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. 2.3, pp. 39-41

Section 2.3.3. Overview of the format

H. J. Bernsteina* and A. P. Hammersleyb

aDepartment of Mathematics and Computer Science, Kramer Science Center, Dowling College, Idle Hour Blvd, Oakdale, NY 11769, USA, and bESRF/EMBL Grenoble, 6 rue Jules Horowitz, France
Correspondence e-mail:

2.3.3. Overview of the format

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This section describes the major elements of the CBF format.

(1) CBF is a binary file, containing self-describing array data, e.g. one or more images, and auxiliary data, e.g. describing the experiment.

(2) Apart from the handling of line terminators, the way binary data are presented and more liberal rules for ordering information, an ASCII imgCIF file is the same as a CBF binary file.

(3) A CBF consists of pseudo-ASCII text header sections consisting of `lines' of no more than 80 ASCII characters separated by `line separators', which are the pair of ASCII characters carriage return ( \r, ASCII 13) and line feed ( \n, ASCII 10), followed by zero, one or more binary sections presented as `binary strings'. The file returns to the pseudo-ASCII format after each string, allowing additional binary strings to appear later in the file after additional headers.

(4) An imgCIF consists of ASCII lines of no more than 80 characters using the the normal line-termination conventions of the current system (e.g. \n in UNIX) with MIME-encoded binary strings at any appropriate point in the file. (For both CBF and imgCIF, the limitation of 80 characters per line will be increased to 2048 as CIF 1.1 is adopted.)

(5) The very start of the file has an identification item (magic number). This item also describes the CBF version or level (see Section[link] below).

(6) In the CBF binary format, the descriptive tags and values may be viewed as a `header' section for the binary data section. The start of a header section is delimited by the usual CIF data_ token (see Section[link] below).

(7) The header information must contain sufficient data names to fully describe the binary data sections.

(8) The binary data are presented as `binary strings', which in CBF are specially formatted binary data within a semicolon-delimited text string. In imgCIF files, the binary data are MIME-encoded within true ASCII text fields.

(9) White space may be used within the pseudo-ASCII sections prior to the `start of binary section' identifier to align the start-binary data sections to word or block boundaries. Similar use may be made of unused bytes within binary sections. However, no blank lines should be introduced among the MIME headers, since that would terminate processing of those headers and start the scan for binary data. In general, no guarantee is made of block or word alignment in a CBF of unknown origin.

(10) The end of the file need not be explicitly indicated, but including a comment of the form ###_END_OF_CBF (including the carriage return, line feed pair) can help in debugging.

(11) For the most efficient processing of a CBF file, all binary data described in a single data block should appear as the last information in that data block. However, since binary strings can be parsed anywhere within the context of a CBF or imgCIF file, it is recommended that processing software for CBF accept such strings in any order, and it is mandatory that processing software for imgCIF accept such strings in any order. The binary identifier values used within a given data block section, and hence the binary data, must be unique for any given *.array_id, and it would be best to make them globally unique. However, a different data block may reuse binary identifier values. (This allows concatenation of files without renumbering the binary identifiers, and provides a certain level of localization of data within the file to avoid programs having to search potentially huge files for missing binary sections.)

(12) The recommended file extension for a CBF is `cbf'. This allows users to recognize file types easily and gives programs a chance to `know' the file type without having to prompt the user. However, a program should check for at least the file identifier to ensure that the file type is indeed CBF.

(13) The recommended file extensions for imgCIF are `icf' or `cif'.

(14) CBF format files are binary files, so when ftp is used to transfer files between different computer systems `binary' or `image' mode transfer should be selected.

(15) imgCIF files are ASCII files, so when ftp is used to transfer files between different computer systems `ascii' transfer should be selected. Details of the magic number

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The magic number identifier is ###CBF: VERSION. This must always be present so that a program can easily identify a CBF by simply inputting the first 15 characters. [The space is a blank (ASCII 32) and not a tab. All identifier characters must be upper case.] The first hash means that this line within the CIF is a comment line. Three hashes mean that this is a line describing the binary file layout for CBF. (All CBF internal identifiers start with three hashes, and all others must immediately follow a `line separator'.) No white space may precede the first hash sign. Following the file identifier is the version number of the file; e.g. the full line might appear as ###CBF: VERSION 1.0. The version number must be separated from the file identifier characters by white space, e.g. a blank (ASCII 32). The version number is defined as a major version number and minor version number separated by a decimal point. A change in the major version may mean that a program for the previous version cannot input the new version as some major change has occurred to CBF. A change in the minor version may also mean incompatibility if the CBF has been written using some new feature. For example, a new form of linearity scaling may be specified; this would be considered a minor version change. A file with the new feature would not be readable by a program supporting only an older version of the format. Details of the header section

