Summary of Upcoming Changes in OCI Image and Distribution Specs v1.1

Friday, July 7, 2023 by Open Container Initiative

As mentioned in an earlier post, the OCI Reference Types Working Group delivered a suggested set of changes in the OCI Image and Distribution specs to enable the creation and discovery of relationships between objects stored in an OCI registry.

These changes (with some subsequent modifications) will be included in upcoming minor releases of both OCI Image and Distribution spec.

Notes on Versioning and the Term “OCI 1.1”

The version of the upcoming minor releases of both OCI Image and Distribution spec happens to be the same: v1.1.0.

This has undoubtedly led to the term “OCI 1.1” which is a bit vague and incorrect since these changes do not affect the Runtime spec. These versions of the individual specifications are all technically independent of each other.

However, when dealing with clients responsible with pushing/pulling from registries, or registries themselves, hearing claims of “support for OCI 1.1” can be assumed to be relating to reference types and the changes outlined in this post.

List of Major Changes (3)

1. Official Guidance on How to Create and Store Alternative (Even Non-Container) Artifacts

For several years, people have been coming up with different ways to specify alternative (non-image) artifacts in the registry.

One such method relied on using a custom value for the config.mediaType field on the image manifest. This is the same method used by tools such as Helm, OPA, WASM etc.

In the new OCI releases, this behavior has been finally codified as a valid way of specifying this information.

If you look at change #3 below, in the sample JSON response from the registry API, you will notice the new field artifactType on descriptors. The value of this field is either a.) the artifactType provided on the manifest when it is pushed or b.) the value of config.mediaType if the artifactType field is missing.

TLDR; for new clients pushing artifacts, there is a new top-level field called artifactType which can be used to denote a custom, non-image artifact. If an object is instead pushed with a custom artifact type in the config.mediaType field (the old way), this value will be surfaced in the artifactType field in the API response.

For more information, please see our Guidelines for Artifact Usage.

2. New Manifest Field for Establishing Relationships

A new field called subject can now be included on manifests (including on an index) which points to another object in the registry:

  "subject": {
    "mediaType": "application/vnd.oci.image.manifest.v1+json",
    "digest": "sha256:5b0bca...",
    "size": 7682

This is the primary mechanism for linking objects to one another. This is what is used to determine the proper list returned by the registry API endpoint described in #3 below.

If the registry supports the processing of the subject field, it is required to respond with a header in the following form: OCI-Subject: sha256:5b0bca... (the value being the digest field in the subject JSON object).

3. New Registry API Endpoint for Querying Relationships

The following HTTP API endpoint has been added to enable querying for relationships between objects in the registry: GET /v2/<name>/referrers/<digest>

The contents of a valid response to this request is a valid OCI image index containing a list of descriptors which point to the provided digest:

  "schemaVersion": 2,
  "mediaType": "application/vnd.oci.image.index.v1+json",
  "manifests": [
      "mediaType": "application/vnd.oci.image.manifest.v1+json",
      "size": 1234,
      "digest": "sha256:a1a1a1...",
      "artifactType": "application/vnd.example.sbom.v1",
      "annotations": {
        "org.opencontainers.artifact.created": "2022-01-01T14:42:55Z",
        "org.example.sbom.format": "json"
      "mediaType": "application/vnd.oci.image.manifest.v1+json",
      "size": 1234,
      "digest": "sha256:a2a2a2...",
      "artifactType": "application/vnd.example.signature.v1",
      "annotations": {
        "org.opencontainers.artifact.created": "2022-01-01T07:21:33Z",
        "org.example.signature.fingerprint": "abcd"

If the response contains a Link header (see RFC5988), this indicates that there is another page of results which the client should fetch.

In addition, clients may provide a filter in querystring in the form ?artifactType=<mediaType>. Registries may or may not support this server-side filtering mechanism. If supported, however, the registry is required to respond with a header indicating the filter(s) applied: OCI-Filters-Applied: artifactType.

Note: the only filter defined at this time is artifactType.

Closing Thoughts

This post attemts to cover all of the major changes involved in adopting OCI Image and Distribution specs v1.1, however there are several other fine-grained details which can only be understood by carefully reading through the specifications.

Some other notable changes include the following:

  • data field in the descriptor
  • non-distributable layers are deprecated
  • zstd compression support
  • extension support in distribution-spec
  • support for resuming chunked blob push
  • anonymous blob mount support in distribution-spec
  • a Warning header for surfacing user-facing client warnings

We encourage you to take a look at both of the latest specs to see for yourself:

As always, if you need assistance, please reach out to the OCI community via GitHub, Slack, or the mailing list. You can find more info on how to get in touch with the OCI community here.