Since both origin servers and caches will compare two validators to decide if they represent the same or different entities, one normally would expect that if the entity (the entity-body or any entity- headers) changes in any way, then the associated validator would change as well. If this is true, then we call this validator a "strong validator."
However, there may be cases when a server prefers to change the validator only on semantically significant changes, and not when insignificant aspects of the entity change. A validator that does not always change when the resource changes is a "weak validator."
Entity tags are normally "strong validators," but the protocol provides a mechanism to tag an entity tag as "weak." One can think of a strong validator as one that changes whenever the bits of an entity changes, while a weak value changes whenever the meaning of an entity changes. Alternatively, one can think of a strong validator as part of an identifier for a specific entity, while a weak validator is part of an identifier for a set of semantically equivalent entities.
An entity's modification time, if represented with one-second resolution, could be a weak validator, since it is possible that the resource may be modified twice during a single second.
Support for weak validators is optional; however, weak validators allow for more efficient caching of equivalent objects; for example, a hit counter on a site is probably good enough if it is updated every few days or weeks, and any value during that period is likely "good enough" to be equivalent.
A "use" of a validator is either when a client generates a request and includes the validator in a validating header field, or when a server compares two validators.
Strong validators are usable in any context. Weak validators are only usable in contexts that do not depend on exact equality of an entity. For example, either kind is usable for a conditional GET of a full entity. However, only a strong validator is usable for a sub-range retrieval, since otherwise the client may end up with an internally inconsistent entity.
The only function that the HTTP/1.1 protocol defines on validators is comparison. There are two validator comparison functions, depending on whether the comparison context allows the use of weak validators or not:
The weak comparison function MAY be used for simple (non-subrange) GET requests. The strong comparison function MUST be used in all other cases.
An entity tag is strong unless it is explicitly tagged as weak. Section 3.11 gives the syntax for entity tags.
A Last-Modified time, when used as a validator in a request, is implicitly weak unless it is possible to deduce that it is strong, using the following rules:
This method relies on the fact that if two different responses were sent by the origin server during the same second, but both had the same Last-Modified time, then at least one of those responses would have a Date value equal to its Last-Modified time. The arbitrary 60- second limit guards against the possibility that the Date and Last- Modified values are generated from different clocks, or at somewhat different times during the preparation of the response. An implementation may use a value larger than 60 seconds, if it is believed that 60 seconds is too short.
If a client wishes to perform a sub-range retrieval on a value for which it has only a Last-Modified time and no opaque validator, it may do this only if the Last-Modified time is strong in the sense described here.
A cache or origin server receiving a cache-conditional request, other than a full-body GET request, MUST use the strong comparison function to evaluate the condition.
These rules allow HTTP/1.1 caches and clients to safely perform sub- range retrievals on values that have been obtained from HTTP/1.0 servers.