xcube Dataset Convention

Version 1.0 Draft, last updated April 28, 2023


The purpose of this document is to define a convention for how geospatial data cubes accessed and generated by xcube should look. The goal of the convention is to ease access to data, make it compliant to existing data standards, make it comprehensive and understandable, and minimize the effort to ingest the data into users’ processing, visualisation, and analysis code. In short, the goal is to make xcube datasets analysis-ready. The intention is neither to invent any new data formats nor to try to establish new “standards”. Instead, the xcube conventions solely build on existing, popular, well-established data formats and data standards.

This convention applies to gridded (array) datasets only.

In this document, the verbs must, should, and may have a special meaning when used to describe conventions. A must is a mandatory requirement that must be fulfilled, should is optional but always recommended, and may is optional and recommended in cases (like good to have).

Table of Contents

Data Model and Format

The data model for xcube gridded datasets is a subset of the Unidata Common Data Model (CDM). The CDM has originally been established for NetCDF (Network Common Data Form) but is implemented also for the OPenDAP protocol and the HDF and Zarr formats. Other common gridded data models can be easily translated into the CDM, for example GeoTIFF.

xcube gridded datasets must fully comply to the Climate and Forecast Metadata Conventions, CF Conventions for short. The following sections in this chapter describe how these conventions are tailored and applied to xcube datasets. By default, xcube gridded datasets are made available in the Zarr format v2 as this format is ideal for Cloud storage, e.g. Object Storage such as AWS S3, and can be easily converted to other formats such as NetCDF or TIFF. We consider the popular xarray Python package to be the primary in-memory representation for xcube gridded datasets. The xarray.Dataset data model represents a subset of the CDM, interprets CF compliant data correctly, and we will follow this simplified CDM model for xcube gridded datasets in both structure and terminology:

  • A dataset is a container for variables. A dataset has metadata in form of a key-value mapping (global attributes).

  • A variable has N dimensions in a prescribed order, and each dimension has a name and a size. A variable contains the actual gridded data in the form of an N-dimensional data array that has the shape of the dimension sizes. The data type of the array should be numeric, however also text strings and complex types are allowed. A variable has metadata in form of a key-value mapping (variable attributes). There are two types of variables, coordinates and data variables.

  • Coordinates usually contain the labels for a dimension. For example, the coordinate lon could have a 1-D array that contains 3600 longitude values for the dimension lon of size 3600. However, coordinates may also be 2-D. For example. a dataset using satellite geometry may provide its lon coordinate as a 2-D array for the dimensions x and y (for which co-ordinates should also exist).

  • All variables that are not coordinates are data variables. They provide the actual dataset’s data. For each of the dimensions used by a data variable, a corresponding coordinate must exist. For example, for a data variable NDVI with dimensions time, lat, lon, the coordinates time, lat, lon must exist too.


Global and variable metadata must follow the recommendations of the ESIP Attribute Convention for Data Discovery v1.3. If other metadata attributes are used, they should be covered by the CF Conventions v1.8.

Spatial Reference

The spatial dimensions of a data variable must be the innermost dimensions, namely lat, lon for geographic (EPGS:4326, WGS-84) grids, and y, x for other grids – in this order. Datasets that use a geographic (EPGS:4326, WGS-84) grid must provide the 1-D coordinates lat for dimension lat and lon for dimension lon. Datasets that use a non-geographic grid must provide the 1-D coordinates y for dimension y and x for dimension x.

  • In case the grid refers to a known spatial reference system (projected CRS), the dataset must make use of the CRS encoding described in the CF Conventions on Grid Mapping, i.e. add a variable crs.

  • In case the grid is referring to satellite viewing geometry, the dataset must provide 2-D coordinates lat and lon both having the dimensions y, x – in exactly this order, and apply the CF Conventions on 2-D Lat and Lon.

It is expected that the 1-D coordinates have a uniform spacing, i.e. there should be a unique linear mapping between coordinate values and the image grid. Ideally, the spacing should also be the same in x- and y-direction. Note, it is always a good practice to add geographic coordinates to non-geographic, projected grids. Therefore, a dataset may also provide the 2-D coordinates lat and lon in this case. Spatial coordinates must follow the CF Conventions on Coordinates.

