1 ESMF Overview

1 What is the Earth System Modeling Framework?

The Earth System Modeling Framework (ESMF) is a suite of software tools for developing high-performance, multi-component Earth science modeling applications. Such applications may include a few or dozens of components representing atmospheric, oceanic, terrestrial, or other physical domains, and their constituent processes (dynamical, chemical, biological, etc.). Often these components are developed by different groups independently, and must be “coupled” together using software that transfers and transforms data among the components in order to form functional simulations.

ESMF supports the development of these complex applications in a number of ways. It introduces a set of simple, consistent component interfaces that apply to all types of components, including couplers themselves. These interfaces expose in an obvious way the inputs and outputs of each component. It offers a variety of data structures for transferring data between components, and libraries for regridding, time advancement, and other common modeling functions. Finally, it provides a growing set of tools for using metadata to describe components and their input and output fields. This capability is important because components that are self-describing can be integrated more easily into automated workflows, model and dataset distribution and analysis portals, and other emerging “semantically enabled” computational environments.

ESMF is not a single Earth system model into which all components must fit, and its distribution doesn't contain any scientific code. Rather it provides a way of structuring components so that they can be used in many different user-written applications and contexts with minimal code modification, and so they can be coupled together in new configurations with relative ease. The idea is to create many components across a broad community, and so to encourage new collaborations and combinations.

ESMF offers the flexibility needed by this diverse user base. It is tested nightly on more than two dozen platform/compiler combinations; can be run on one processor or thousands; supports shared and distributed memory programming models and a hybrid model; can run components sequentially (on all the same processors) or concurrently (on mutually exclusive processors); and supports single executable or multiple executable modes.

ESMF's generality and breadth of function can make it daunting for the novice user. To help users navigate the software, we try to apply consistent names and behavior throughout and to provide many examples. The large-scale structure of the software is straightforward. The utilities and data structures for building modeling components are called the ESMF infrastructure. The coupling interfaces and drivers are called the superstructure. User code sits between these two layers, making calls to the infrastructure libraries underneath and being scheduled and synchronized by the superstructure above. The configuration resembles a sandwich, as shown in Figure 1.

ESMF users may choose to extensively rewrite their codes to take advantage of the ESMF infrastructure, or they may decide to simply wrap their components in the ESMF superstructure in order to utilize framework coupling services. Either way, we encourage users to contact our support team if questions arise about how to best use the software, or how to structure their application. ESMF is more than software; it's a group of people dedicated to realizing the vision of a collaborative model development community that spans institutional and national bounds.

2 The ESMF Reference Manual for Fortran

ESMF has a complete set of Fortran interfaces and some C interfaces. This ESMF Reference Manual is a listing of ESMF interfaces for Fortran.1

Interfaces are grouped by class. A class is comprised of the data and methods for a specific concept like a physical field. Superstructure classes are listed first in this Manual, followed by infrastructure classes.

The major classes in the ESMF superstructure are Components, which usually represent large pieces of functionality such as atmosphere and ocean models, and States, which are the data structures used to transfer data between Components. There are both data structures and utilities in the ESMF infrastructure. Data structures include multi-dimensional Arrays, Fields that are comprised of an Array and a Grid, and collections of Arrays and Fields called ArrayBundles and FieldBundles, respectively. There are utility libraries for data decomposition and communications, time management, logging and error handling, and application configuration.

Figure 1: Schematic of the ESMF “sandwich” architecture. The framework consists of two parts, an upper level superstructure layer and a lower level infrastructure layer. User code is sandwiched between these two layers.

3 How to Contact User Support and Find Additional Information

The ESMF team can answer questions about the interfaces presented in this document. For user support, please contact

The website,, provide more information of the ESMF project as a whole. The website includes release notes and known bugs for each version of the framework, supported platforms, project history, values, and metrics, related projects, the ESMF management structure, and more. The ESMF User's Guide contains build and installation instructions, an overview of the ESMF system and a description of how its classes interrelate (this version of the document corresponds to the last public version of the framework). Also available on the ESMF website is the ESMF Developer's Guide that details ESMF procedures and conventions.

