Conformance Testing and Certification Model for Software Specifications


Lisa Carnahan, Lynne Rosenthal, Mark Skall

Software Diagnostic and Conformance Testing Division

National Institute of Standards and Technology





The use of conformity assessment as a means by which buyers and sellers can communicate requirements and conformance will increase as information technology systems and applications grow more complex.  Models for conformance testing and certification programs are necessary to understand principles and issues that are essential for successful conformity assessment programs.  This paper presents one such model by identifying key roles, activities and products involved in any conformance testing and certification program.  The authors have successfully used this model in helping private-sector organizations establish their certification programs.



Communication between Buyers and Sellers


As the pervasiveness of information technology increases, so does the importance of ensuring the quality of products (i.e., software and systems). Conformity assessment is defined in ISO/IEC Guide 2: 1996 as "any activity concerned with determining directly or indirectly that relevant requirements are fulfilled." In the marketplace, conformity assessment provides a vehicle for exchanging information between buyer and seller.  It increases a buyer’s (and/or user’s) confidence in a product and its ability to meet their needs.  It provides an independent, objective method for evaluating products and not becoming locked-into a single vendor.  For sellers (and developers), conformity assessment can help to substantiate claims that a product meets the given specification.  


Often conformity assessment is accomplished by conformance testing.  Conformance testing is a means of measuring whether a product faithfully implements a specification.  The level and formality of the testing are determined by the market – the requirements of the buyer directly or an organization acting on behalf of a community of buyers, or by regulation (e.g., safety, health, national security concerns).  For example, some programs may require a very formal testing and certification approach consisting of independent (i.e., third party), nationally accredited testing laboratories while others may be more appropriate for self declaration and demonstration testing. 


The Information Technology Laboratory (ITL), within the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), develops conformance tests for forward-looking, publicly available standards and specifications.  The tests are used by companies in the private sector who build implementations which purport to conform to these specifications.  The intent of these tests is twofold: 1) to be used by the implementors early on in development to improve the quality of their implementation; and 2) to be used by industry associations wishing to administer a testing and certification service.  ITL focuses on the technical task of developing test suites; leaving the regulatory aspects of testing and certification to the private sector.  However, ITL is very active in helping industry associations set up testing and certification programs to use the ITL-developed tests.


The sections below describe a generic model for establishing a conformance testing and certification program.  It describes the processes and procedures for establishing, administering a testing program. While much has changed regarding conformity assessment given the growth and changes in the software industry, the conformance and certification model has not.   Examples are used to describe how the model is applied to support the changes in the software industry.



Conformance Testing and Certification Model


It is well recognized that conformance testing and certification is a way to ensure that “standard-based” products are implemented.  The advantage afforded by testing and certification are fairly obvious: quality products, competitive markets with more choices, commodity pricing, and less opportunity to become “locked in” to a particular vendor.  Moreover, a testing and certification program based on well understood and sound principles will be acceptable and credible to its community of users. 


The conformance testing and certification model described herein contains the fundamental roles, activities, and products that are necessary in administering and operating a testing and certification program (see Figure 1). By adjusting and modifying the various activities, roles and products, the model can be applied and used in establishing any testing and certification program. Figure 2 highlights the interactions between the roles and activities.    The model allows for roles, activities and/or products to be consolidated or further partitioned. 







Require Certification

Test IUT


Implementation Under Test (IUT)

Test Laboratory (TL)

Certificate Issuer

Control Board (CB)

Recognize Test Method

Recognize Tester

Validate Results

Test Method

Test Report

Certification Program Policy


Answer Programmatic Queries

Testing Laboratory Criteria


Answer Test Method Queries

Resolve Test Method Disputes

Validate Conformance

Issue Certificate

Certificate of Conformance



Figure 1: Roles, Activities and Products


While actual testing and certification can be carried out by various organizations, it is essential that there be a centralized sponsor or owner of the testing and certification program. The sponsor has a fundamental interest in ensuring the success of the program. 

Typically, the sponsor establishes and maintains the conformance testing and certification program.  It assumes responsibility for insuring that the components of the program are in place and becomes the centralized source for information about the program.  The sponsor may be composed of one or more organizations.  Examples of sponsors are consortia, trade associations, standards groups, or a government agency.  More often than not, the sponsor of the program is also the Certificate Issuer.

