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What Is a Data Interchange Format?

By Jo Dunaway
Updated May 16, 2024
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The first instance of a data interchange format was released in the early 1980s, when a software firm delivered the specifications in copies of their widely popular spreadsheet program and simultaneously published them in a leading computer magazine. Data Information Format (DIF) was initially used as a text file format for the import/export transfer of single spreadsheet files between various spreadsheet programs from many platforms. A similar interchange format was released, called the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) Data Interchange Format, in the 1990s, and this could not only transfer text form data, but also directory data in text form, and allowed modifications of the directory data.

Businesses were starting to computerize their administrative recordkeeping and functions at a great pace around this time, and what this data interchange format allowed was an interoperability when files were saved in the DIF format; thus, billing, planning and inventory programs could all use the same data files. As the data interchange format was independent of any one type of computer or operating system platform, computer assisted design (CAD) programs, database management programs and other types of programs started to employ it.

LDAP Data Interchange Format, with its LDIF components, allowed directory records to be updated, added, modified, deleted and renamed as a plain text set of records. It became a standard promoted by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for importing and exporting between directory servers. Windows changed the command line somewhat and renamed it LDIFDE, which could import directory objects into Active Directory domain servers; and from this data, search and list functions could be used by system administrators. An open source Java application allowed cross-platform editing of files that were stored in the LDIF file format.

Programmers of other types of software programs noticed the interoperability and started to develop data interchange formats of their own. Several ham radio software program developers agreed upon a standard to transfer data between ham radio software programs that became known as the Amateur Data Interchange Format (ADIF). They promptly began educating their users how to save in ADIF format to interchange information across software packages.

A lightweight data interchange format was developed by JavaScript Object Notation (JSON), which was generally considered easy for novices to read and write. Based on a subset of JavaScript Programming Language, it was completely language independent, yet had conventions similar to those in the C family of programming languages and was built on two structures only. It collected name/value pairs for object, record, hash table, directory, struct, associative array and keyed lists, and it also had a list of values that were ordered in arrays, vectors, lists or sequences.

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