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2.5 Differences between Attributes and Variables

In contrast to variables, which are intended for bulk data, attributes are intended for ancillary data, or information about the data. The total amount of ancillary data associated with a netCDF object, and stored in its attributes, is typically small enough to be memory-resident. However variables are often too large to entirely fit in memory and must be split into sections for processing.

Another difference between attributes and variables is that variables may be multidimensional. Attributes are all either scalars (single-valued) or vectors (a single, fixed dimension).

Variables are created with a name, type, and shape before they are assigned data values, so a variable may exist with no values. The value of an attribute is specified when it is created, unless it is a zero-length attribute.

A variable may have attributes, but an attribute cannot have attributes. Attributes assigned to variables may have the same units as the variable (for example, valid_range) or have no units (for example, scale_factor). If you want to store data that requires units different from those of the associated variable, it is better to use a variable than an attribute. More generally, if data require ancillary data to describe them, are multidimensional, require any of the defined netCDF dimensions to index their values, or require a significant amount of storage, that data should be represented using variables rather than attributes.