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The start of a header section is delimited by the usual CIF data_ token. Optionally, a header identifier, ###_START_OF_HEADER, may be used before the data_ token, followed by the carriage return, line feed pair, as an aid in debugging, but it is not required. (Naturally, another carriage return, line feed pair should immediately precede this and all other CBF identifiers, with the exception of the CBF file identifier at the very start of the file.) A header section, including the identification items which delimit it, uses only ASCII characters and is divided into `lines'. The `line separator' symbols \r\n (carriage return, line feed) are the same regardless of the operating system on which the file is written. This is an important difference from CIF, but must be so, as the file contains binary data and cannot be translated from one operating system to another, which is the case for ASCII text files. While a properly functioning CBF API should write the full \r\n line separator, it should recognize any of three sequences \r, \n, \r\n as valid line separators so that hand-edited headers will not be rejected.

The header section in a CBF obeys all CIF rules (Chapter 2.2[link] ) with the exception of the line separators, i.e.:

(i) `Lines' are a maximum of 80 characters long. (This will be increased to 2048 in line with the CIF version 1.1 specification.)

(ii) All data names (tags) start with an underscore character `_'.

(iii) The hash symbol `#' (outside a quoted character string) means that all text up to the line separator is a comment.

(iv) White space outside character strings is not significant.

(v) Data names are case-insensitive.

(vi) The data item follows the data-name separator and may be of one of two types: character string (char) or number (numb). The type is specified for each data name.

(vii) Character strings may be delimited with single or double quotes, or blocks of text may be delimited by semicolons occurring as the first character on a line.

(viii) The loop_ mechanism allows a data name to have multiple values. Immediately following the loop_, one or more data names are listed without their values, as column headings. Then one or more rows of values are given.

(ix) Any CIF data name may occur within the header section.

The tokens data_ and loop_ have special meaning in CIF and should not be used except in their indicated places. The tokens save_, stop_ and global_ also have special meaning in CIF's parent language, STAR, and should also not be used.

A single header section may contain one or more data_ blocks. Details of binary sections

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All binary sections are contained within semicolon-delimited text fields, which may be thought of as `binary strings'. Each such binary string must be given as a value of an appropriate CIF tag (usually, either directly or within a loop.

Before getting to the actual binary data, there are some preliminaries to allow a smooth transition from the conventions of CIF to those of raw streams of `octets' (8-bit bytes). Within the binary-data text string, the conventions developed for transmitting e-mail messages including binary attachments are followed. There is secondary ASCII header information, formatted as MIME headers [see RFCs 2045–2049 by Freed & Borenstein (1996a[link],b[link],c[link]), Freed et al. (1996[link]) and Moore (1996[link])]. The boundary marker for the beginning of all this is the special string --CIF-BINARY-FORMAT-SECTION-- at the beginning of a line. The initial `--' says that this is a MIME boundary. We cannot put `###' in front of it and conform to MIME conventions.

Immediately after the boundary marker are MIME headers, describing some useful information we will need to process the binary section. Only a few headers with a narrow range of values have to be understood to process a CBF (as opposed to an imgCIF, for which the headers can be more varied).

The `Content-Type' header may be any of the discrete types permitted in RFC 2045 (Freed & Borenstein, 1996b[link]); `application/octet-stream' is recommended. If an octet stream was compressed, the compression should be specified by the parameter conversions="x-CBF_PACKED" or by the parameter conversions="x-CBF_CANONICAL". Other compression schemes may be added at a future date. Details of the compression schemes are given in Chapter 5.6[link] .

The `Content-Transfer-Encoding' header should be BINARY for a CBF. For an ASCII imgCIF file, the `Content-Transfer-Encoding' header may be BASE64, QUOTED-PRINTABLE, X-BASE8, X-BASE10 or X-BASE16. The BASE64 encoding is a reasonably efficient encoding of octets (approximately eight bits for every six bits of data) and is recommended for imgCIF files. The octal, decimal and hexadecimal transfer encodings are for convenience in debugging and are not recommended for archiving and data interchange.

The `X-Binary-Size' header specifies the size of the binary data in octets. If compression was used, this size is the size after compression, including any book-keeping fields. In general, no portion of the binary header is included in the calculation of the size.

