conventions for the Use of HTTP for URN Resolution

Status of this Memo

    This document is an Internet-Draft.  Internet-Drafts are working
    documents of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), its
    areas, and its working groups.  Note that other groups may also
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    Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six
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    This draft expires 21 May, 1997.


The URN-WG was formed to specify persistent, location-independent names
for network accessible resources, and resolution mechanisms to retrive
the resources given such a name. At this time the URN-WG is considering
one particular resolution mechanism, the NAPTR proposal [1]. That proposal
does not get the client software all the way from the URN to the resource.
Instead, it gets the client from a URN to a "resolver", which is a system
that can then tell the client where the resource is. The NAPTR draft
defines a "resolution protocol" to be the protocol used to speak to a
resolver in order to obtain the resource, its location(s), or other
information about the resource. The NAPTR proposal allows different
resolution protocols to be used for commuicating with resolvers.

This draft establishes conventions for encoding URN resolution requests
and responses in HTTP 1.0 (and 1.1) requests and responses. The primary
goal of this draft is to define a convention that is simple to implement
and will allow existing HTTP servers to easily add support for URN
resolution. We expect that the resolution databases that arise will be
useful when more sophisticated resolution protocols are developed later.

1.0  Introduction:

The NAPTR draft[1] describes a way of using DNS to locate resolvers for
URIs.  That draft provides places to specify the "resolution protocol"
spoken by the resolver, as well as the "resolution services" it offers.
As of this writing, the "resolution protocols" allowed by the NAPTR draft
are HTTP, RCDS, HDL, and RWHOIS. (That list is expected to grow over time).
The NAPTR draft also lists a variety of resolution services, such
as N2L (given a URN, return a URL); N2R (Given a URN, return the named
resource), etc. This draft specifies the conventions to follow to
encode resolution service requests in the HTTP protocol, allowing
widely available HTTP daemons to serve as URN resolvers.

The reader is assumed to be familiar with the HTTP/1.0 [2] and 1.1 [3]

2.0 General Approach:

The general approach used to encode resolution service requests in HTTP
is quite simple: 

    GET /uri-res/<service>/<uri>  HTTP/1.0

For example, if we have the URN "" and want a URL,
we would send the request:

    GET /uri-res/N2L/ HTTP/1.0

Because of the character set limitations on URIs, we might wish to
encode the '@' character as its hex equivalent, thus the request would be

    GET /uri-res/N2L/ HTTP/1.0

The request could also be encoded as an HTTP 1.1 request. This would look

    GET /uri-res/N2L/ HTTP/1.1
    Host: <whatever host we are sending the request to>

Handling these requests on the server side is easy to implement in a
number of ways. The N2L request could be handled by a CGI script that
took the incoming URN, looked it up in a database, and returned the URL
as an HTTP redirect. Service requests like N2R or N2C could be set up
so that the daemon answered the request by returning files out of N2R/
and N2C/ directories, or they could be handled by a script.

One caveat should be kept in mind. The "urn:" prefix is still the
subject of controversy, so some URN documents advocate treating it
as optional. HTTP resolvers MUST return identical results for URIs
that do and do not contain the "urn:" prefix. For example, the two
request below must return identical results:
    GET /uri-res/N2L/ HTTP/1.0
    GET /uri-res/N2L/ HTTP/1.0

Responses from the HTTP server follow standard HTTP practice. Status
codes, such as 200 (OK) or 404 (Not Found) shall be returned.
The normal rules for determining cachability, negotiating formats, etc.

3.0 Service-specific details:

This section goes through the various resolution services established
in the URN Framework draft [4] and states how to encode each of them,
how the results should be returned, and any special status codes that
are likely to arise.

Unless stated otherwise, the HTTP requests are formed according to
the simple convention above, either for HTTP/1.0 or HTTP/1.1. The response
is assumed to be an entity with normal headers and body unless stated
otherwise. (N2L is the only request that does not return a body).