Figure 2: Interactions Among Roles and Activities






To execute the activities of the model, five roles are defined.   In the realization of this model, some roles may be combined and performed by a single organization or further distributed among several organizations.


·        Buyer requires conformance to the Specification.

·        Seller builds the product with the intent of meeting the conformance requirement of the purchaser. Products that undergo testing are called Implementation Under Test (IUT)

·        Test Laboratory (TL) performs the operational testing of the IUT .

·        Certificate Issuer (CI), issues a Certificate of Conformance for IUTs that have successfully completed the testing process. 

·        Control Board (CB), resolves dispute and answers queries on behalf of the CI.



The Buyer requires that a product be tested for conformance.  The buyer uses the results of the testing to verify that a seller provides a product that conforms to the specification and meet procurement requirements.  In general, the buyer is the impetus for sellers to undergo conformance testing.  Specifically, if buyers don’t demand that a product be tested and show evidence of that testing, it is most likely that sellers will not undertake having their products tested. 



The Seller or developer uses the conformance tests and undergoes testing to demonstrate that the product adheres to the specification and thus, meets established conformance requirements.  Additionally, developers may use the tests to debug their products prior to market.


Test Laboratory

The Test Laboratory (TL) conducts the conformance testing using the prescribed test method. The testing is performed on the seller/developer’s product.  A TL can be an organization or individual.  A TL can be accredited from a formal accreditation organization such as NIST’s National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) or recognized by the buyer, seller, and certificate issuer, as qualified to perform the testing.


Certificate Issuer

The Certificate Issuer (CI) is responsible for issuing certificates for conforming products. The decision to issue a certificate is based on the testing results and established criteria for issuing certificates. 


Control Board

The Control Board (CB) is an impartial body of experts who function on behalf of the CI.  The CB is responsible for resolving queries and disputes related to the testing process. 





The activities comprising the model can be categorized into one of four areas:


·        Recognition of competent testing laboratories;

·        Testing with an approved test method; and,

·        Testing process;

·        Resolution of Queries and Disputes.


Recognition of Competent Testing Laboratory

A Testing Laboratory (TL) is an entity that provides services to measure, examine, test, or otherwise assess conformance of an implementation with its specification.  Within the buyer/seller model, a TL can be either a first-party, (the seller performs the testing), second-party (the buyer performs the testing), or third-party[1] (an independent organization performs the testing) testing organization.  All three types of testing are used in the software industry. Often there will be multiple TLs for a conformance testing and certification program.


The Certificate Issuer (CI) as well as Sellers and other interested parties, must have confidence in the competency of the TL. Competence is based on three concepts,

1.      the ability to apply the test method correctly,

2.      the ability to repeat a given test and generate the same results, and

3.      the ability to operate the TL in a manner that maintains objectivity and neutrality (obviously, first and second party testing organizations are not neutral). 


The CI defines competence through requirements and criteria.  The CI can then apply the criteria to a TL, determine its level of competency and, if appropriate, recognize the TL as competent to perform testing.  This practical approach to identifying and recognizing qualified testing organizations is appropriate when costs, time and efforts do not warrant seeking accreditation from a formal accreditation organization.


If a more formal and rigorous approach is appropriate, there exists many accreditation bodies exist that are capable of performing this function.  The National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) is a NIST organization that accredits testing organizations based on the requirements of ISO Guide 25[2] and additional subject-matter requirements.  NVLAP is responsible for accrediting testing organizations to perform POSIX and Cryptographic Module testing. 


The purpose of the recognition criteria or accreditation is to assure that TLs are capable and competent to meet the needs of the testing and certification program.  The basic activities to make this determination include:

·        proficiency testing – demonstration of a TL’s competency to successfully perform the conformance testing using the test method,

·        on-site assessment – visit by a technical expert to determine compliance with the recognition criteria and ensure the TL is a legally identifiable organization with staff and resource to discharge their duties.

·        quality assurance – documentation and practices to ensure technical integrity of testing and analyses and adherence to quality practices appropriate to the testing and certification program.


Additional attributes required of a third-party TL include that it:

·        ensure that its personnel are free from any commercial, financial and other pressures which might adversely affect the quality of their work,

·        ensure that the protection of sellers’ confidential information and proprietary rights are protected,

·        ensure that sellers are served with impartiality and integrity,

·        maintain a functional record keeping system for each seller testing process, and

·        have the adequate facilities and equipment to fulfill the requirements of a TL.


