Draft CF data model
This document outlines an abstract model for data and metadata corresponding
to the CF
metadata standard (version 1.5).
CF is a primarily a convention for storing data in netCDF,
and up to now has not presented a data model.
However, the design of CF implies a data model to some extent,
and this document is proposed to make it explicit.
If adopted as an element of CF,
the CF data model description will be updated in line with CF standard.
The data model avoids prescribing more than is needed
for interpreting CF as it stands,
in order to avoid inconsistency with future developments of CF.
is illustrated by the accompanying
UML diagram of the data model.
As well as describing the CF data model, this document also comments
on how it is implemented in netCDF.
Since the CF data model could be implemented in file formats other than netCDF,
it would be logically better to put the information about CF-netCDF in a
separate document, but when introducing the data model for the first time,
we feel that this document would be harder to understand
if it omitted reference to the netCDF information.
We propose that these functions should be separated in a later
version of the data model.
Some parts of the CF standard arise specifically
from the requirements or restrictions of the netCDF
file format, or are concerned with efficient ways of storing data on disk;
these parts are not logically part of the data model
and are only briefly mentioned in this document.
In this document, we use the word "construct" because we feel
it to be a more language-neutral term than "object" or "structure".
The constructs of this data model might correspond to objects in
an OO language.
The central concept of the data model is a space construct.
In a dataset contained in a single netCDF file, each data variable usually
corresponds to a space construct, but a space construct
might be a combination of several data variables.
In a dataset comprising several netCDF files, a space construct may span data
variables in more than one file, for instance from different ranges of a
time coordinate (as introduced by Gridspec in CF version 1.6).
Rules for aggregating data variables from one or several files
into a single space construct are needed
but are not defined by CF version 1.5; such rules
are regarded as the concern of data processing software.
This data model makes a central assumption that each space construct is
Data variables stored in CF-netCDF files are often not independent,
because they share coordinate variables.
However, we view this solely as a means of saving disk space, and
we assume that software will be able to alter any space
construct in memory without affecting other space constructs.
For instance, if the coordinates of one space construct are modified,
it will not affect any other space construct.
Explicit tests of equality
will be required to establish whether two data variables
have the same coordinates.
Such tests are necessary in general if CF is applied to a dataset comprising
more than one file, because different variables may then reside in different
files, with their own coordinate variables.
Each space construct may have
All the components of the space construct are optional. The data array
would be missing if the space construct serves only to define a
coordinate system, which we call a grid.
Thus a space construct can be regarded as a grid with data on that grid.
The word "grid" does not imply a rectangular arrangement or evenly
- An ordered list of one or more dimension coordinate constructs
(or "dimensions" for short).
- A data array whose shape is determined by
the dimensions in the order listed,
excluding any dimensions of size one.
If there are no dimensions of greater size than one,
the data array is a scalar.
Dimensions of size one are omitted because their position in the order
of dimensions makes no difference to the order of data elements in the array.
The elements of the data array must all be of the same data type,
which may be numeric, character or string.
- An unordered collection of auxiliary coordinate constructs.
- An unordered collection of cell measure constructs.
- A cell methods construct, which refers to the dimensions
(but not their sizes).
- An unordered collection of transforms.
- Other properties, which are metadata
that do not refer to the dimensions,
and serve to describe the data the space contains.
Properties may be of any data type (numeric, character or string)
and can be scalars or arrays.
They are attributes in the netCDF file, but we use the term "property" instead
because not all CF-netCDF attributes are properties in this sense.
- A list of ancillary spaces. This corresponds to the
CF-netCDF ancillary_variables attribute, which identifies other spaces
that provide metadata.
The CF-netCDF formula_terms (see also Transforms) and
ancillary_variables attributes make links between space constructs.
These links are fragile.
If a space construct is written to a file, it is not required that any
other space constructs to which it is linked are also written to the file.
If an operation alters one space
construct in a way which could invalidate a relationship with another space
construct, the link should be broken. The user of software will have to be
aware of these relationships and remake them if applicable and useful.
Dimension coordinate construct
A dimension coordinate construct must contain
It may also optionally contain
- A size (an integer greater than zero),
which can be equal to one. In CF-netCDF, there is a formal distinction between
scalar coordinate variables and size-one coordinate variables,
but they are logically the same; CF-netCDF supports scalar coordinate variables
for simplicity and convenience in the netCDF file.
An example of a size-one dimension is a vertical dimension for 1.5 m height.
In this data model, a CF-netCDF scalar coordinate variable is regarded as
a dimension coordinate construct with a size of unity.
- A one-dimensional numerical coordinate array of the size specified
for the dimension.
If the size of the dimension is greater than one,
the elements of the coordinate array must all be of the same numeric
data type, they must all have different non-missing values,
and they must be monotonically increasing or decreasing.
Dimension coordinate constructs cannot have string-valued coordinates.
In this data model, a CF-netCDF string-valued coordinate variable
or string-valued scalar coordinate variable
corresponds to an auxiliary coordinate construct
(not a dimension coordinate construct),
with a dimension whose coordinate construct has no coordinate array.
- A two-dimensional boundary coordinate array, whose slow-varying
(second in Fortran) dimension equals the size specified by the
dimension coordinate construct,
and whose fast-varying dimension is two, indicating the extent of the cell.
For climatological time dimensions,
the bounds are interpreted in a special way
indicated by the cell methods.
- Properties (in the same sense as for the space construct)
serving to describe the coordinates.
In this data model we permit a dimension not to have a coordinate array
if there is no appropriate numeric monotonic coordinate.
That is the case for a dimension that runs over ocean basins or area
types, for example, or for a dimension that indexes timeseries at
scattered points. Such dimensions do not correspond to a continuous
(They will be called index dimensions in CF version 1.6.)
