Data Format Description Language

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Data Format Description Language (DFDL, often pronounced daff-o-dil), published as an Open Grid Forum Proposed Recommendation in January 2011, is a modeling language for describing general text and binary data in a standard way. A DFDL model or schema allows any text or binary data to be read (or "parsed") from its native format and to be presented as an instance of an information set. The same DFDL schema also allows data to be taken from an instance of an information set and written out (or "serialized") to its native format.

DFDL is descriptive and not prescriptive. DFDL is not a data format, nor does it impose the use of any particular data format. Instead it provides a standard way of describing many different kinds of data format. This approach has several advantages.[1] It allows an application author to design an appropriate data representation according to his requirements while describing it in a standard way which can be shared, enabling multiple programs to directly interchange the data.

DFDL achieves this by building upon the facilities of W3C XML Schema 1.0. A subset of XML Schema is used, enough to enable the modeling of non-XML data. The motivations for this approach are to avoid inventing a completely new schema language, and to make it easy to convert general text and binary data, via a DFDL information set, into a corresponding XML document.

Educational material is available in the form of a DFDL Tutorial, videos and several hands-on DFDL labs.

History[edit]

DFDL was created in response to a need for grid APIs to be able to understand data regardless of source. A language was needed capable of modeling a wide variety of existing text and binary data formats. A working group was established at the Global Grid Forum (which later became the Open Grid Forum) in 2003 to create a specification for such a language.

A decision was made early on to base the language on a subset of W3C XML Schema, using <xs:appinfo> annotations to carry the extra information necessary to describe non-XML physical representations. This is an established approach that is already being used today in commercial systems. DFDL takes this approach and evolves it into an open standard capable of describing many text or binary data formats.

Work continued on the language, culminating in the publication of the DFDL 1.0 specification GFD.174 as an OGF Proposed Recommendation in January 2011. A summary of DFDL and its features is available at the OGF. Any issues with the specification are being tracked in OGF experimental documents. A revised DFDL 1.0 specification GFD.207 incorporating all issues noted to date is currently in Public Comment.

Implementations[edit]

Implementations of DFDL processors that can parse and serialize data using DFDL schemas are available.


A public repository for DFDL schemas that describe commercial and scientific data formats has been established on GitHub. DFDL schemas for formats like UN/EDIFACT, NACHA, HL7 and ISO8583 are available for free download.

Example[edit]

Take as an example the following text data stream which gives the name, age and location of a person:

Joe Bloggs,46,Hampshire,England


The logical model for this data can be described by the following fragment of an XML Schema document. The order, names, types and cardinality of the fields are expressed by the XML schema model.

<xs:schema xmlns:xs="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema" ...>
 
<xs:complexType name="person_type">
  <xs:sequence>
    <xs:element name="name" type="xs:string"/>
    <xs:element name="age" type="xs:short"/>
    <xs:element name="county" type="xs:string"/>
    <xs:element name="country" type="xs:string"/>
  </xs:sequence>
</xs:complexType>
 
</xs:schema>


To additionally model the physical representation of the data stream, DFDL augments the XML schema fragment with annotations on the xs:element and xs:sequence objects, as follows:

<xs:schema xmlns:dfdl="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/dfdl-1.0/" xmlns:xs="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema" ...>
 
<xs:complexType name="person_type">
  <xs:sequence>
    <xs:annotation><xs:appinfo source="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/">
        <dfdl:sequence encoding="ASCII" sequenceKind="ordered" 
                       separator="," separatorType="infix" separatorPolicy="required"/>                   
    </xs:appinfo></xs:annotation>
    <xs:element name="name" type="xs:string">
      <xs:annotation><xs:appinfo source="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/">
        <dfdl:element lengthKind="delimited" encoding="ASCII"/>                   
      </xs:appinfo></xs:annotation>
    </xs:element>
    <xs:element name="age" type="xs:short">
      <xs:annotation><xs:appinfo source="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/">
        <dfdl:element representation="text" lengthKind="delimited" encoding="ASCII"
                      textNumberRep="standard" textNumberPattern="#0" textNumberBase="10"/>                   
      </xs:appinfo></xs:annotation>
    </xs:element>
    <xs:element name="county" type="xs:string">
      <xs:annotation><xs:appinfo source="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/">
        <dfdl:element lengthKind="delimited" encoding="ASCII"/>                   
      </xs:appinfo></xs:annotation>
    </xs:element>
    <xs:element name="country" type="xs:string">
      <xs:annotation><xs:appinfo source="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/">
        <dfdl:element lengthKind="delimited" encoding="ASCII"/>                   
      </xs:appinfo></xs:annotation>
    </xs:element>
  </xs:sequence>
</xs:complexType>
 
</xs:schema>


The property attributes on these DFDL annotations express that the data are represented in an ASCII text format with fields being of variable length and delimited by commas.

An alternative, more compact syntax is also provided, where DFDL properties are carried as non-native attributes on the XML Schema objects themselves.

<xs:schema xmlns:dfdl="http://www.ogf.org/dfdl/dfdl-1.0/" xmlns:xs="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema" ...>
 
<xs:complexType name="person_type">
  <xs:sequence dfdl:encoding="ASCII" dfdl:sequenceKind="ordered" 
               dfdl:separator="," dfdl:separatorType="infix" dfdl:separatorPolicy="required">
    <xs:element name="name" type="xs:string"
                dfdl:lengthKind="delimited" dfdl:encoding="ASCII"/>                   
    <xs:element name="age" type="xs:short"
                dfdl:representation="text" dfdl:lengthKind="delimited" dfdl:encoding="ASCII"
                dfdl:textNumberRep="standard" dfdl:textNumberPattern="##0" dfdl:textNumberBase="10"/>                   
    <xs:element name="county" type="xs:string"
                dfdl:lengthKind="delimited" dfdl:encoding="ASCII"/>                   
    <xs:element name="country" type="xs:string"
                dfdl:lengthKind="delimited" dfdl:encoding="ASCII"/>                   
  </xs:sequence>
</xs:complexType>
 
</xs:schema>

Features[edit]

The goal of DFDL is to provide a rich modeling language capable of representing any text or binary data format. The 1.0 release is a major step towards this goal. The capability includes support for:

  • Text data types such as strings, numbers, zoned decimals, calendars and Booleans
  • Binary data types such as two's complement integers, BCD, packed decimals, floats, calendars and Booleans
  • Fixed length data and data delimited by text or binary markup
  • Language data structures found in languages like COBOL, C and PL/1
  • Industry standards such as CSV, SWIFT, FIX, HL7, X12, HIPAA, EDIFACT, ISO8583
  • Any encoding and endian-ness
  • Bi-directional text
  • Bit data of arbitrary length
  • Pattern languages for text numbers and calendars
  • Ordered, unordered and floating content
  • Default values on parsing and serializing
  • Nil values capability for handling out-of-band data
  • Fixed and variable arrays
  • XPath 2.0 expression language including variables to model dynamic data
  • Speculative parsing and other mechanisms to resolve choices and optionality
  • Validation to XML Schema 1.0 rules
  • A scoping mechanism that allows common property values to be applied at multiple annotation points
  • Hiding elements in the data from the information set
  • Calculating element values for the information set

Future releases are anticipated in which it is hoped to include support for:

  • Direct access by offset
  • True multi-dimensional arrays
  • Embedded comments
  • Custom language extensions

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]