🍾 Xarray is now 10 years old! 🎉

Internal Design#

This page gives an overview of the internal design of xarray.

In totality, the Xarray project defines 4 key data structures. In order of increasing complexity, they are:

The user guide lists only xarray.DataArray and xarray.Dataset, but Variable is the fundamental object internally, and DataTree is a natural generalisation of xarray.Dataset.

Note

Our Development roadmap includes plans both to document Variable as fully public API, and to merge the xarray-datatree package into xarray’s main repository.

Internally private lazy indexing classes are used to avoid loading more data than necessary, and flexible indexes classes (derived from Index) provide performant label-based lookups.

Data Structures#

The Data Structures page in the user guide explains the basics and concentrates on user-facing behavior, whereas this section explains how xarray’s data structure classes actually work internally.

Variable Objects#

The core internal data structure in xarray is the Variable, which is used as the basic building block behind xarray’s Dataset, DataArray types. A Variable consists of:

  • dims: A tuple of dimension names.

  • data: The N-dimensional array (typically a NumPy or Dask array) storing the Variable’s data. It must have the same number of dimensions as the length of dims.

  • attrs: A dictionary of metadata associated with this array. By convention, xarray’s built-in operations never use this metadata.

  • encoding: Another dictionary used to store information about how these variable’s data is represented on disk. See Reading encoded data for more details.

Variable has an interface similar to NumPy arrays, but extended to make use of named dimensions. For example, it uses dim in preference to an axis argument for methods like mean, and supports Broadcasting by dimension name.

However, unlike Dataset and DataArray, the basic Variable does not include coordinate labels along each axis.

Variable is public API, but because of its incomplete support for labeled data, it is mostly intended for advanced uses, such as in xarray itself, for writing new backends, or when creating custom indexes. You can access the variable objects that correspond to xarray objects via the (readonly) Dataset.variables and DataArray.variable attributes.

DataArray Objects#

The simplest data structure used by most users is DataArray. A DataArray is a composite object consisting of multiple Variable objects which store related data.

A single Variable is referred to as the “data variable”, and stored under the variable` attribute. A DataArray inherits all of the properties of this data variable, i.e. dims, data, attrs and encoding, all of which are implemented by forwarding on to the underlying Variable object.

In addition, a DataArray stores additional Variable objects stored in a dict under the private _coords attribute, each of which is referred to as a “Coordinate Variable”. These coordinate variable objects are only allowed to have dims that are a subset of the data variable’s dims, and each dim has a specific length. This means that the full size of the dataarray can be represented by a dictionary mapping dimension names to integer sizes. The underlying data variable has this exact same size, and the attached coordinate variables have sizes which are some subset of the size of the data variable. Another way of saying this is that all coordinate variables must be “alignable” with the data variable.

When a coordinate is accessed by the user (e.g. via the dict-like __getitem__ syntax), then a new DataArray is constructed by finding all coordinate variables that have compatible dimensions and re-attaching them before the result is returned. This is why most users never see the Variable class underlying each coordinate variable - it is always promoted to a DataArray before returning.

Lookups are performed by special Index objects, which are stored in a dict under the private _indexes attribute. Indexes must be associated with one or more coordinates, and essentially act by translating a query given in physical coordinate space (typically via the sel() method) into a set of integer indices in array index space that can be used to index the underlying n-dimensional array-like data. Indexing in array index space (typically performed via the isel() method) does not require consulting an Index object.

Finally a DataArray defines a name attribute, which refers to its data variable but is stored on the wrapping DataArray class. The name attribute is primarily used when one or more DataArray objects are promoted into a Dataset (e.g. via to_dataset()). Note that the underlying Variable objects are all unnamed, so they can always be referred to uniquely via a dict-like mapping.

Dataset Objects#

The Dataset class is a generalization of the DataArray class that can hold multiple data variables. Internally all data variables and coordinate variables are stored under a single variables dict, and coordinates are specified by storing their names in a private _coord_names dict.

