What Is the Open Security Controls Assessment Language (OSCAL)?

Image of XML - OSCAL featured

There’s recently been a push within FedRAMP towards modernizing the framework to meet modern security challenges and better align federal security standards across agencies and technologies. 

Part of this push is standardizing how security controls are measured and assessed, and the most recent blog from FedRAMP mentions a new standard–OSCAL. 

Here, we will discuss OSCAL, why the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is creating it to address assessments, and how we streamline them. 


What Is OSCAL?

OSCAL (Open Security Controls Assessment Language) is a set of formats developed by the NIST to standardize the documentation, implementation, and assessment of security controls. It is designed to provide a common language and structure for expressing the details of both system security practices and the controls in place.

Here are some critical goals of the OSCAL project:

  • Standardization of Security Documentation: OSCAL aims to standardize how security and privacy controls are described and how control implementation and assessment information is recorded and exchanged.
  • Facilitating Automation: By providing a structured, machine-readable format, OSCAL allows for the automation of tasks related to security control documentation, implementation, and assessment. This automation can lead to more efficient and consistent security processes.
  • Interoperability: OSCAL’s standardized formats improve interoperability among tools and systems for managing and assessing security controls. This makes it easier for organizations to integrate and align their security practices with others.
  • Support for Compliance and Risk Management: OSCAL can support compliance with various cybersecurity frameworks and standards. A clear and structured way to document controls aids in risk management and compliance efforts.
  • Adoption and Use: It is increasingly being adopted by government agencies, and its usage is expanding in the private sector, particularly among organizations that work with government entities or adhere to stringent security standards.
  • Continuous Development: OSCAL is continuously being developed and refined by NIST, with input from the community and stakeholders. This ensures that it evolves to meet changing security needs and technological advancements.

OSCAL is part of a broader movement towards more standardized and automated security management practices, reflecting cybersecurity’s increasing complexity and importance in the modern digital landscape.


How Does OSCAL Work?

Image of XML on screen - OSCAL

OSCAL provides a standardized, structured, and machine-readable format for describing security controls, their implementation, and assessment. This standardization is crucial in managing the complexity of cybersecurity requirements, particularly for organizations that must comply with various regulatory standards. Here’s an overview of how OSCAL works:

  • Structured Formats: OSCAL uses XML, JSON, and YAML formats to represent different aspects of security controls and processes. These formats are machine-readable, facilitating automation and integration with various tools and systems.
  • Automation and Integration: Because OSCAL provides a uniform way to describe and exchange security-related information, it enables the automation of various tasks. For example, tools can automatically generate security documentation, assess compliance with controls, or integrate security information across different systems.
  • Facilitating Compliance and Risk Management: Using OSCAL, organizations can more efficiently manage compliance with various security standards and frameworks. It helps map controls across different standards, simplifying the compliance process.
  • Collaboration and Sharing: OSCAL formats make it easier for stakeholders (like security teams, auditors, and IT personnel) to collaborate and share information. The standardized format ensures that everyone interprets the security controls and their implementation consistently.
  • Continuous Improvement: The OSCAL community, led by NIST, continuously improves and updates the OSCAL formats based on feedback and emerging security needs. This helps OSCAL stay relevant and effective in a rapidly evolving cybersecurity landscape.
  • Tool Support: Various tools and services are being developed to support OSCAL, including creating, editing, validating, and transforming OSCAL content. This ecosystem of tools enhances the usability and adoption of OSCAL.

Additionally, OSCAL is organized into several layers, each serving a different purpose:

  • Catalog Layer: Lists available security controls (e.g., NIST SP 800-53). It’s the foundational layer that provides a comprehensive set of controls.
  • Profile Layer: Tailors the controls in the Catalog to specific organizational or regulatory needs. This layer allows organizations to select and customize controls relevant to their context.
  • Implementation Layer: Describes how the selected controls are implemented in an IT system. This layer includes details about responsible parties, control implementation status, and system-specific information.
  • Assessment Layer: Details the methodologies and procedures for assessing the implemented controls. This layer plans, executes, and reports on the control assessments.


