3.2. NXDL: The NeXus Definition Language

Information in NeXus data files is arranged by a set of rules. These rules facilitate the exchange of data between scientists and software by standardizing common terms such as the way engineering units are described and the names for common things and the way that arrays are described and stored.

The set of rules for storing information in NeXus data files is declared using the NeXus Definition Language. NXDL itself is governed by a set of rules (a schema) that should simplify learning the few terms in NXDL. In fact, the NXDL rules, written as an XML Schema, are machine-readable using industry-standard and widely-available software tools for XML files such as xsltproc and xmllint. This chapter describes the rules and terms from which NXDL files are constructed.

3.2.1. Introduction

NeXus Definition Language (NXDL) files allow scientists to define the nomenclature and arrangement of information in NeXus data files. These NXDL files can be specific to a scientific discipline such as tomography or small-angle scattering, specific analysis or data reduction software, or even to define another component (base class) used to design and build NeXus data files.

In addition to this chapter and the Tutorial chapter, look at the set of NeXus NXDL files to learn how to read and write NXDL files. These files are available from the NeXus definitions repository and are most easily viewed on GitHub: https://github.com/nexusformat/definitions in the base_classes, applications, and contributed directories. The rules (expressed as XML Schema) for NXDL files may also be viewed from this URL. See the files nxdl.xsd for the main XML Schema and nxdlTypes.xsd for the listings of allowed data types and categories of units allowed in NXDL files.

NXDL files can be checked (validated) for syntax and content. With validation, scientists can be certain their definitions will be free of syntax errors. Since NXDL is based on the XML standard, there are many editing programs [1] available to ensure that the files are well-formed. [2] There are many standard tools such as xmllint and xsltproc that can process XML files. Further, NXDL files are backed by a set of rules (an XML Schema) that define the language and can be used to check that an NXDL file is both correct by syntax and valid by the NeXus rules.

NXDL files are machine-readable. This enables their automated conversion into schema files that can be used, in combination with other NXDL files, to validate NeXus data files. In fact, all of the tables in the Class Definitions Chapter have been generated directly from the NXDL files.

The language of NXDL files is intentionally quite small, to provide only that which is necessary to describe scientific data structures (or to establish the necessary XML structures). Rather than have scientists prepare XML Schema files directly, NXDL was designed to reduce the jargon necessary to define the structure of data files. The two principle objects in NXDL files are: group and field. Documentation (doc) is optional for any NXDL component. Either of these objects may have additional attributes that contribute simple metadata.

The Class Definitions Chapter lists the various classes from which a NeXus file is constructed. These classes provide the glossary of items that could, in principle, be stored in a standard-conforming NeXus file (other items may be inserted into the file if the author wishes, but they won’t be part of the standard). If you are going to include a particular piece of metadata, refer to the class definitions for the standard nomenclature. However, to assist those writing data analysis software, it is useful to provide more than a glossary; it is important to define the required contents of NeXus files that contain data from particular classes of neutron, X-ray, or muon instrument.