The dataset’s dims are the set of all dims present across any variable, but (similar to in dataarrays) coordinate variables cannot have a dimension that is not present on any data variable.

When a data variable or coordinate variable is accessed, a new DataArray is again constructed from all compatible coordinates before returning.

Note

The way that selecting a variable from a DataArray or Dataset actually involves internally wrapping the Variable object back up into a DataArray/Dataset is the primary reason we recommend against subclassing Xarray objects. The main problem it creates is that we currently cannot easily guarantee that for example selecting a coordinate variable from your SubclassedDataArray would return an instance of SubclassedDataArray instead of just an xarray.DataArray. See GH issue for more details.

Lazy Indexing Classes#

Lazy Loading#

If we open a Variable object from disk using open_dataset() we can see that the actual values of the array wrapped by the data variable are not displayed.

In [1]: da = xr.tutorial.open_dataset("air_temperature")["air"]

In [2]: var = da.variable

In [3]: var
Out[3]: 
<xarray.Variable (time: 2920, lat: 25, lon: 53)> Size: 31MB
[3869000 values with dtype=float64]
Attributes:
    long_name:     4xDaily Air temperature at sigma level 995
    units:         degK
    precision:     2
    GRIB_id:       11
    GRIB_name:     TMP
    var_desc:      Air temperature
    dataset:       NMC Reanalysis
    level_desc:    Surface
    statistic:     Individual Obs
    parent_stat:   Other
    actual_range:  [185.16 322.1 ]

We can see the size, and the dtype of the underlying array, but not the actual values. This is because the values have not yet been loaded.

If we look at the private attribute _data() containing the underlying array object, we see something interesting:

In [4]: var._data
Out[4]: MemoryCachedArray(array=CopyOnWriteArray(array=LazilyIndexedArray(array=_ElementwiseFunctionArray(LazilyIndexedArray(array=<xarray.backends.netCDF4_.NetCDF4ArrayWrapper object at 0x7fe2e0862f80>, key=BasicIndexer((slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None)))), func=functools.partial(<function _scale_offset_decoding at 0x7fe30b250670>, scale_factor=0.01, add_offset=None, dtype=<class 'numpy.float64'>), dtype=dtype('float64')), key=BasicIndexer((slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None))))))

You’re looking at one of xarray’s internal Lazy Indexing Classes. These powerful classes are hidden from the user, but provide important functionality.

Calling the public data property loads the underlying array into memory.

In [5]: var.data
Out[5]: 
array([[[241.2 , 242.5 , 243.5 , ..., 232.8 , 235.5 , 238.6 ],
        [243.8 , 244.5 , 244.7 , ..., 232.8 , 235.3 , 239.3 ],
        [250.  , 249.8 , 248.89, ..., 233.2 , 236.39, 241.7 ],
        ...,
        [296.6 , 296.2 , 296.4 , ..., 295.4 , 295.1 , 294.7 ],
        [295.9 , 296.2 , 296.79, ..., 295.9 , 295.9 , 295.2 ],
        [296.29, 296.79, 297.1 , ..., 296.9 , 296.79, 296.6 ]],

       [[242.1 , 242.7 , 243.1 , ..., 232.  , 233.6 , 235.8 ],
        [243.6 , 244.1 , 244.2 , ..., 231.  , 232.5 , 235.7 ],
        [253.2 , 252.89, 252.1 , ..., 230.8 , 233.39, 238.5 ],
        ...,
        [296.4 , 295.9 , 296.2 , ..., 295.4 , 295.1 , 294.79],
        [296.2 , 296.7 , 296.79, ..., 295.6 , 295.5 , 295.1 ],
        [296.29, 297.2 , 297.4 , ..., 296.4 , 296.4 , 296.6 ]],

