NetCDF Users Guide  v1.1
User-Defined Formats for NetCDF

User-Defined Formats


User-defined formats allow users to write their own adaptors for the netCDF C library, so that it can read and (optionally) write a proprietary format through the netCDF API.

This capability is currently experimental. It involves the exposing of internal netcdf interfaces and data structures that were previously invisible to users. This means that it is unstable and the exposed interfaces are subject to change. Use with caution.

User-defined format code is packaged into a separate library, the user-defined format dispatch library. This library, when linked with the netCDF library, will allow user programs to read their proprietary format through the netCDF API. The proprietary format is treated as if it were one of the netCDF C library native binary formats.

Coding the user-defined format dispatch library requires knowledge of the netCDF library internals. User-defined format dispatch libraries must be written in C.

Magic Numbers

Some file formats use the first few bytes of the file as an identifier for format. For example, HDF5 files have "HDF5" as the fist 4 bytes, and netCDF classic files have "CDF1" as the first four bytes. This is called the "magic number" of the file.

User-defined formats can optionally support magic numbers. If the user-defined format uses a magic number, and that magic number is associated with the user-defined format, then netCDF will be able to correctly identify those files from nc_open(). It will not be necessary for the user to know or specify the underlying format.

Using User-Defined Formats from C Programs

A user-defined format can be added dynamically in the case of C programs.

/* Add our test user defined format. */
if (nc_def_user_format(NC_UDF0, &tst_dispatcher, NULL)) ERR;

The file can now be opened by netCDF:

if (nc_open(FILE_NAME, NC_UDF0, &ncid)) ERR;

If a magic number is used in the file, that may be passed to nc_def_user_format(). In that case, specifying the NC_UDF0 mode flag to nc_open() is optional. The nc_open() will check the file and find the magic number, and automatically associate the file with NC_UDF0. The user will not need to know the format in order to open the file with nc_open().

Building NetCDF C Library with a User-Defined Format Library

Once a user-defined format library is created, it may built into a netCDF install. This allows the netCDF Fortran APIs, and the netCDF utilities (ncdump, ncgen, nccopy) to natively use the user-defined format.

First the user-defined dispatch library must be built and installed.

Then the netcdf-c package must be (re-)built. When building netcdf-c, add the location of the user-defined format dispatch library include file to the CPPFLAGS, and the location of the user-defined format dispatch library in LDFLAGS.

Configure netcdf-c with the option --with-udf0=<udf_lib_name>.

If a magic number is associated with the user-defined format, it can be specified with the --with-udf0-magic-number= argument.

Creating a User-Defined Format

Creators of user-defined format libraries will have to become familiar with the internals of the netCDF-4 code.

Read-Only User-Defined Formats

Many users will find that a read-only user-defined formats meets most of their needs. With a read-only user-defined format, netCDF will be able to read files of the user-defined format. Tools like ncdump and nccopy can work on the files.

A read-only user-defined format can be implemented with only 6 functions. The code in libhdf4 is an excellent example of a read-only dispatch layer.


The most simple-case example of a user-defined format is provided in test nc_test4/tst_udf.c.

A slightly more complex example, including the required autoconf/automake files to build a user-defined format library, can befound at the sample user-defined format library. In this example, the HDF4 SD reader is re-implemented as an external user-defined format. (This is unnecessary if you just want to read HDF4 SD files, since the netCDF C library already includes an HDF4 SD file reader. This user-defined format library uses the same code. It is repackaged as a user-defined library to provide a working sample.)