Summary: To make handling data across multiple file formats more seamless, the SciPy ecosystem would benefit from a file-like protocol that returns (potentially lazy) SciPy/PyData data structures when read. This can be achieved in a distributed way without a dependency on or reference to any particular library.

Real scientific data analysis typically involves combining data from multiple instruments, research groups, or techniques, each with their own storage formats (e.g. CSV vs. TIFF) or layouts and metadata conventions within a given format (e.g. NeXuS HDF5 vs. NetCDF HDF5).

Established libraries provide a succinct enough way to load many formats into appropriate data structures, such as pandas.read_csv or dask.dataframe.read_csv and tifffile.imread or dask_image.imread, but can we make it easier to discover the available readers for a given format and make handling multiple formats more seamless?

A Reader API that rhymes with Python’s file API

If we draw inspiration from Python’s API for opening files

file = open(...)

we could imagine a Scientific Python Reader API that “rhymes” with Python’s builtin API but returns a suitable SciPy/PyData data structure instead of strings or bytes.

from some_library import SomeReader
reader = SomeReader(...)

Before the widespread adoption of dask for deferred I/O and computation, this pattern would have had limited scope because pulling up large array data all at once is not viable for many real datasets. But if may return a dask.array.Array, a dask.dataframe.DataFrame, or an xarray data structure backed by dask, reader can inexpensively and promptly construct one of these objects with internal chunks and leave it to downstream code to decide if and when to materialize them, in whole or in part.

Use Entrypoints to make Readers discoverable

Libraries can use entrypoints to declare any objects they define that satisfy the Reader API. Entrypoints were formerly a feature/quirk of setuptools but are now officially part of the PyPA specification, thanks to efforts by Thomas Kluyver. Here is an example using


    entry_points = {
        'TBD.readers': [
            'FORMAT = some_package:SomeReader',
            'ANOTHER_FORMAT = some_package:AnotherReader'

Entrypoints are also supported in tool-specific pyproject.toml sections by flit and poetry. A name for the entrypoint group ('TBD.readers' here) is considered further below.

New libraries may be created to implement the Reader interface on top of existing I/O libraries. For example, a new pandas_reader library could be published that wraps pandas.read_csv in the Reader API. In time, if that works well, pandas could adopt this object itself along with an associated entry_points declaration. Importantly, it could do so without adding any dependency on or connection to any particular library.

For the FORMAT it would be natural to standardize on using MIME type. IANA maintains an official registry of formats (e.g. 'text/csv', 'image/tiff'), and it provides a method for defining application-specific formats outside of the official registry (e.g. 'application/x-hdf'). Although MIME types are not as widely known to the scientist user–programmers in the SciPy ecosystem as they are to web developers, MIME types do already have a foothold in SciPy via IPython rich display’s _repr_mimebundle_ and the Jupyter data explorer.

Dispatch based on resource type to a compatible Reader

On a parallel track, other libraries that focus on generalizing I/O and abstracting over file formats, such as intake and pims, could develop tooling on top of this protocol. Using Thomas Kluyver’s slim library entrypoints, they could search the Python packages in a user’s environment to discover all 'TBD.readers' and their respective designated FORMATs. (The magic of entrypoints is that this search can be performed inexpensively, without importing the packages.)

In many scenarios, it would be possible to automatically detect a file’s type based on its file extension or signature using the standard library module mimetypes or one the external libraries puremagic, python-magic, or filetype. Then, dispatching on MIME type to a suitable Reader enables a succinct usage like

import some_library'table.csv').read()  # dask.dataframe.DataFrame'array.npz').read()  # dask.array.Array'image_stack.tiff').read()  # xarray.DataArray'image_series/*.tiff').read()  # xarray.DataArray'video.mp4').read()  # xarray.DataArray

where an implementation of open may be

import entrypoints
groups = entrypoints.get_group_all('TBD.readers')

def open(file, *args, **kwargs):
    mimetype = guess_mime_type(file)
    # Import just the Reader classes of interest.
    compatible_reader_classes = [ep.load() for ep in groups[mimetype]]
    # Choose among the compatible readers....
    # See discussion in next section.
    return reader_class(file, *args, **kwargs)

Within a given MIME type there can be significant variety of internal structure or metadata conventions. (HDF5 is a common example.) For this, nested dispatch may be the right idea: after the initial dispatch based on MIME type, the reader registered for that MIME type may inspect the file further and do a second layer of dispatch based on its contents/layout. For example, a general HDF5Reader registered for the 'application/x-hdf' MIME type may distinguish the file based on its content and then dispatch to a NetCDFReader or a NeXuSTomographyReader. Automatic inference would be possible is some cases, while in others guidance from the user would be required.