       [[242.3 , 242.2 , 242.3 , ..., 234.3 , 236.1 , 238.7 ],
        [244.6 , 244.39, 244.  , ..., 230.3 , 232.  , 235.7 ],
        [256.2 , 255.5 , 254.2 , ..., 231.2 , 233.2 , 238.2 ],
        ...,
        [295.6 , 295.4 , 295.4 , ..., 296.29, 295.29, 295.  ],
        [296.2 , 296.5 , 296.29, ..., 296.4 , 296.  , 295.6 ],
        [296.4 , 296.29, 296.4 , ..., 297.  , 297.  , 296.79]],

       ...,

       [[243.49, 242.99, 242.09, ..., 244.19, 244.49, 244.89],
        [249.09, 248.99, 248.59, ..., 240.59, 241.29, 242.69],
        [262.69, 262.19, 261.69, ..., 239.39, 241.69, 245.19],
        ...,
        [294.79, 295.29, 297.49, ..., 295.49, 295.39, 294.69],
        [296.79, 297.89, 298.29, ..., 295.49, 295.49, 294.79],
        [298.19, 299.19, 298.79, ..., 296.09, 295.79, 295.79]],

       [[245.79, 244.79, 243.49, ..., 243.29, 243.99, 244.79],
        [249.89, 249.29, 248.49, ..., 241.29, 242.49, 244.29],
        [262.39, 261.79, 261.29, ..., 240.49, 243.09, 246.89],
        ...,
        [293.69, 293.89, 295.39, ..., 295.09, 294.69, 294.29],
        [296.29, 297.19, 297.59, ..., 295.29, 295.09, 294.39],
        [297.79, 298.39, 298.49, ..., 295.69, 295.49, 295.19]],

       [[245.09, 244.29, 243.29, ..., 241.69, 241.49, 241.79],
        [249.89, 249.29, 248.39, ..., 239.59, 240.29, 241.69],
        [262.99, 262.19, 261.39, ..., 239.89, 242.59, 246.29],
        ...,
        [293.79, 293.69, 295.09, ..., 295.29, 295.09, 294.69],
        [296.09, 296.89, 297.19, ..., 295.69, 295.69, 295.19],
        [297.69, 298.09, 298.09, ..., 296.49, 296.19, 295.69]]])

This array is now cached, which we can see by accessing the private attribute again:

In [6]: var._data
Out[6]: 
MemoryCachedArray(array=NumpyIndexingAdapter(array=array([[[241.2 , 242.5 , 243.5 , ..., 232.8 , 235.5 , 238.6 ],
        [243.8 , 244.5 , 244.7 , ..., 232.8 , 235.3 , 239.3 ],
        [250.  , 249.8 , 248.89, ..., 233.2 , 236.39, 241.7 ],
        ...,
        [296.6 , 296.2 , 296.4 , ..., 295.4 , 295.1 , 294.7 ],
        [295.9 , 296.2 , 296.79, ..., 295.9 , 295.9 , 295.2 ],
        [296.29, 296.79, 297.1 , ..., 296.9 , 296.79, 296.6 ]],

       [[242.1 , 242.7 , 243.1 , ..., 232.  , 233.6 , 235.8 ],
        [243.6 , 244.1 , 244.2 , ..., 231.  , 232.5 , 235.7 ],
        [253.2 , 252.89, 252.1 , ..., 230.8 , 233.39, 238.5 ],
        ...,
        [296.4 , 295.9 , 296.2 , ..., 295.4 , 295.1 , 294.79],
        [296.2 , 296.7 , 296.79, ..., 295.6 , 295.5 , 295.1 ],
        [296.29, 297.2 , 297.4 , ..., 296.4 , 296.4 , 296.6 ]],

       [[242.3 , 242.2 , 242.3 , ..., 234.3 , 236.1 , 238.7 ],
        [244.6 , 244.39, 244.  , ..., 230.3 , 232.  , 235.7 ],
        [256.2 , 255.5 , 254.2 , ..., 231.2 , 233.2 , 238.2 ],
        ...,
        [295.6 , 295.4 , 295.4 , ..., 296.29, 295.29, 295.  ],
        [296.2 , 296.5 , 296.29, ..., 296.4 , 296.  , 295.6 ],
        [296.4 , 296.29, 296.4 , ..., 297.  , 297.  , 296.79]],

