Modeling Framework

This section explains the design of the xarray-simlab modeling framework. It is useful mostly for users who want to create new models from scratch or customize existing models. Users who only want to run simulations from existing models may skip this section.

For more practical details on how using the API to create, inspect and run models, see the relevant sections of this user guide.

Main concepts

The xarray-simlab framework is built on a very few concepts that allow great flexibility in model customization:

  • models

  • processes

  • variables

These are detailed here below.


Models are instances of the Model class. They consist of ordered, immutable collections of processes. The ordering is inferred automatically from the given processes (see below).

The Model class also implements specific methods for:

  • introspection,

  • running simulations,

  • easy creation of new Model objects from existing ones by dropping, adding or replacing one or more processes.


Processes are defined as Python classes that are decorated by process(). The role of a process is twofold:

  • declare a given subset of the variables used in a model,

  • define a specific set of instructions that use or compute values for these variables during a model run.

Conceptually, a process is a logical component of a computational model. It may for example represent a particular physical mechanism that is described in terms of one or more state variables (e.g., scalar or vector fields) and one or more operations – with or without parameters – that modify those state variables through time. Note that some processes may be time-independent or may even be used to declare variables without implementing any computation.


xarray-simlab does not provide any built-in logic for tasks like generating computational meshes or setting boundary conditions, which should rather be implemented in 3rd-party libraries as processes. Even those tasks may be too specialized to justify including them in this framework, which aims to be as general as possible.

A process-ified class behaves mostly like any other regular Python class, i.e., there is a-priori nothing that prevents you from using the common object-oriented features as you like. The only difference is that you can here create classes in a very succinct way without boilerplate, i.e., you don’t need to implement dunder methods like __init__ or __repr__ as this is handled by the framework. In fact, this framework uses and extends the attrs package: process() is a wrapper around attr.s() and the functions used to create variables (see below) are thin wrappers around attr.ib().


Variables are the most basic elements of a model. They are declared in processes as class attributes, using variable(). Declaring variables mainly consists of defining useful metadata such as:

  • labeled dimensions (or no dimension for scalars),

  • predefined meta-data attributes, e.g., a short description,

  • user-defined meta-data attributes, e.g., units or math symbol,

  • the intent for a variable, i.e., whether the process needs (intent='in'), updates (intent='inout') or computes (intent='out') a value for that variable.

It is also possible to set a default value as well as value validator(s). See attrs’ validators for more details.


xarray-simlab does not distinguish between model parameters, input and output variables. All can be declared using variable().

Foreign variables

Like different physical mechanisms involve some common state variables (e.g., temperature or pressure), different processes may operate on common variables.

In xarray-simlab, a variable is declared at a unique place, i.e., within one and only one process. Using common variables across processes is achieved by declaring foreign() variables. These are simply references to variables that are declared in other processes.

You can use foreign variables for almost any computation inside a process just like original variables. The only difference is that intent='inout' is not supported for a foreign variable, i.e., a process may either need or compute a value of a foreign variable but may not update it (otherwise it would not be possible to unambiguously determine process dependencies – see below). For the same reason, only one process in a model may compute a value of a variable (i.e., intent='out').

The great advantage of declaring variables at unique places is that all their meta-data are defined once. However, a downside of this approach is that foreign variables may potentially add many hard-coded links between processes, which makes harder reusing these processes independently of each other. Global and/or group variables may circumvent those hard-coded link.

Global variables

Like foreign variables, global variables can be used for accessing (read / write) common variables in multiple processes. Unlike foreign variables, linking global variables is implicit and only based on their “global name”, which must identify it unambiguously in a model.

Most variables in xarray-simlab accept a global_name argument. References to these variables can be declared in other processes using global_ref(). Those references are resolved when creating new a Model object. Xarray-simlab also implements some safe-guards against possible inconsistencies in a model (i.e., unresolved global names or name conflicts).

Global variables are a good alternative to foreign variables in the presence of naming standards. It may increase the potential to reuse process classes and build more flexible model structures. One major limitation, however, is that variable metadata (e.g., description, dimensions, etc.) is not known for global_ref() declarations until a model is created, which limits introspection of the processes taken individually.

Group variables

In some cases, using group variables may provide an elegant alternative to hard-coded links between processes.