4 How to Submit Comments, Bug Reports, and Feature Requests

We welcome input on any aspect of the ESMF project. Send questions and comments to

5 Conventions

5.1 Typeface and Diagram Conventions

The following conventions for fonts and capitalization are used in this and other ESMF documents.

Style Meaning Example
italics documents ESMF Reference Manual
courier code fragments ESMF_TRUE
courier() ESMF method name ESMF_FieldGet()
boldface first definitions An address space is ...
boldface web links and tabs Developers tab on the website
Capitals ESMF class name DataMap

ESMF class names frequently coincide with words commonly used within the Earth system domain (field, grid, component, array, etc.) The convention we adopt in this manual is that if a word is used in the context of an ESMF class name it is capitalized, and if the word is used in a more general context it remains in lower case. We would write, for example, that an ESMF Field class represents a physical field.

Diagrams are drawn using the Unified Modeling Language (UML). UML is a visual tool that can illustrate the structure of classes, define relationships between classes, and describe sequences of actions. A reader interested in more detail can refer to a text such as The Unified Modeling Language Reference Manual. [32]

5.2 Method Name and Argument Conventions

Method names begin with ESMF_, followed by the class name, followed by the name of the operation being performed. Each new word is capitalized. Although Fortran interfaces are not case-sensitive, we use case to help parse multi-word names.

For method arguments that are multi-word, the first word is lower case and subsequent words begin with upper case. ESMF class names (including typed flags) are an exception. When multi-word class names appear in argument lists, all letters after the first are lower case. The first letter is lower case if the class is the first word in the argument and upper case otherwise. For example, in an argument list the DELayout class name may appear as delayout or srcDelayout.

Most Fortran calls in the ESMF are subroutines, with any returned values passed through the interface. For the sake of convenience, some ESMF calls are written as functions.

A typical ESMF call looks like this:

call ESMF_<ClassName><Operation>(classname, firstArgument, 
           secondArgument, ..., rc)

<ClassName> is the class name,
<Operation> is the name of the action to be performed,
classname is a variable of the derived type associated with the class,
the arg* arguments are whatever other variables are required for the operation,
and rc is a return code.

6 The ESMF Application Programming Interface

The ESMF Application Programming Interface (API) is based on the object-oriented programming concept of a class. A class is a software construct that is used for grouping a set of related variables together with the subroutines and functions that operate on them. We use classes in ESMF because they help to organize the code, and often make it easier to maintain and understand. A particular instance of a class is called an object. For example, Field is an ESMF class. An actual Field called temperature is an object. That is about as far as we will go into software engineering terminology.

The Fortran interface is implemented so that the variables associated with a class are stored in a derived type. For example, an ESMF_Field derived type stores the data array, grid information, and metadata associated with a physical field. The derived type for each class is stored in a Fortran module, and the operations associated with each class are defined as module procedures. We use the Fortran features of generic functions and optional arguments extensively to simplify our interfaces.

The modules for ESMF are bundled together and can be accessed with a single USE statement, USE ESMF.

6.1 Standard Methods and Interface Rules

ESMF defines a set of standard methods and interface rules that hold across the entire API. These are:

6.2 Deep and Shallow Classes

ESMF contains two types of classes.

Deep classes require ESMF_<Class>Create() and ESMF_<Class>Destroy() calls. They involve memory allocation, take significant time to set up (due to memory management) and should not be created in a time-critical portion of code. Deep objects persist even after the method in which they were created has returned. Most classes in ESMF, including GridComp, CplComp, State, Fields, FieldBundles, Arrays, ArrayBundles, Grids, and Clocks, fall into this category.

Shallow classes do not possess ESMF_<Class>Create() and ESMF_<Class>Destroy() calls. They are simply declared and their values set using an ESMF_<Class>Set() call. Examples of shallow classes are Time, TimeInterval, and ArraySpec. Shallow classes do not take long to set up and can be declared and set within a time-critical code segment. Shallow objects stop existing when execution goes out of the declaring scope.