Auxiliary coordinate construct
An auxiliary coordinate construct must contain
and may also contain
- A list of some (at least one)
of the dimensions of the space construct in any order.
Auxiliary coordinate constructs correspond to
auxiliary coordinate variables named by the coordinates attribute
of a data variable in a CF-netCDF file.
CF recommends there to be auxiliary coordinate constructs of latitude and
longitude if there is two-dimensional horizontal variation but the horizontal
coordinates are not latitude and longitude.
As for dimension coordinate constructs,
auxiliary coordinate constructs of different space constructs
are independent in the data model.
- A coordinate array with dimension sizes corresponding
to the list of dimensions of the auxiliary coordinate construct.
If there is a dimension with size greater than one,
the elements of the coordinate array must all be of the same data type
(numeric, character or string),
but they do not have to be distinct or monotonic.
Missing values are not allowed (in CF version 1.5).
- A boundary coordinate array with all the dimensions, in the same order,
as the coordinate array, and a fastest-varying dimension (first dimension
in Fortran) equal to the number of vertices of each cell.
- Properties serving to describe the coordinates.
Cell measure construct
A cell measure construct may contain
and must contain
- A list of some of the dimensions of the space construct in any order.
- Properties to describe itself.
In CF-netCDF files, cell measures constructs correspond to variables
named by the cell_measures attribute of the data variable.
As for dimensions, cell measures constructs of different space constructs
are independent in the data model.
- A measure property, which indicates which metric of the grid
it supplies e.g. cell areas.
- A units property consistent with the measure property e.g. m2.
- A numeric array
of metric values having the dimensions listed, excluding any dimensions
of size one, or a scalar metric
value if no dimensions of size greater than one are given.
If there is a dimension with size greater than one,
the elements of the array must all be of the same data type.
It is assumed that the metric does not depend on any of the dimensions
of the space which are not specified, and the values are implicitly propagated
along these dimensions.
Cell methods construct
The cell methods construct describes how the data values represent variation of
the quantity within cells. It corresponds to the cell_methods
attribute of the data variable in CF-netCDF files. It is an ordered list,
because the methods specified are not necessarily commutative.
Each entry of the list
specifies either one or more dimensions, or a CF standard name
(to describe variation with respect to a quantity which is not recorded
as a dimension of the space), and a method e.g. mean
(CF Appendix E). Special methods
indicate climatological time processing.
A transform identifies functions of the coordinates of the space
from which auxiliary coordinate constructs can be computed.
A transform contains
- A transform name which indicates the nature of the transformation
and implies the formulae to be used. A CF-netCDF file does not explicitly
record the formulae; it depends on the application software knowing what to do.
- An unordered collection of terms, which are
scalar parameters, pointers to
dimension or auxiliary coordinate constructs of the space construct,
and pointers to other space constructs.
Each member of the collection has a particular role in the formulae.
Transforms correspond to the functions of the CF-netCDF attributes
formula_terms, which describes how to compute a vertical coordinate
variable from components (CF Appendix D),
and grid_mapping, which describes how to transform between
longitude-latitude space and the horizontal coordinates of the space construct
(CF Appendix F).
The transform name is the standard_name of a vertical coordinate
variable with formula_terms, and the grid_mapping_name
of a grid_mapping variable.
The scalar parameters are scalar data variables (which should
have units if dimensional) named by formula_terms,
and attributes of grid_mapping variables
(for which the units are specified by the transform).
The role of each term in the formulae of the transform is
identified by its keyword in a formula_terms attribute,
or its attribute name in a grid_mapping variable.
The other properties recognised by this CF data model correspond to attributes
listed in CF Appendix A.
For space constructs, the allowed properties are
Some of these can be global attributes in a CF-netCDF file.
In this data model, it is assumed that any relevant global attribute
is also an
attribute of every data variable, although it is superseded if the data
variable has its own attribute.
Each space construct in the model has its own independent set of properties.
For dimensions and auxiliary coordinate constructs, the allowed properties are
Coordinate constructs of time are optionally climatological;
this property is indicated by the presence of the climatology
For space, dimension and auxiliary coordinate constructs,
other properties not defined
by CF could be included, since CF permits any attributes to be included
which do not conflict with the convention.
In any space, any given value of the axis attribute can occur
no more than once among all the dimension and auxiliary coordinates of
of data variables and coordinate variables are checks on the validity of
the values, which could be verified on input and written on output.
In this CF data model we assume they do not constrain any manipulations
which might be done on the data in memory,
and they are not part of the data model.
of data variables specify how missing data is indicated in the data array.
This data model supports the idea of missing data, but does not depend on
any particular method of indicating it, so these attributes
are not part of the model.
are all used in methods of compressing the data to save space
in CF-netCDF files,
with or without loss of information.
They are not part of this data model because these operations do not
logically alter the data,
except that the compress attribute implies two alternative
interpretations of coordinates (compressed or uncompressed).
The "feature type" attribute and associated new conventions,
to be introduced in CF version 1.6,
will provide a way of packing multiple data
spaces of the same kind of discrete sampling geometry
(timeseries, trajectories, etc.) into a single CF-netCDF data variable,
in order to save space, since a multidimensional representation with
common coordinate variables is typically very wasteful in such cases.
This is a kind of compression. The data model would regard each instance
of the feature type as an independent space construct.
However, the "feature type" attribute itself is also a metadata property
that would be a property of the space construct and part of the data model.
have various special or structural functions in the CF-netCDF file format.
Their functions and
the relationships they indicate are reflected in the structure
of this data model,
and these attributes do not correspond directly to
properties in the data model.
1st August 2011
Original version 0.1 of 10th January 2011
and David Hassell