Tables for
Volume G
Definition and exchange of crystallographic data
Edited by S. R. Hall and B. McMahon

International Tables for Crystallography (2006). Vol. G, ch. 1.1, p. 8

Section 1.1.10. The Crystallographic Binary File

S. R. Halla* and B. McMahonb

aSchool of Biomedical and Chemical Sciences, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Perth, WA 6009, Australia, and bInternational Union of Crystallography, 5 Abbey Square, Chester CH1 2HU, England
Correspondence e-mail:

1.1.10. The Crystallographic Binary File

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In 1995, Andy Hammersley approached the IUCr with a proposal to develop an exchange and archival mechanism for image data using the CIF formalism. There was an increasing need to record and exchange two-dimensional images from a growing collection of area detectors and image plates from several manufacturers, each using different and proprietary data-storage formats. The project was encouraged by the IUCr and was developed under a variety of working names. In October 1997, a workshop at Brookhaven National Laboratory, New York, was convened to discuss progress and to coordinate the development of software suitable for this new format.

At the workshop, it became apparent that there was broad consensus to adopt and further develop the working set of data names that had been devised by the working group on this project; it was further decided that the relationships between these data names were best handled by the DDL2 formalism used for mmCIF. While image plates were not the sole preserve of macromolecular crystallography, it was felt that there would be maximum synergy with that community, and that the proposed imgCIF dictionary was most naturally viewed as an extension or companion to the mmCIF dictionary. The adoption of DDL2 would not preclude the generation of DDL1 analogue files if they were found to be necessary in certain applications, but to date such a need has not arisen.

However, on one point the workshop was insistent. For efficient handling of large volumes of image data on the necessary timescales within a large synchrotron research facility, the raw data must be in binary format. It was argued that although ASCII encoding could preserve the information content of a data stream in a fully CIF-compliant format, the consequent overheads in increased file size and data-processing time were unacceptable in environments with a very high throughput of such data sets, even given the high performance of modern computers. Consequently, the Crystallographic Binary File (CBF) was born as an extension to CIF (Chapter 2.3[link] ). The CBF may contain binary data, and therefore cannot be considered a CIF (Chapter 2.2[link] ). However, except for the representation of the image data, the file retains all the other features of CIF. Information about the experimental apparatus, duration, environmental conditions and operating parameters, together with descriptions of the pixel characteristics of individual frames, are all provided in ASCII character fields tagged by data names that are themselves fully defined in a DDL2-based dictionary (Chapter 3.7[link] ).

At first sight, the distinction between CIF and the crystallographic binary file may therefore seem trivial. However, in allowing binary data, the CBF requires greater care in defining the structure and packing by octets of the data, and loses some of the portability of CIF. It also precludes the use of many simple text-based file-manipulation tools. On the other hand, the importing of a stable and well developed tagged information format means that developers do not need to write novel parsers and compatibility with CIFs is easily attained. Indeed, the original idea of a fully compliant image CIF has been retained. By ASCII-encoding the image data in a crystallographic binary file, a fully compliant CIF, known as imgCIF, may be simply generated. One could consider an imgCIF as an archival version and a CBF as a working version of the same information set.

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