An exception to this is when a shallow object, such as a Time, is stored in a deep object such as a Clock. The deep Clock object then becomes the declaring scope of the Time object, persisting in memory. The Time object is deallocated with the ESMF_ClockDestroy() call.

See Section 9, Overall Design and Implementation Notes, for a brief discussion of deep and shallow classes from an implementation perspective. For an in-depth look at the design and inter-language issues related to deep and shallow classes, see the ESMF Implementation Report.

6.3 Aliases and Named Aliases

Deep objects, i.e. instances of ESMF deep classes created by the appropriate ESMF_<Class>Create(), can be used with the standard assignment (=), equality (==), and not equal (/=) operators.

The assignment

deep2 = deep1
makes deep2 an alias of deep1, meaning that both variables reference the same deep allocation in memory. Many aliases of the same deep object can be created.

All the aliases of a deep object are equivalent. In particular, there is no distinction between the variable on the left hand side of the actual ESMF_<Class>Create() call, and any aliases created from it. All actions taken on any of the aliases of a deep object affect the deep object, and thus all other aliases.

The equality and not equal operators for deep objects are implemented as simple alias checks. For a more general comparison of two distinct deep objects, a deep class might provide the ESMF_<Class>Match() method.

ESMF provides the concept of a named alias. A named alias behaves just like an alias in all aspects, except when it comes to setting and getting the name of the deep object it is associated with. While regular aliases all access the same name string in the actual deep object, a named alias keeps its private name string. This allows the same deep object to be known under a different name in different contexts.

The assignment

deep2 = ESMF_NamedAlias(deep1)
makes deep2 a named alias of deep1. Any name changes on deep2 only affect deep2. However, the name retrieved from deep1, or from any regular aliases created from deep1, is unaffected.

Notice that aliases generated from a named alias are again named aliases. This is true even when using the regular assignment operator with a named alias on the right hand side. Named aliases own their unique name string that cannot be accessed or altered through any other alias.

6.3.1 ESMF_NamedAlias - Generate a Named Alias


     function ESMF_NamedAlias(object, name, rc)
     type(ESMF_*)        :: ESMF_NamedAlias
     type(ESMF_*),       intent(in)            :: object
     character(len = *), intent(in),  optional :: name
     integer,            intent(out), optional :: rc

Generate a named alias to object. The supported classes are:

The arguments are:

The incoming object for which a named alias is generated.
The name of the named alias. By default use the name of object.
Return code; equals ESMF_SUCCESS if there are no errors.

6.4 Special Methods

The following are special methods which, in one case, are required by any application using ESMF, and in the other case must be called by any application that is using ESMF Components.

6.5 The ESMF Data Hierarchy

The ESMF API is organized around a hierarchy of classes that contain model data. The operations that are performed on model data, such as regridding, redistribution, and halo updates, are methods of these classes.

The main data classes in ESMF, in order of increasing complexity, are:

Underlying these data classes are native language arrays. ESMF allows you to reference an existing Fortran array to an ESMF Array or Field so that ESMF data classes can be readily introduced into existing code. You can perform communication operations directly on Fortran arrays through the VM class, which serves as a unifying wrapper for distributed and shared memory communication libraries.

6.6 ESMF Spatial Classes

Like the hierarchy of model data classes, ranging from the simple to the complex, ESMF is organized around a hierarchy of classes that represent different spaces associated with a computation. Each of these spaces can be manipulated, in order to give the user control over how a computation is executed. For Earth system models, this hierarchy starts with the address space associated with the computer and extends to the physical region described by the application. The main spatial classes in ESMF, from those closest to the machine to those closest to the application, are:

6.7 ESMF Maps

In order to define how the index spaces of the spatial classes relate to each other, we require either implicit rules (in which case the relationship between spaces is defined by default), or special Map arrays that allow the user to specify the desired association. The form of the specification is usually that the position of the array element carries information about the first object, and the value of the array element carries information about the second object. ESMF includes a distGridToArrayMap, a gridToFieldMap, a distGridToGridMap, and others.