Is OSCAL a Requirement of NIST or Other Frameworks?

No cybersecurity frameworks explicitly require OSCAL. OSCAL is a set of standards developed by the NIST to document, implement, and assess security controls. Still, its adoption is not mandated by any specific cybersecurity framework.

However, OSCAL can benefit organizations implementing or complying with various cybersecurity frameworks. Here’s how OSCAL relates to these frameworks:

  • Alignment with NIST Frameworks: OSCAL is particularly relevant for organizations that use NIST’s cybersecurity frameworks, such as NIST SP 800-53 or the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. While not required, OSCAL can significantly enhance the management of these frameworks by providing standardized, structured, and machine-readable formats for security control documentation.
  • Facilitating Compliance: For frameworks like ISO 27001, HIPAA, GDPR, or others, OSCAL can streamline documenting compliance. While these frameworks do not require OSCAL, using them can make demonstrating compliance more efficient and consistent.
  • Federal and Government Use: In the U.S., federal agencies and contractors working with government systems might find OSCAL particularly useful for complying with federal cybersecurity requirements. While not a requirement, its use could be encouraged or seen as a best practice in these contexts.
  • Future Adoption and Requirements: While OSCAL is not currently a requirement in any cybersecurity framework, its adoption is growing, and it could become more integrated into standard practices or even required in specific contexts in the future, especially given its potential for improving efficiency and standardization in cybersecurity practices.

There are, however, several benefits to adopting OSCAL outside of simple compliance:

  • Streamlining Documentation: OSCAL can be used to create and maintain comprehensive documentation of security controls. This includes detailing how each control is implemented, the responsible parties, and the implementation status. Standardized documentation facilitates more accessible updates and maintenance.
  • Automating Compliance Processes: Using OSCAL’s machine-readable formats, organizations can automate many aspects of their compliance processes. This includes generating compliance reports, mapping controls across different regulatory standards, and identifying gaps in control implementation.
  • Enhancing Risk Management: OSCAL helps conduct thorough risk assessments by providing detailed information on the implementation and effectiveness of security controls. Organizations can use this information to identify areas of high risk and prioritize their risk mitigation efforts.
  • Facilitating Internal and External Audits: The standardized information in OSCAL formats simplifies the audit process. Auditors can easily understand the security controls in place, how they are implemented, and assess their effectiveness. This can lead to more efficient and accurate audits.
  • Tailoring Security Controls: Through the Profile Layer in OSCAL, organizations can tailor security controls to their specific needs, ensuring they are relevant and aligned with their operational environment and compliance requirements.
  • Supporting Continuous Monitoring: OSCAL’s structured format allows for integrating security control information with monitoring tools. This supports continuous monitoring of security posture and quick responses to any changes or threats.
  • Integrating with Existing Tools: Organizations can integrate OSCAL with their existing security and compliance tools. Many tools support OSCAL, making adopting within existing IT ecosystems easier.
  • Preparing for Future Compliance Needs: As regulatory landscapes evolve, OSCAL’s flexible and adaptable structure helps organizations quickly adjust to new compliance requirements and standards.


    Work with Continuum GRC

    Working to obtain or maintain NIST or FedRAMP compliance? Work with Continuum GRC.

    Continuum GRC is a cloud platform that can take something as routine and necessary as regular vulnerability scanning and reporting under FedRAMP and make it an easy and timely part of business in the public sector. We provide risk management and compliance support for every major regulation and compliance framework on the market, including:

    And more. We are the only FedRAMP and StateRAMP-authorized compliance and risk management solution worldwide.

    Continuum GRC is a proactive cyber security® and the only FedRAMP and StateRAMP-authorized cybersecurity audit platform worldwide. Call 1-888-896-6207 to discuss your organization’s cybersecurity needs and find out how we can help your organization protect its systems and ensure compliance.

    Continuum GRC