3.1  N2L (URN to URL):

The request is encoded as above. The URL MUST be returned in a Location:
header for the convienience of the most common case of wanting the resource.
A 30X status line SHOULD be returned. HTTP/1.1 clients should be sent the
303 status code. HTTP/1.0 clients should be sent the 302 (Moved temporarily)
status code unless the resolver has particular resons for using 301
(moved permanently) or 304 (not modified) codes.

3.2  N2Ls (URN to URLs):

The request is encoded as above. The result is a list of 0 or
more URLs. The Internet Media Type (aka ContentType) of the result
may be negotiated using standard HTTP mechanisms if desired. At a
minimum the resolver should support the text/uri-list media type.
(See Appendix A for the definition of this media type). That media
type is suitable for machine-processing of the list of URLs. Resolvers
may also return the results as text/html, text/plain, or any other
media type they deem suitable.

No matter what the particular media type, the result MUST be a list
of the URLs which may be used to obtain an instance of the resource
identified by the URN. All URIs shall be encoded according to the
URI specification [5].

If the client has requested the result be returned as text/html or
application/html, the result should be encoded as:
<LI><A HREF="...url 1...">...url 1...</A>
<LI><A HREF="...url 2...">...url 2...</A>
where the strings ...url n... are replaced by the n'th URL in the list.

3.3  N2R (URN to Resource):

The request is encoded as above. The resource is returned using
standard HTTP mechanisms. The request may be modified using the
Accept: header as in normal HTTP to specify that the result
be given in a preferred Internet Media Types.

3.4  N2Rs (URN to Resources):

This resolution service returns multiple instances of a resource,
for example, GIF and JPEG versions of an image. The judgment about
the resources being "the same" resides with the naming authority that
issued the URN.

The request is encoded as above. The result shall be a MIME
multipart/alternative message with the alternative versions of the
resource in seperate body parts. If there is only one version of
the resource identified by the URN, it MAY be returned without the
multipart/alternative wrapper. Resolver software SHOULD look at the
Accept: header, if any, and only return versions of the resource
that are acceptable according to that header. 

3.5  N2C (URN to URC):

URCs (Uniform Resource Characteristics) are descriptions of other
resources. This request allows us to obtain a description of the
resource identified by a URN, as opposed to the resource itself.
The description might be a bibliographic citation, a digital signature,
a revision history, etc. This draft does not specify the content of
any response to a URC request. That content is expected to vary from
one resolver to another.

The format of any response to a N2C request MUST be communicated using the
ContentType header, as is standard HTTP practice. The Accept: header
SHOULD be honored.

3.6  N2Ns (URN to URNs):

While URNs are supposed to identify one and only one resource, that
does not mean that a resource may have one and only one URN. For
example, consider a resource that has something like
"current-weather-map" for one URN and "weather-map-for-datetime-x" for
another URN. The N2Ns service request lets us obtain lists of URNs that
are believed equivalent at the time of the request. As the weathermap
example shows, some of the equivalances will be transitory, so the
standard HTTP mechanisms for communicating cachability MUST be honored.

The request is encoded as above. The result is a list of all the
URNs, known to the resolver, which identify the same resource as the
input URN. The result shall be encoded as for the N2Ls request
above (text/uri-list unless specified otherwise by an Accept: header).

3.7  L2Ns (URL to URNs):

The request is encoded as above. The response is a list of any URNs
known to be assigned to the resource at the given URL. The result
shall be encoded as for the N2Ls and N2Ns requests.

3.8  L2Ls (URL to URLs):

The request is encoded as described above. The result is a list of
all the URLs that the resolver knows are associated with the resource
located by the given URL. This is encoded as for the N2Ls, N2Ns, and L2Ns

3.9  L2C (URL to URC):

The request is encoded as above, the response is the same as for the
N2C request.

Implementation Notes:

This section gives an example of how to configure a web server to
respond to the N2L resolution request. It is not intended to specify
standard behavior, it is provided here merely as a courtesy for

First, we assume the presence of a CGI script,, that processes
the provided URN, converting it into a canonical format. It would remove
any "urn:" prefix,  decode any %encoded special characters, normalize
case-insensitive parts of the URN to lower case, etc. It would then use
the normalized URN as the key for a search in a database, which we assume
returns the URL as a string. A sample of our implementation of that script
is provided as Appendix B. We will further assume that the script
is in the cgi-bin directory of the web server.

