RFC 11: Fast Format Identification

Author: Frank Warmerdam

Contact: warmerdam@pobox.com

Status: Adopted (and Implemented)


This RFC aims to add the ability for applications to quickly identify what files in the file system are GDAL supported file formats without necessarily opening any of them. It is mainly intended to allow GUI file browsers based on file types.

This is accomplished by extending the GDALOpenInfo structure to hold more directory context, and by adding an Identify() method on the GDALDriver which a driver can implement to quickly identify that a file is of a given format without doing a more expensive Open() operation.


The Open() (or Identify()) methods of many drivers need to probe for files associated with the target file in order to open or identify a file as being of a particular format. For instance, in order to open an ESRI BIL file (EHDR driver) it is necessary to probe for a driver with the same basename as the target file, but the extension .hdr. Currently this is typically accomplished with VSIFStatL() calls or similar which can be fairly expensive.

In order to reduce the need for such searches touch the operating system file system machinery, the GDALOpenInfo structure will be extended to hold an optional list of files. This is the list of all files at the same level in the file system as the target file, including the target file. The filenames will not include any path components, are an essentially just the output of CPLReadDir() on the parent directory. If the target object does not have filesystem semantics then the file list should be NULL.

The following is added to GDALOpenInfo:

       GDALOpenInfo( const char * pszFile, GDALAccess eAccessIn, char **papszSiblings );
char **papszSiblingFiles;

The new constructor allows the file list to be passed in to populate the papszSiblingFiles member (the argument will be copied). The existing default constructor will use CPLGetDirname() to get the directory of the passed pszFile, and CPLReadDir() to read the corresponding file list. The new constructor is primarily aimed at efficient implementation of the later GDALIdentifyDriver() function, avoiding re-reading the file list for each file to be tested.


The GDALDriver class will be extended with the following function:

int      (*pfnIdentify)( GDALOpenInfo * );

When implemented by a driver, the function is intended to return TRUE (non-zero) if the driver determines that the file passed in via GDALOpenInfo appears to be of the format the driver is implemented for. To call this applications should call the new function:

GDALDriverH *GDALIdentifyDriver( const char *pszDatasource, const char **papszDirFiles );

Internally GDALIdentifyDriver() will do the following

  1. A GDALOpenInfo structure will be initialized based on pszDatasource and papszDirFiles.

  2. It will iterate over all drivers similarly to GDALOpen(). For each driver it will use the pfnIdentify function if available, otherwise it will use the pfnOpen() method to establish if the driver supports the file.

  3. It will return the driver handle for the first driver to respond positively or NULL if none accept it.

Driver Changes

In theory it is not necessary for any drivers to be modified, since GDALIdentifyDriver() will fallback to using the pfnOpen function to test. But in practice, no optimization is achieved unless at least some drivers (hopefully those for which Open can be very expensive) are updated. Part of the ongoing effort then is to implement identify functions for GDAL drivers.

Generally speaking it should be easy to craft an identify function from the initial test logic in the open function. For instance, the GeoTIFF driver might be changed like this:

int GTiffDataset::Identify( GDALOpenInfo * poOpenInfo )

/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
/*      We have a special hook for handling opening a specific          */
/*      directory of a TIFF file.                                       */
/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
    if( EQUALN(poOpenInfo->pszFilename,"GTIFF_DIR:",10) )
        return TRUE;

/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
/*  First we check to see if the file has the expected header   */
/*  bytes.                              */
/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
    if( poOpenInfo->nHeaderBytes < 2 )
        return FALSE;

    if( (poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[0] != 'I' || poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[1] != 'I')
        && (poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[0] != 'M' || poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[1] != 'M'))
        return FALSE;

    // We can't support BigTIFF files for now.
    if( poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[2] == 43 && poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[3] == 0 )
        return FALSE;

    if( (poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[2] != 0x2A || poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[3] != 0)
        && (poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[3] != 0x2A || poOpenInfo->pabyHeader[2] != 0) )
        return FALSE;

    return TRUE;

The open might then be modified to use the identify function to avoid duplicating the test logic.

GDALDataset *GTiffDataset::Open( GDALOpenInfo * poOpenInfo )

    TIFF    *hTIFF;

    if( !Identify( poOpenInfo ) )
        return NULL;

/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
/*      We have a special hook for handling opening a specific          */
/*      directory of a TIFF file.                                       */
/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
    if( EQUALN(poOpenInfo->pszFilename,"GTIFF_DIR:",10) )
        return OpenDir( poOpenInfo->pszFilename );


Drivers which require header files such as the EHdr driver might implement Identify() like this:

int EHdrDataset::Identify( GDALOpenInfo * poOpenInfo )

    int     i, bSelectedHDR;
    const char  *pszHDRFilename;

/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
/*  We assume the user is pointing to the binary (ie. .bil) file.   */
/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
    if( poOpenInfo->nHeaderBytes < 2 )
        return FALSE;

/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
/*      Now we need to tear apart the filename to form a .HDR           */
/*      filename.                                                       */
/* -------------------------------------------------------------------- */
    CPLString osBasename = CPLGetBasename( poOpenInfo->pszFilename );
    pszHDRFilename = CPLFormCIFilename( "", osBasename, "hdr" );

    if( CSLFindString( poOpenInfo->papszSiblingFiles, pszHDRFilename) )
        return TRUE;
        return FALSE;

During the initial implementation a variety of drivers will be updated, including the following. As well some performance and file system activity logging will be done to identify drivers that are currently expensive.

  • HFA

  • GTiff

  • JPEG

  • PNG

  • GIF

  • HDF4

  • DTED


  • MrSID

  • JP2KAK

  • ECW

  • EHdr

  • RST


Currently the VSIMemFilesystemHandler implemented in cpl_vsi_mem.cpp which provides “filesystem like” access to objects in memory does not implement directory reading services. In order to properly populate the directory listing this will need to be added.

To do this the CPLReadDir() function will also need to be reimplemented to use VSIFilesystemHandler::ReadDir() instead of direct implementation in cpl_dir.cpp. The win32 and unix/posix implementations of VSIFilesystemHandler::ReadDir() already exist. This should essentially complete the virtualization of filesystem access services.

CPLReadDir() will also be renamed VSIReadDir() but with a stub under the old name available for backward compatibility.


There are no anticipated backward compatibility problems. However forward compatibility will be affected, in that drivers updated in trunk with the Identify function will not be able to be ported back into 1.4 builds and used their. Unmodified drivers, and externally maintained drivers should not be impacted by this development.

SWIG Implications

The GDALIdentifyDriver() and VSIReadDir() functions will need to be exposed via SWIG.

Regression Testing

A test script for the Identify() function will be added to the autotest/gcore directory. It will include testing of identify in a /vsimem memory collection.

Implementation Plan

The new features will be implemented by Frank Warmerdam in trunk for the GDAL/OGR 1.5.0 release.

Performance Tests

A very quick test introducing the Identify without actually opening changed the time to identify all files in a directory with 70 TIFF files (on an NFS share) from 2 seconds to 0.5 seconds. So saving the overhead of actually opening files can be significant for some formats, including very common ones like GeoTIFF.