6.8 ESMF Specification Classes

It can be useful to make small packets of descriptive parameters. ESMF has one of these:

6.9 ESMF Utility Classes

There are a number of utilities in ESMF that can be used independently. These are:

7 Integrating ESMF into Applications

Depending on the requirements of the application, the user may want to begin integrating ESMF in either a top-down or bottom-up manner. In the top-down approach, tools at the superstructure level are used to help reorganize and structure the interactions among large-scale components in the application. It is appropriate when interoperability is a primary concern; for example, when several different versions or implementations of components are going to be swapped in, or a particular component is going to be used in multiple contexts. Another reason for deciding on a top-down approach is that the application contains legacy code that for some reason (e.g., intertwined functions, very large, highly performance-tuned, resource limitations) there is little motivation to fully restructure. The superstructure can usually be incorporated into such applications in a way that is non-intrusive.

In the bottom-up approach, the user selects desired utilities (data communications, calendar management, performance profiling, logging and error handling, etc.) from the ESMF infrastructure and either writes new code using them, introduces them into existing code, or replaces the functionality in existing code with them. This makes sense when maximizing code reuse and minimizing maintenance costs is a goal. There may be a specific need for functionality or the component writer may be starting from scratch. The calendar management utility is a popular place to start.

7.1 Using the ESMF Superstructure

The following is a typical set of steps involved in adopting the ESMF superstructure. The first two tasks, which occur before an ESMF call is ever made, have the potential to be the most difficult and time-consuming. They are the work of splitting an application into components and ensuring that each component has well-defined stages of execution. ESMF aside, this sort of code structure helps to promote application clarity and maintainability, and the effort put into it is likely to be a good investment.

  1. Decide how to organize the application as discrete Gridded and Coupler Components. This might involve reorganizing code so that individual components are cleanly separated and their interactions consist of a minimal number of data exchanges.

  2. Divide the code for each component into initialize, run, and finalize methods. These methods can be multi-phase, e.g., init_1, init_2.

  3. Pack any data that will be transferred between components into ESMF Import and Export State data structures. This is done by first wrapping model data in either ESMF Arrays or Fields. Arrays are simpler to create and use than Fields, but carry less information and have a more limited range of operations. These Arrays and Fields are then added to Import and Export States. They may be packed into ArrayBundles or FieldBundles first, for more efficient communications. Metadata describing the model data can also be added. At the end of this step, the data to be transferred between components will be in a compact and largely self-describing form.

  4. Pack time information into ESMF time management data structures.

  5. Using code templates provided in the ESMF distribution, create ESMF Gridded and Coupler Components to represent each component in the user code.

  6. Write a set services routine that sets ESMF entry points for each user component's initialize, run, and finalize methods.

  7. Run the application using an ESMF Application Driver.

8 Overall Rules and Behavior

8.1 Return Code Handling

All ESMF methods pass a return code back to the caller via the rc argument. If no errors are encountered during the method execution, a value of ESMF_SUCCESS is returned. Otherwise one of the predefined error codes is returned to the caller. See the appendix, section 56, for a full list of the ESMF error return codes.

Any code calling an ESMF method must check the return code. If rc is not equal to ESMF_SUCCESS, the calling code is expected to break out of its execution and pass the rc to the next level up. All ESMF errors are to be handled as fatal, i.e. the calling code must bail-on-all-errors.

ESMF provides a number of methods, described under section 49, that make implementation of the bail-on-all-errors stategy more convenient. Consistent use of these methods will ensure that a full back trace is generated in the ESMF log output whenever an error condition is triggered.

Note that in ESMF requesting not present information, e.g. via a Get() method, will trigger an error condition. Combined with the bail-on-all-errors strategy this has the advantage of producing an error trace pointing to the earliest location in the code that attempts to access unavailable information. In cases where the calling side is able to handle the presence or absence of certain pieces of of information, the code first must query for the resepctive isPresent argument. If this argument comes back as .true. it is safe to query for the actual information.