There may be no globally “correct” approach for this kind of dispatch, but there need not be. Just as libraries can declare Readers without adopting a new dependency, libraries can separately experiment with file type detection and/or dispatch in ways that make sense for their respective user communities.

Support a variety of data structures

Is it possible to standardize on one return type for read()? It seems that the Reader protocol would need to support at least tabular and non-tabular data: certain operations make sense on DataFrames but not on N-dimensional structures. Also, while dask is a core part of the story for large data sets, in domains where data sets are generally small, Readers that return in-memory data structures may be appealing, either to avoid a dask dependency or for plain simplicity. Therefore it seems unlikely we can agree on less than two or perhaps four data structures. Having more than 1, we may as well support N.

This also leaves room for Readers that return more specialized data structures not yet mentioned here, including a sparse.COO array or a Glue data object.

When multiple readers for a given MIME type are discovered, such as one 'text/csv' Reader declared by pandas and another declared by dask.dataframe, a function like could use a heuristic to choose between them or present options to the user. Different libraries can make different choices here; we don’t need to pick one “correct” priority. For example, perhaps the laziest representation would win, with dask.dataframe.DataFrame (if available) taking precedence over pandas.DataFrame.

To facilitate this, we need Readers to tell us which data structure they return from read(). Adapting an idea from intake, we could require Readers to define a container attribute with the fully-qualified name of the type returned by read(), as in

reader.container == 'dask.dataframe.core.DataFrame'

This adds one more thing to implement, but the complete Reader API would still be succinct and could be implemented in less than 100 lines of code in most cases (building on top of existing I/O code).

class SomeReader:
    container = '...'

    def __init__(self, ...):
        # May accept a file buffer, filepath, file glob pattern, URI, ???, plus
        # any specific required or optional parameters necessary.
        # Not all underlying I/O can accept all of these, so we must allow
        # Readers to vary here. How to *make* a Reader will vary, but the API of
        # an instance once you *have* one is very locked down.

        # This may open a file/files and in some cases inspect enough to
        # validate that it can probably read successfully, but it should not
        # read or cache any large data.

    def read(self):
        # Construct and return an object of type `SomeReader.container`.

    def close(self):
        # Clean up any system resources (network connections, file handles)
        # that were created in __init__.

    def __enter__(self):
        return self

    def __exit__(self, *exc_details):

Alternatively, we could consider conveying this using type annotations, but it seems wiser to wait until type annotations become more established in the SciPy ecosystem in general.

There is a strict one-to-one mapping between a given Reader class and its container. There is no way to override the container at __init__ time. This locked-down simplicity is important if we hope to scale the protocol via distributed, community-based effort. Of course, downstream of calling, library or user code may downcast to a simpler structure, e.g. extract a simple numpy.ndarray from an xarray.DataArray-of-dask.array.Arrays.

Designed for community-based scaling

No one has the resources to write Readers for every bespoke format in common use in the SciPy ecosystem. Microscopy formats alone—my home turf—comprise a wilderness of persnickety variation.

If members of the SciPy ecosystem’s distributed contributor base also feel the pain of managing multiple file formats and believe that Reader adds value, they will be able to quickly grasp its small API and may begin adding support in the codebases that their community already uses.

Prior similar work, including PIMS readers, intake DataSources, and databroker handlers, have similar goals and some overlap in their approach, but none combine all of:

  • A very small API that rhymes with the usage for opening and reading files in Python
  • Declaring entry_points for zero-dependency coordination between libraries
  • Declaring MIME types to facilitate dispatch by file type
  • Leveraging dask (and other libraries in that space) to leave any sub-selection / slicing to downstream code rather than managing it internally

This is a good time to be building out I/O tools that return richer data structures. Matplotlib is funded to develop a more context-aware data model for matplotlib 4.0, and other libraries like glue which have long had such data models seem poised to benefit as well. Improvements in this space can help drive practical compliance with the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) guiding principles for data management and stewardship.