The `X-Binary-Element-Type' header specifies the type of binary data in the octets, using the same descriptive phrases as in _array_structure.encoding_type. The full list of valid types is: [Scheme scheme5] The default value is unsigned 32-bit integer. See IEEE (1985[link]) for details on the IEEE formats.

The MIME header items are followed by an empty line and then by a special sequence marked here as START_OF_BIN, consisting of Ctrl-L, Ctrl-Z, Ctrl-D and a single binary flag character of hexa­decimal value D5 (213 decimal). The binary data follow immediately after this flag character. The control (Ctrl-…) characters are inserted as a convenience to inhibit accidental listing or printing of large amounts of binary data on character-oriented output devices such as terminals or printers.

In general, if the value given for `Content-Transfer-Encoding' is one of the real encodings BASE64, QUOTED-PRINTABLE, X-BASE8, X-BASE10 or X-BASE16, this file is an imgCIF. More details on the imgCIF encodings are given in Section 2.3.5[link] below.

For either a CBF or an imgCIF, the optional `Content-MD5' header provides a sophisticated check [the `RSA Data Security, Inc. MD5 Message-Digest Algorithm' (Rivest, 1992[link])] on the integrity of the binary data.

In a CBF, the raw binary data begin after an empty line terminating the MIME headers and after the START_OF_BIN identifier. START_OF_BIN contains bytes to separate the ASCII lines from the binary data, bytes to try to stop the listing of the header, bytes which define the binary identifier, which should match the *.binary_id defined in the header, and bytes which define the length of the binary section.

1 0C 12 (Ctrl-L) End the current page
2 1A 26 (Ctrl-Z) Stop listings in MS-DOS
3 04 04 (Ctrl-D) Stop listings in Unix
4 D5 213 Binary section begins
[5\dots5+n-1]     Binary data (n octets)

Only bytes [5\dots5+n-1] are encoded for an imgCIF file using the indicated Content-Transfer-Encoding.

The binary characters serve specific purposes:

(i) The Ctrl-L will terminate the current page in listings in most operating systems.

(ii) The Ctrl-Z will stop the listing of the file in MS-DOS-type operating systems.

(iii) The Ctrl-D will stop the listing of the file in Unix-type operating systems.

(iv) The unsigned byte value 213 (decimal) is binary 11010101 (octal 325, hexadecimal D5). This has the eighth bit set, so it can be used to detect the error of seven-bit rather than eight-bit transmission. It is also asymmetric, providing one last check for reversal of bit order within bytes.

The carriage return, line feed pair before the START_OF_BIN and other lines can also be used to check that the file has not been corrupted (e.g. by being sent by ftp in ASCII mode).

The `line separator' immediately precedes the `start of binary identifier', but blank spaces may be added prior to the preceding `line separator' if desired (e.g. to force word or block alignment). The binary data do not have to completely fill the bytes defined by the byte-length value, but clearly cannot be greater than this value (except when the value zero has been stored, which means that the size is unknown, and no other headers follow). The values of any unused bytes are undefined. The end of binary section identifier is placed exactly at the byte following the full binary section as defined by the length value. The end of binary section identifier consists of the carriage return/line feed pair followed by [Scheme scheme6] with each of these lines followed by the carriage return/line feed pair. This brings us back into a normal CIF environment.

The first `line separator' separates the binary data from the pseudo-ASCII line. The end-of-binary-section identifier is in a sense redundant, since the binary-data-length value tells a program how many bytes to jump over to the end of the binary data. However, this redundancy has been deliberately added for error checking, and for possible file recovery in the case of a corrupted file. This identifier must be present at the end of every block of binary data.


IEEE (1985). IEEE standard for binary floating-point arithmetic. ANSI/IEEE Std 754–1985. New York: The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
Freed, N. & Borenstein, N. (1996a). Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) part five: Conformance criteria and examples. RFC 2049. Network Working Group. .
Freed, N. & Borenstein, N. (1996b). Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) part one: Format of Internet message bodies. RFC 2045. Network Working Group. .
Freed, N. & Borenstein, N. (1996c). Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) part two: Media types. RFC 2046. Network Working Group. .
Freed, N., Klensin, J. & Postel, J. (1996). Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) part four: Registration procedures. RFC 2048. Network Working Group. .
Moore, K. (1996). MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) part three: Message header extensions for non-ASCII text. RFC 2047. Network Working Group. .
Rivest, R. (1992). The MD5 message-digest algorithm. RFC 1321. Network Working Group. .

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