Testing with an Approved Test Method

For a Certificate of Conformance to be meaningful, all implementations must be tested in the same manner.   Testing reflects the essence of technical requirements of specifications and measures whether a product faithfully implements the specification.  A test method is a defined technical procedure for performing a test.  A test is the technical operation that consists of the determination of one or more characteristics of a given product, process or service according to a specified procedure. [ISO/IEC Guide 2]  A test suite is the collection of tests.  Critical to the success of any conformance testing and certification program is an appropriate and adequate test method. 


An adequate test method is one that provides test results that give enough information for the CI to be satisfied that conformance can be measured.  An adequate test method meets the requirement of rigor.  An appropriate test method is one that, while adequate, does not place undue requirements on the IUT and is cost justifiable.  If the test method is too expensive to employ then it will not be used.  The definition of adequate and appropriate is left to the CI to determine.


Testing Process

The Testing Process is described in a conformance testing and certification policy and procedures document.  The document identifies the administrative as well as testing processes.


The testing process initiates with a seller (or anyone desiring to be tested) contracting with the TL to have an implementation tested for conformance.  The seller and TL negotiate the scope of testing, the cost of testing, and the timeliness of testing.  For a given seller, the TL must not be in a position to benefit nor suffer (beyond the testing fees) from the resulting pass or failure of the implementation under test (IUT). 


Using the approved Test Method, The TL tests the IUT for conformance and reports the results in a Test Report.  The TL forwards the Test Report and an indication of pass/fail to the CI.  If the IUT successfully completes all the tests and meets the criteria for issuing certificates, the CI issues a Certificate of Conformance to the seller.  Typically, the CI maintains a list and makes available to the public, a register containing a listing of products that have received certificates of conformance.


Resolution of Queries and Disputes

Queries and disputes involving the test method, procedures, test results, and program administration are directed to the Control Board (CB).  The purpose of the CB is to resolve these issues and communicate the decision to all parties involved. The CB acts on behalf of the CI. A query or dispute can be initiated by a seller, TL or entity (e.g., developer) at any point in the testing process. Queries and disputes should contain a statement of the problem, rationale for dispute, and desired resolution.  All matters to be resolved by the CB should be determined by consensus or as determined by documented CB policy and procedures. 


Additional activities that may be under the auspices of the CB include:

·        maintain liaison with appropriate standards bodies and test laboratories,

·        participate in the assessment of TL’s seeking recognition status,

·        recommend changes to new versions of the test method or test laboratory recognition criteria,

·        serve as technical advisor to the CI and TLs

·        maintain the test suite, and

·        control changes to the conformance testing process.





The following products are used in the model:

·        Certification Program Policy;

·        Testing Laboratory Criteria;

·        Specification;

·        Implementation Under Test (IUT);

·        Test Method;

·        Test Report; and

·        Certificate of Conformance.


Certification Program Policy

The Certification Program Policy (CPP) defines the certification system.  ISO/IEC Guide 2 defines a certification system as a “system having its own rules of procedure and management for carrying out conformity certifications.  The CPP addresses the following:

·        responsibilities of the CI;

·        responsibilities of the TLs;

·        responsibilities of the seller (the IUT owner);

·        policy and procedures for test laboratory recognition;

·        policy and procedures for the testing process;

·        policy and procedures for handling queries and disputes;

·        complete definition of the certificate of conformance.


Testing Laboratory Criteria

Testing Laboratory Criteria serves three  purposes. The first purpose is to define the competence and quality-related requirements that a testing laboratory must possess to be designated as a recognized testing laboratory. The second purpose is to describe the manner in which the laboratory will be assessed against the requirements.   The third purpose is to show those who want to use the testing laboratory (e.g., sellers) , or those who want to accept the conformance certificate as evidence of conformance (e.g., buyers) the rigor under which the testing laboratory operates.



First and foremost to conformance testing and certification is the specification.  This paper delineates ‘standards-based’ software specification from other types of specification.  This is because not all specifications can be objectively tested for conformance.  We recognize that not all ‘standards-based’ specifications can be objectively tested. However objective measurement (not necessarily conformance testing per se) is usually a goal in these specification development efforts.