The easiest way to invoke the script in response to N2L requests
is to set up a Redirect directive in the srm.conf file. (This works for
servers based on the original NCSA HTTP daemon, such as Apache.) The
relevant Redirect directives might look like:

Redirect /uri-res/N2L
Redirect /uri-res/L2N

Appendix A: The text/uri-list Internet Media Type
[This appendix will be augmented or replaced by the registration
of the text/uri-list IMT once that registration has been performed].

Several of the resolution service requests, such as N2Ls, N2Ns, L2Ns,
L2Ls, result in a list of URIs being returned to the client. The
text/uri-list Internet Media Type is defined to provide a simple format
for the automatic processing of such lists of URIs.

The format of text/uri-list resources is:
1) Any lines beginning with the '#' character are comment lines
   and are ignored during processing. (Note that '#' is a character
   that may appear in URIs, so it only denotes a comment when it is the
   first character on a line).
2) The remaining non-comment lines MUST be URIs (URNs or URLs), encoded
   according to the URI specification RFC[5]. Each URI shall appear on
   one and only one line.
3) As for all text/* formats, lines are terminated with a CR LF pair.

In applications where one URI has been mapped to a list of URIs, such
as in response to the N2Ls request, the first line of the text/uri-list
response SHOULD be a comment giving the original URI. 

An example of such a result for the N2L request is shown below in figure 1.


               Figure 1: Example of the text/uri-list format

Appendix B: script

This is a simple perl script for the N2L resolution service. It
assumes the presence of a DBM database to store the URN to URL

    # N2L  - performs urn to url  resolution 

    $n2l_File = "...filename for DBM database...";

    $urn = $ENV{'PATH_INFO'} ;

        $urn =~s/^(\/)(urn:)?(.*)/$3/i;
        # Additional canonicalization should be performed here

        print STDOUT "Location: $url\n\n";

        print "Content-Type: text/html \n\n";
        print "<html>\n";
        print "<head><title>URN Resolution: N2L</title></head>\n";
        print "<BODY>\n";
        print "<h1>URN to URL resolution failed for the URN:</h1>\n";
        print "<hr><h3>$urn</h3>\n";
        print "</body>\n";
        print "</html>\n";



[1] Ron Daniel and Michael Mealling, "Resolution of Uniform Resource
    Identifiers using the Domain Name System", draft-ietf-urn-naptr-01.txt,
    November, 1996.

[2] RFC 1945, "Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.0", T. Berners-Lee,
    R. Fielding, H. Frystyk, May 1996.

[3] R. Fielding, J. Gettys, J.C. Mogul, H. Frystyk, T. Berners-Lee,
    "Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1", draft-ietf-http-v11-spec-06,
    July 1996.

[4] URN Framework draft - 

[5] RFC 1630, "Universal Resource Identifiers in WWW: A Unifying Syntax for
    the Expression of Names and Addresses of Objects on the Network as
    used in the World-Wide Web", T. Berners-Lee, June 1994.

Security Considerations
  Communications with a resolver may be of a sensitive nature. Some
  resolvers will hold information that should only be released to
  authorized users. The results from resolvers may be the target of
  spoofing, especially once electronic commerce transactions are common
  and ther is money to be made by directing users to pirate repositories
  rather than repositories which pay royalties to rightsholders. Resolution
  requests may be of interest to traffic analysts. The requests may also
  be subject to spoofing.

  The requests and responses in this draft are amenable to encoding,
  signing, and authentication in the manner of any other HTTP traffic.

Author Contact Information:

Ron Daniel
Los Alamos National Laboratory
MS B287
Los Alamos, NM, USA, 87545
voice:  +1 505 665 0597
fax:    +1 505 665 4939

    This draft expires 21 May, 1997.
Ron Daniel Jr.                   email:
Advanced Computing Lab           voice: (505) 665-0597
MS B-287  TA-3  Bldg. 2011         fax: (505) 665-4939
Los Alamos National Lab 
Los Alamos, NM,  87545    obscure_term: "hypernym"