Temporal Reference

The temporal dimension of a data variables should be named time. It should be the variable’s outermost dimension. A corresponding coordinate named time must exist and the CF Conventions on the Time Coordinate must be applied. It is recommended to use the unit seconds since 1970.01.01.

Data variables may contain other dimensions in between the temporal dimension and the spatial dimensions, i.e. a variable’s dimensions may be time, …,lat, lon (geographic CRS), or time, …, y, x (non-geographic CRS) – both in exactly this order, where the ellipsis … refers to such extra dimensions. If there is a requirement to store individual time stamps per pixel value, this could still be done by adding a variable to the dataset which would then be e.g. pixel_time with dimensions time, lat, and lon.

Encoding of Units

All variables that represent quantities must set the attribute
units according to the CF Convention on Units. Even if the quantity is dimensionless, the units attribute must be set to indicate its dimensionless-ness by using the value "1".

Encoding of Flags

For data variables that are encoded as flags using named bits or bit masks/ranges, we strictly follow the CF Convention on Flags.

Encoding of Missing Values

According to the CF Convention on Missing Data, missing data should be indicated by the variable attribute _FillValue. However, Zarr does not define or interpret (decode) array attributes at all. The Zarr equivalent of the CF attribute _FillValue is the array property fill_value (not an attribute). fill_value can and should be set for all data types including integers, also because it is given in raw units, that is, before scaling_factor and add_offset are applied (by xarray). Zarr’s fill_value has the advantage that data array chunks comprising only fill_value values can and should be dropped entirely. This can reduce number of chunks dramatically and improve data access performance a lot for many no-data chunks. In our case we should use fill_value to indicate that a data cube’s grid cell does not contain a value at all, it does not exist, it does not make sense, it had no input, etc.

However, when reading a Zarr with Python xarray using decode_cf=True (the new default), xarray will also encode variable attribute _FillValue and missing_value and mask the data accordingly. It will unfortunately ignore valid_min, valid_max, and valid_range.

Missing values shall therefore be indicated by the Zarr array property fill_value. In addition valid_min, valid_max, valid_range variable attributes may be given, but they will not be decoded. However, applications might still find them useful, e.g. xcube Viewer uses them, if provided as value range for mapping color bars.

Encoding of Scale/Offset Values

Scale and offset encoding of bands / variables follows the CF Convention on Packed Data. In practice, affected variables must have attributes scaling_factor (default is 1) and add_offset (with default 0).

Multi-Resolution Datasets

Spatial multi-resolution datasets are described in detail in a dedicated document xcube Multi-Resolution Datasets.

Multi-Band Datasets

Individual spectral bands of a dataset should be stored as variables. For example, this is the case for multi-band products, like Sentinel-2, where each wavelength will be represented by a separate variable named B01, B02, etc.

Metadata Consolidation

Datasets using Zarr format should provide consolidated dataset metadata in their root directories. This allows reading the metadata of datasets with many variables more efficiently, especially when data is stored in Object Storage and every metadata file would need to fetched via an individual HTTP request.

The consolidated metadata file should be named .zmetadata, which is also the default name used by the Zarr format.

The format of the consolidated metadata must be JSON. It is a JSON object using the following structure:

        "zarr_consolidated_format": 1,
        "metadata": {
            ".zattrs": {},
            ".zgroup": {},
            "band_1/.zarray": {},
            "band_1/.zattrs": {},
            "band_2/.zarray": {},
            "band_2/.zattrs": {},

Zip Archives

Zarr datasets may also be provided as Zip archives. Such Zip archives should contain the contents of the archived Zarr directory in their root. In other words, the keys of the entries in such an archive should not have a common prefix as is often the case when directories are zipped for convenience. The name of a zipped Zarr dataset should be the original Zarr dataset name plus the .zip extension. For example:



Zipping the Zarr datasets this way allows opening the Zarr datasets directly from the Zip, e.g., for xarray this is xarray.open_zarr("./dataset.zarr.zip").

Dataset Examples

TODO (forman)

  • Global WGS-84

  • Projected CRS

  • Satellite Viewing Geometry

  • Multi-resolution