If the specification can not be objectively tested, then a alternate approach to conformance testing should be used to measure whether a produce faithfully implements the specification. This is because an accepted test method cannot be developed, thus repeatability and reproducibility cannot be ensured.


Implementation Under Test

The implementation under test (IUT) is the object that is being tested for conformance.  For software specifications it is the software that has ‘implemented’ the specification. For any certification program, the scope of the IUT must be defined and delineated from the rest of the supporting software and hardware of the total system (referred to as the system under test).  In many current certification programs the hardware that is used by the software must also be defined.  The software and supporting hardware constitute the IUT and are listed in both the test report and certificate of conformance. 


Test Method

The test method must be adequate and appropriate within the conformance testing and certification program in which it is used.  Beyond these properties, test methods (and thus the tests) should be objective, have adequate coverage, and correctly implement the specification.  In trying to meet these requirements, those using and applying the test method should not make the common mistake of allowing the test method to become the ‘specification’.  This means that sellers (builders of IUTs) will build the IUT to pass the conformance tests, rather than building to the specification.


An objective test method allows for test results to be reproducable by the same testing laboratory and to be repeatable by a different laboratory.  Initially some test methods do not quite achieve a sufficient level of objectivity.  However objectivity should be something that is always strived for in the development and ongoing refinement of a test method.


Test Report

A test report contains the results of the testing effort, along with any additional information required by the CI.  The test report should provide enough information that, if necessary, the testing effort could be duplicated.  The testing report should contain:


·        a complete description of the IUT;

·        the name of the testing laboratory;

·        the signature of a testing laboratory official;

·        the date that the testing occurred;

·        the name and version number of the test method (and test suite);

·        the results of the test method;

·        an unambiguous statement indicating pass or fail.


Certificate of Conformance

The certificate of conformance is typically a summation of the test report. Since it is often used in the procurement process, it includes information most pertinent between the buyer and the seller. 


The certificate includes statements made by the CI.  These statements articulate what the CI is asserting as being conformant.  Typically these statements indicate that “this IUT was tested in this environment, on this day, using this test method: the test results produced were consistent with expected test results”.   The certificate also includes the signature of a CI official.





Cryptographic Module Validation Program

The Cryptographic Module Validation[3] (CMV) Program was established to provide independent testing to Security Requirements to Cryptographic Modules, Federal Information Processing Standard, 140-1,(FIPS 140-1).  When applied appropriately, FIPS 140-1 can help provide strong protection for equipment that provides security services such as encryption, authentication, and digital signature generation and verification.  FIPS 140-1 was developed by a joint industry/government working group.


The requirement for certification is specified in the FIPS 140-1 standard.  Therefor, this program is based on a regulatory requirement.  However there is currently an effort underway in the ANSI X9 area to adopt FIPS 140-1.  Thus the requirement for certified products will be driven from the private sector. 


The Security Technology Group at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) serves as the sponsor and Certificate Issuer (CI) for the CMV Program.  As such, the certifications are considered to be second-party (i.e., NIST is acting on behalf of user of FIPS 140-1, primarily federal agencies.) The CI requires that testing laboratories be accredited by NVLAP under its Cryptographic Module Testing Program.  The CMV Program requires that testing laboratories be independent from clients (i.e., third-party testing.)


The test method was developed NIST and was vetted by the industry.  The test method, policies and all other program documents are publicly available.[4]


The validation certificate, signed by a CMV Program official, contains the following:

·        the name of the cryptographic module;

·        an indication of pass/fail for each of the requirement areas specificed in the standard;

·        the accredited testing laboratory with its NVLAP identification code;

·        a statement defining the scope of the validation;

·        the date of the validation.


ATA Computer Graphics Metafile (CGM) Conformance Testing Program

The Air Transport Association (ATA)[5] CGM Program was originally established and operated by NIST to support the ATA 2100 Specification, Graphics Exchange (a.k.a. ATA CGM profile).  The testing program is a critical component of the ATA’s program to represent maintenance manuals in digital form and move to completely on-line maintenance manuals.  Testing is done to ensure that the fidelity and quality of the digital information is sufficient to satisfy the airline companies’ safety and quality concerns.  The program is a means whereby a seller of a CGM implementation can formally demonstrate conformance to the ATA CGM profile.


