On the suitability of BUFR and GRIB for archiving data

A major weakness of the BUFR and GRIB formats are their dependence on external tables. For GRIB, one must have the correct tables in order to understand the meaning of the data. For BUFR, the correct tables are needed both to understand the meaning of the data and also to parse the data. An important design flaw in these formats is that there is no foolproof way to know when you have the correct tables, that is, for a reader to know for certain which tables the writer used.

Compounding this design flaw are implementation practices which make this problem occur more often than might be expected:
  1. The WMO publishes the standard tables in Word and PDF format, neither of which are machine readable. Software that write GRIB and BUFR therefore have their own versions of the standard tables, in various formats, with various lineages. Of the 5 or 6 packages I examined, no two agreed exactly. Some of the tables are subsets of the WMO versions, probably because the software maintainers are only interested in the entries used by their organization. The tables often appear to be maintained by hand.
  2. There are a few typographical errors in the published WMO standard tables. With enough effort, humans can track down the correct values. However it is very difficult to know whether any given BUFR/GRIB message used the correct or incorrect value.
  3. The process of adding new entries to WMO standard tables can lead to incorrect entries. Member organizations propose new entries, which are assigned preliminary ids. Messages using these preliminary ids are sometimes generated before the ids are finalized. The ids sometimes are changed before the version becomes final.
  4. The table version information is often wrong. In principle with correct table version information and correct tables, the mismatch problem does not occur. In practice, the table version numbers are often wrong in the message. This may be due to a casual attitude towards encoding the correct version, or it may be due to difficulty in identifying the correct version, especially with the complications of item #3.
  5. Local tables are often used, presumably because the standard tables are not rich enough. All the problems of tracking tables and versions are thus compounded. Local tables sometimes use ids that are reserved for the WMO. This essentially makes these messages unreadable by anyone other than those who generate the messages.

In summary, these problems make BUFR/GRIB not suitable as long-term storage formats, in my opinion. In order to make them suitable, 1) there must be a foolproof way for reading software to know what tables the writing software used, and 2) there must be an authoritative registry of tables.

A general solution that I would recommend is the following:

  1. The WMO or its delegate establishes a web service for registering tables. Authorized users can submit tables to the service, which are stored permanently. The service returns a unique hashcode, (eg the 16-byte MD5 checksum) for the table to the user.
  2. The hashcode for the table that the writer uses is encoded into the BUFR/GRIB message that is written. This may require a new version of the encoding.
  3. Anyone can submit a hashcode to the web service and get the table associated with it.

Difficulties with tables are further compounded by mistakes in encoding and decoding software. Therefore I would also recommend that:

  1. The WMO or its delegate creates reference software that can be used to validate that a BUFR/GRIB message is well-formed,  and parses the message and applies the canonical tables, returning a result that can be used to validate other software. This could also be a web service, in addition to being an open-source library. The reference software can be written in any language and need not be high performance.


Postscript:

Jeff Ator at NCEP points out that there is a way to encode tables into a BUFR message, and so one can store a copy of the BUFR table with the archived dataset. While I haven't (yet) decoded this special encoding for tables, this seems to be a workable solution to the problem for BUFR data. Apparently NCEP is doing this for their archived datasets.  At Unidata we get the data as real time messages over the IDD, so this solution may not be applicable in our case.

Comments:

My recommendation is that they all just switch to netCDF. ;-)

Posted by ed on April 27, 2011 at 06:29 AM MDT #

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