The membership of variables to one or several groups is defined via their groups attribute. If you want to reuse in a separate process all the variables of a given group, instead of explicitly declaring each of them as foreign variables you can simply declare a group() (or group_dict()) variable. The latter behaves like an iterable (or mapping) of foreign variables pointing to each of the variables (model-wise) that are members of the same group.

Note that group variables implicitly have intent='in', i.e, they could only be used to get the values of multiple foreign variables, not set their values.

Group variables are useful particularly in cases where you want to combine (aggregate) different processes that act on the same variable, e.g. in landscape evolution modeling combine the effect of different erosion processes on the evolution of the surface elevation. This way you can easily add or remove processes to/from a model and avoid missing or broken links between processes.

On-demand variables

On-demand variables are like regular variables, except that their value is not intended to be computed systematically, e.g., at the beginning or at each time step of a simulation, but instead only at a given few times (or not at all). These are declared using on_demand() and must implement in the same process-ified class a dedicated method – i.e., decorated with @foo.compute where foo is the name of the variable – that returns their value. They implicitly have intent='out'.

On-demand variables are useful, e.g., for optional model diagnostics.

Index variables

Index variables are intended for indexing data of other variables in a model like, e.g., coordinate labels of grid nodes. They are declared using index(). They implicitly have intent='out', although their values could be computed from other input variables.

‘Object’ variables

Sometimes we need to share between processes one or more arbitrary objects, e.g., callables or instances of custom classes that have no array-like interface. Those objects should be declared in process-decorated classes using any_object().

Within a model, those ‘object’ variables are reserved for internal use only, i.e., they never require an input value (they implicitly have intent='out') and they can’t be saved as outputs as their value may not be compatible with the xarray data model. Of course, it is still possible to create those objects using data from other (input) variables declared in the process. Likewise, their data could still be coerced into a scalar or an array and be saved as output via another variable.

Simulation workflow

A model run is divided into four successive stages:

  1. initialization

  2. run step

  3. finalize step

  4. finalization

During a simulation, stages 1 and 4 are run only once while stages 2 and 3 are repeated for a given number of (time) steps. Stage 4 is always run even when an exception is raised during stage 1, 2 or 3.

Each process() decorated class may provide its own computation instructions by implementing specific “runtime” methods named .initialize(), .run_step(), .finalize_step() and .finalize() for each stage above, respectively. Note that this is entirely optional. For example, time-independent processes (e.g., for setting model grids) usually implement stage 1 only. In a few cases, the role of a process may even consist of just declaring some variables that are used elsewhere.

Runtime methods may be decorated by runtime(). This is useful if one needs to access the value of some runtime-specific variables like the current step, time step duration, etc. from within those methods. Runtime methods may also return a RuntimeSignal() to control the workflow, e.g., break the execution of the current stage.

It is also possible to monitor and/or control simulations independently of any model, using runtime hooks. See Section Monitor Model Runs.

Get / set variable values inside a process

Once you have declared a variable as a class attribute in a process, you can further get and/or set its value like a regular instance attribute. For example, if you declare a variable foo you can just use to get/set its value inside one method of that class.

Additionally, the process() decorator takes all variables declared as class attributes and turns them into properties, which may be read-only depending on the intent set for the variables. For all variables except on-demand variables, the getter/setter methods of those properties read/write values via a simple dictionary that is common to a simulation. Note that those properties are created only for the case where a process decorated class is used within a Model object.

Process dependencies and ordering

The order in which processes are executed during a simulation is critical. For example, if the role of a process is to compute a value for a given variable, then the execution of this process must happen before the execution of all other processes that use the same variable in their computation.

In a model, the processes and their dependencies together form the nodes and the edges of a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG). The graph topology is fully determined by the intent set for each variable or foreign variable declared in each process. An ordering that is computationally consistent can then be obtained using topological sorting. This is done at Model object creation. The same ordering is used at every stage of a model run.

The DAG structure also allows running the processes in parallel at every stage of a model run, see Section Single-model parallelism.

Model inputs

In a model, inputs are variables that need a value to be set by the user before running a simulation.

Like process ordering, inputs are automatically retrieved at Model object creation by looking at the intent set for all variables and foreign variables in the model. A variable is a model input if it has intent set to 'in' or 'inout' and if it has no linked foreign variable with intent='out'.