NIST is currently working with the ATA in its assumption of the testing program.  The ATA CGM Conformance Testing Program will consist of recognized Testing Laboratories to conduct the testing and a Control Board to handle disputes and serve as an advisor to the ATA.  The ATA will act as the sponsor and administrator of the program.  The ATA or an ATA designate will issue certificates of conformance.  The roles, activities, and products as described in the generic model apply here with little modification.  The Control Board takes on the additional activity of assessing the testing laboratories according to pre-established criteria.  Additionally, the ATA Technical Information Communication Committee’s Graphics Working Group[6] serves as a technical advisor to both the ATA and the control board. 


The test method consists of a NIST developed test suite and test procedures.  The test method has been accepted and used by the community.  It is publicly available along with other program documents[7].


IEEE POSIX Validation Service

The IEEE established a validation service for the POSIX (Portable Operating System Interface).  The IEEE validation service[8] uses Accredited POSIX testing laboratories, issue certification of validated test results, and maintains a register of accredited laboratories and successfully tested products.  The laboratories are accredited by the NVLAP under its POSIX program.  


The requirement for testing is buyer driven.  Initially, federal agencies in their requests for procurement (RFP) of POSIX systems required certificates of validation prior to purchase.  However, the benefits of POSIX testing and its acceptance in the industry has resulted in sellers requesting to be tested as a matter of course, rather than a procurement requirement.


The test suite was produced in a joint effort between NIST and several computer vendors.  The original testing policy and procedures produced by NIST have been adopted by the IEEE.   





This model describing the conformance testing and certification process has been used many times over in certification programs for standards-based software specifications. The examples above illustrate just a few of these programs.  It will continue to be used as a communication mechanism between buyers and sellers. 


Test method developers must continue to develop test methods that have adequate coverage with regard to the specification; are well defined in terms measurement (i.e., what does each test case prove); and be adequate and appropriate as defined by the Certificate Issuer.


As the industry moves toward component based software, the challenge will be to develop test methods and associated certification programs that can provide meaningful measurement in this environment.



Breitenberg, Maureen, The ABC’s of the U.S. Conformity Assessment System, NISTIR 6014, April 1997.


Breitenberg, Maureen, The U.S. Certification System from a Government Perspective, NISTIR 6077, October, 1997.


Carnahan, Lisa, Developing Federal Standards and Accreditations for Data Protection Products,  Proceeding of SPIE Conference, October, 1995.


Dashiell, William H., L. Arnold Johnson and Lynne S. Rosenthal, Overview of Model for United States Geological Survey Recognition of Spatial Data Transfer Standard Certification System, NIST IR 6124, May 1998.


Horlick Jeffrey, and Lisa Carnahan, Cryptographic Module Testing, Handbook 150-17, April, 1995.


ISO/IEC Guide 2: 1996, Standardization and Related Activities: General Vocabulary


ISO/IEC Guide 25: 1990, General Requirements for the Competence of Calibration and Testing  Laboratories.


NIST, Derived Test Requirements for FIPS 140-1, Security Requirements for Cryptographic Modules, March, 1995.


NIST, Procedures and Requirements, NIST Handbook 150, March 1994.


NIST, Security Requirements for Cryptographic Modules, FIPS 140-1, January, 1994.






[1] The use of the term 'independent' is ambiguous and thus applied differently in the testing community.  Some programs may determine independence based on corporate structures; while others may apply financial-interest related measures.  It is incumbent for the Certificate Issuer to define the term 'independent' for its community of interest.

[2] The requirements of ISO Guide 25, General Requirements for the Competence of Calibration and Testing Laboratories, are based on the ISO 9000 standards.  Accreditation based on ISO Guide 25 provides the basis for many of the international recognition agreements for recognizing test results.

[3] The CMV Program uses the term ‘validation’ rather than ‘certification’.  Beyond legal reasons for not using ‘certification’; the program developers chose not to use this term because of its many uses within the cryptographic and computer security communities (e.g., ‘certification authority for digital signatures’ and ‘certification and accreditation of systems’). 

[4] CMV Program information can be found at

[5] Information about the ATA can be found at

[6] The Graphics Working Group is the organization responsible for creating and maintaining the ATA 2100 Specification, Graphics Exchange specification.

[7] ATA CGM Program information can be found at

[8] IEEE POSIX Validation Program information can be found at