8.2 Local and Global Views and Associated Conventions

ESMF data objects such as Fields are distributed over DEs, with each DE getting a portion of the data. Depending on the task, a local or global view of the object may be preferable. In a local view, data indices start with the first element on the DE and end with the last element on the same DE. In a global view, there is an assumed or specified order to the set of DEs over which the object is distributed. Data indices start with the first element on the first DE, and continue across all the elements in the sequence of DEs. The last data index represents the number of elements in the entire object. The DistGrid provides the mapping between local and global data indices.

The convention in ESMF is that entities with a global view have no prefix. Entities with a DE-local (and in some cases, PET-local) view have the prefix “local.”

Just as data is distributed over DEs, DEs themselves can be distributed over PETs. This is an advanced feature for users who would like to create multiple local chunks of data, for algorithmic or performance reasons. Local DEs are those DEs that are located on the local PET. Local DE labeling always starts at 0 and goes to localDeCount-1, where localDeCount is the number of DEs on the local PET. Global DE numbers also start at 0 and go to deCount-1. The DELayout class provides the mapping between local and global DE numbers.

8.3 Allocation Rules

The basic rule of allocation and deallocation for the ESMF is: whoever allocates it is responsible for deallocating it.

ESMF methods that allocate their own space for data will deallocate that space when the object is destroyed. Methods which accept a user-allocated buffer, for example ESMF_FieldCreate() with the ESMF_DATACOPY_REFERENCE flag, will not deallocate that buffer at the time the object is destroyed. The user must deallocate the buffer when all use of it is complete.

Classes such as Fields, FieldBundles, and States may have Arrays, Fields, Grids and FieldBundles created externally and associated with them. These associated items are not destroyed along with the rest of the data object since it is possible for the items to be added to more than one data object at a time (e.g. the same Grid could be part of many Fields). It is the user's responsibility to delete these items when the last use of them is done.

8.4 Assignment, Equality, Copying and Comparing Objects

The equal sign assignment has not been overloaded in ESMF, thus resulting in the standard Fortran behavior. This behavior has been documented as the first entry in the API documentation section for each ESMF class. For deep ESMF objects the assignment results in setting an alias the the same ESMF object in memory. For shallow ESMF objects the assignment is essentially a equivalent to a copy of the object. For deep classes the equality operators have been overloaded to test for the alias condition as a counter part to the assignment behavior. This and the not equal operator are documented following the assignment in the class API documentation sections.

Deep object copies are implemented as a special variant of the ESMF_<Class>Create() methods. It takes an existing deep object as one of the required arguments. At this point not all deep classes have ESMF_<Class>Create() methods that allow object copy.

Due to the complexity of deep classes there are many aspects when comparing two objects of the same class. ESMF provide ESMF_<Class>Match() methods, which are functions that return a class specific match flag. At this point not all deep classes have ESMF_<Class>Match() methods that allow deep object comparison.

8.5 Attributes

Attributes are (name, value) pairs, where the name is a character string and the value can be either a single value or list of integer, real, double precision, logical, or character values. Attributes can be associated with Fields, FieldBundles, and States. Mixed types are not allowed in a single attribute, and all attribute names must be unique within a single object. Attributes are set by name, and can be retrieved either directly by name or by querying for a count of attributes and retrieving names and values by index number.

8.6 Constants

Named constants are used throughout ESMF to specify the values of many arguments with multiple well defined values in a consistent way. These constants are defined by a derived type that follows this pattern:


The values of the constant are then specified by this pattern:


A master list of all available constants can be found in section 54.

9 Overall Design and Implementation Notes

  1. Deep and shallow classes. The deep and shallow classes described in Section 6.2 differ in how and where they are allocated within a multi-language implementation environment. We distinguish between the implementation language, which is the language a method is written in, and the calling language, which is the language that the user application is written in. Deep classes are allocated off the process heap by the implementation language. Shallow classes are allocated off the stack by the calling language.

  2. Base class. All ESMF classes are built upon a Base class, which holds a small set of system-wide capabilities.

10 Overall Restrictions and Future Work

  1. 32-bit integer limitations. In general, Fortran array bounds should be limited to 2**31-1 elements or less. This is due to the Fortran-95 limitation of returning default sized (e.g., 32 bit) integers for array bound and size inquiries, and consequent ESMF use of default sized integers for holding these values.