First Prototypes

  In [1]: import tifffile_reader

  In [2]: reader = tifffile_reader.TIFFReader('example_data/lfw_subset_as_stack.tif')

  In [3]:
  Out[3]: dask.array<stack, shape=(200, 25, 25), dtype=float64, chunksize=(1, 25, 25), chunktype=numpy.ndarray>

  In [4]:
  <numpy array output, snipped>

Illustration of the role of close() and context methods:

  with TIFFReader(...) as reader:
      da =
      arr = da[...].compute()  # works
  da[...].compute()  # fails, because underlying file handles are closed
  In [5]: import pims

  In [6]:'example_data/lfw_subset_as_stack.tif').read()
  Out[7]: dask.array<stack, shape=(200, 25, 25), dtype=float64, chunksize=(1, 25, 25), chunktype=numpy.ndarray>

This design leaves room for libraries that define Reader-compliant objects and libraries that make use of them to address questions such as:

  • When to load directly and when to load in a deferred fashion, “lazily”
  • When and how to leverage parallelism
  • How to handle deeply hierarchical or unstructured data using container types not specifically mentioned here
  • When to detect types implicitly and when to mark up types explicitly
  • How to handle remote data and cloud resorces. (Individual Readers might leverage fsspec for this, for example.)

Work in these areas is compatible with the proposed standard and need not be explicitly addressed by it.

This also does not address how to discover readers that are not installed, i.e. how to search PyPI for packages that may contain a relevant reader. This is also important, but it raises questions about security and gatekeeping. Discovering readers within an installed environment is a useful step.

Why not just a function?

In general I prefer simple functions to object-oriented structures. Why not just declare functions that return the data directly in one step, like just_read() instead of SomeReader(...).read()?

  • As with the built-in open(...).read(), it is useful to have a two-step process where the first step checks if the resource can be found and accessed, and the second step does the reading.
  • The close() method and context manager methods give control over when any system resources (file handles, network connections) will be released. A simple function would have to contain these resources in a closure, with no way of explicitly releasing them. For example, I might get a dask array, read a subset of the chunks out of the dask array, and then be done with it. At that point I can call reader.close() or exit the context manager to release the file handle(s) that the dask array chunks were reading from.
  • We need some place to indicate our container. Frameworks that can standardize on always returning the same type from read() do not need such a thing, but a shared standard that can return a variety of types would, for the reasons described earlier. This could be implemented by putting a simple function next to its container, as in {'function': read, 'container': 'dask.array.Array'}, and pointing the entrypoint at that. But this is perhaps not any “cleaner” than a small class that implements an interface that is already established in the language.
  • If we enounter a need for additional descriptive metadata about the reader class, beyond container, there will be a way to add it.

For use cases where a one-shot contract—“Get all the data and close”—is sufficient, downstream libraries can of course wrap the reader in a function and expose that.

def just_read(...):
    with SomeReader(...) as reader:
        # Suppose that SomeReader returns a dask-backed object....

How should we organize?

If this idea gains buy-in from library maintainers, where should we document and advertise this entrypoint and what can be done with it? How should we spell the entrypoint group name ('TBD.readers')?

Entrypoints are generally scoped to a package to avoid name collisions, as in 'nbconvert.exporters' or 'pandas_plotting_backends'. We could center on an I/O-abstracting library such as 'intake.readers' or 'pims.readers'. (To be clear, it is an open question whether the Reader idea will be incorporated into either.) But that risks giving the incorrect impression that the functionality is tied to a particular library, when in fact these libraries could go away and the entrypoint would still be useful.

With the necessary community support (perhaps a NEP process) we might claim a more generic namespace like 'scikit.readers', 'scipy.readers', or 'pydata.readers' to clearly communicate that any project can declare such an entrypoint and any project can perform Reader discovery without reference to or dependency on a specific project.

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