       ...,

       [[243.49, 242.99, 242.09, ..., 244.19, 244.49, 244.89],
        [249.09, 248.99, 248.59, ..., 240.59, 241.29, 242.69],
        [262.69, 262.19, 261.69, ..., 239.39, 241.69, 245.19],
        ...,
        [294.79, 295.29, 297.49, ..., 295.49, 295.39, 294.69],
        [296.79, 297.89, 298.29, ..., 295.49, 295.49, 294.79],
        [298.19, 299.19, 298.79, ..., 296.09, 295.79, 295.79]],

       [[245.79, 244.79, 243.49, ..., 243.29, 243.99, 244.79],
        [249.89, 249.29, 248.49, ..., 241.29, 242.49, 244.29],
        [262.39, 261.79, 261.29, ..., 240.49, 243.09, 246.89],
        ...,
        [293.69, 293.89, 295.39, ..., 295.09, 294.69, 294.29],
        [296.29, 297.19, 297.59, ..., 295.29, 295.09, 294.39],
        [297.79, 298.39, 298.49, ..., 295.69, 295.49, 295.19]],

       [[245.09, 244.29, 243.29, ..., 241.69, 241.49, 241.79],
        [249.89, 249.29, 248.39, ..., 239.59, 240.29, 241.69],
        [262.99, 262.19, 261.39, ..., 239.89, 242.59, 246.29],
        ...,
        [293.79, 293.69, 295.09, ..., 295.29, 295.09, 294.69],
        [296.09, 296.89, 297.19, ..., 295.69, 295.69, 295.19],
        [297.69, 298.09, 298.09, ..., 296.49, 296.19, 295.69]]])))

Lazy Indexing#

The purpose of these lazy indexing classes is to prevent more data being loaded into memory than is necessary for the subsequent analysis, by deferring loading data until after indexing is performed.

Let’s open the data from disk again.

In [7]: da = xr.tutorial.open_dataset("air_temperature")["air"]

In [8]: var = da.variable

Now, notice how even after subsetting the data has does not get loaded:

In [9]: var.isel(time=0)
Out[9]: 
<xarray.Variable (lat: 25, lon: 53)> Size: 11kB
[1325 values with dtype=float64]
Attributes:
    long_name:     4xDaily Air temperature at sigma level 995
    units:         degK
    precision:     2
    GRIB_id:       11
    GRIB_name:     TMP
    var_desc:      Air temperature
    dataset:       NMC Reanalysis
    level_desc:    Surface
    statistic:     Individual Obs
    parent_stat:   Other
    actual_range:  [185.16 322.1 ]

The shape has changed, but the values are still not shown.

Looking at the private attribute again shows how this indexing information was propagated via the hidden lazy indexing classes:

In [10]: var.isel(time=0)._data
Out[10]: MemoryCachedArray(array=CopyOnWriteArray(array=LazilyIndexedArray(array=_ElementwiseFunctionArray(LazilyIndexedArray(array=<xarray.backends.netCDF4_.NetCDF4ArrayWrapper object at 0x7fe2e2973180>, key=BasicIndexer((slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None)))), func=functools.partial(<function _scale_offset_decoding at 0x7fe30b250670>, scale_factor=0.01, add_offset=None, dtype=<class 'numpy.float64'>), dtype=dtype('float64')), key=BasicIndexer((0, slice(None, None, None), slice(None, None, None))))))

Note

Currently only certain indexing operations are lazy, not all array operations. For discussion of making all array operations lazy see GH issue #5081.

Lazy Dask Arrays#

Note that xarray’s implementation of Lazy Indexing classes is completely separate from how dask.array.Array objects evaluate lazily. Dask-backed xarray objects delay almost all operations until compute() is called (either explicitly or implicitly via plot() for example). The exceptions to this laziness are operations whose output shape is data-dependent, such as when calling where().