pcb-rnd knowledge pool


Terminology: native file format vs. alien file formats

alien by Tibor 'Igor2' Palinkas on 2017-07-12

Tags: insight, terminology, file format, file, format, alien, native

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Abstract: Explain the file format terminology (native vs. alien).



All board, subcircuit, fonts and footprint file formats are implemented in plugins. Plugins are optional - it is even possible to compile pcb-rnd with all file format support turned off. The only format core supports is the in-memory representation, which is never saved to a file directly.

There are 3 type of plugins doing file format read/write (doing the conversion between the in-memory representation of core and actual file formats):

Orthogonal to this, pcb-rnd terminology native file format and alien file format is also defined. There is always one io_ plugin that is required to perform perfect, lossless save and load. This plugin, and its file format is called native , while all other io plugins are called alien .

The only difference is the above requirement; in any other aspect io_ plugins are all equal. It is possible that an alien io_ plugin also happens to produce perfectly lossless round trips. It is possible to compile pcb-rnd with the native format disabled.


As the core of pcb-rnd is developed, the in-memory representation of the data model changes. Alien formats are usually formats defined for other projects; these formats try to track changes in the data model of those other projects. If pcb-rnd had to keep perfect compatibility with any of those, that'd mean pcb-rnd core and data model couldn't evolve naturally, but would be bound to and restricted by that other project's design. To avoid that, and to guarantee that pcb-rnd has a file format that supports all features of core at any given time, a pcb-rnd-specific ( native ) file format.

In theory pcb-rnd could support multiple native file formats. In practice, it would be an overhead in development: any change or new feature in core would need to be tracked by more than one io_ plugin.

On the other side, having the second format as alien has no real drawback for the end user long term. Assuming the second format is a pcb-rnd-specific format too, and pcb-rnd developers are free to change the format specification, even as an alien format it will tend to track core features eventually. The only difference is that it is not guaranteed that the latest core features are always immediately accessible in the second, non-native format.