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STAC Catalog Best Practices

This document makes a number of recommendations for creating real world SpatioTemporal Asset Catalogs. None of them are required to meet the core specification, but following these practices will make life easier for client tooling and for users. They come about from practical experience of implementors, and introduce a bit more 'constraint' for those who are creating new catalogs or new tools to work with STAC.

In time some of these may evolve to become part of the core specification, but while the current goal of the core is to remain quite flexible and simple to meet a wide variety of use cases.

Static and Dynamic Catalogs

As mentioned in the main Catalog specification, there are two main types of catalogs - static and dynamic. This section explains each of them in more depth and shares some best practices on each.

Static Catalogs

A main target for STAC has been object storage services like Amazon S3, Google Cloud Storage and Azure Storage, so that users can stand up a full STAC implementation with static files. Implementations created with just files online are referred to as 'static catalogs'. These include not just the cloud services, but any type of file server that is online.

Static Catalogs tend to make extensive use of sub-catalogs to organize their Items in to sensible browsing structures, as they can only have a single representation of their catalog, since the static nature means the structure is baked in. While it is up to the implementor to organize the catalog, it is recommended to arrange it in a way that would make sense for a human to browse a set of STAC Items in an intuitive matter.

The recommendation for static catalogs is to define them using the file name catalog.json or collection.json to distinguish the catalog from other JSON type files. In order to support multiple catalogs, the recommended practice is to place the catalog file in namespaces "directories". For example:

  • current/catalog.json
  • archive/catalog.json

Dynamic Catalogs

Dynamic STAC Catalogs are those that generate their JSON responses programmatically instead of relying on a set of already defined files. Typically a dynamic catalog implements the full STAC API which enables search of the Items indexed. But the /stac/ endpoint returns the exact same Catalog and Item structures as a static catalog, enabling the same discovery from people browsing and search engines crawling. Dynamic API's that just seek to expose some data can also choose to only implement a Catalog the /stac/ endpoint that returns dynamically. For example a Content Management Service like Drupal or an Open Data Catalog like CKAN could choose to expose its content as linked STAC Items by implementing a dynamic catalog.

One benefit of a dynamic catalog is that it can generate various 'views' of the catalog, exposing the same Items in different sub-catalog organization structures. For example one catalog could divide sub-catalogs by date and another by providers, and users could browse down to both. The leaf Items should just be linked to in a single canonical location (or at least use a rel link that indicates the location of the canonical one.

The STAC API is also made to be compatible with WFS3, which has a set structure for the canonical location of its features. STAC Items should use the WFS3 location as their canonical location, and then in the /stac/ browse structure would just link to those locations.

Catalog Layout

Creating a catalog involves a number of decisions as to what folder structure to use to represent sub-catalogs, items and assets, and how to name them. The specification leaves this totally open, and you can link things as you want. We encourage people to explore new structures. But the following are what a number of implementors ended up doing. Following these recommendations makes for more legible catalogs.

  1. Root documents (catalogs / collections) should be at the root of a directory tree containing the static catalog.
  2. Catalogs should be named catalog.json (cf. index.html).
  3. Collections that are distinct from catalogs should be named collection.json.
  4. Items should be named <id>.json
  5. Sub-catalogs should be stored in subdirectories of their parent (and only 1 subdirectory deeper than a document's parent) (e.g. .../sample/sub1/catalog.json).
  6. Items should be stored in subdirectories of their parent catalog. This means that each item and its assets are contained in a unique subdirectory
  7. Limit the number of items in a catalog or sub-catalog, grouping / partitioning as relevant to the dataset

Dynamic Catalog Layout

While these recommendations were primarily written for static catalogs, they apply equally well to dynamic catalogs. Subdirectories of course would just be URL paths generated dynamically, but the structure would be the same as is recommended.

One benefit of a dynamic catalog is that it can generate various 'views' of the catalog, exposing the same Items in different sub-catalog organization structures. For example one catalog could divide sub-catalogs by date and another by providers, and users could browse down to both. The leaf Items should just be linked to in a single canonical location (or at least use a rel link that indicates the location of the canonical one). It is recommended that dynamic catalogs provide multiple 'views' to allow users to navigate in a way that makes sense to them, providing multiple 'sub-catalogs' from the root catalog that enable different paths to browse (country/state, date/time, constellation/satellite, etc). But the canonical 'rel' link should be used to designate the primary location of the item to search engine crawlers.

Use of links

The main catalog specification allows both relative and absolute links, and says that self links are not required, but are strongly recommended. This is what the spec must say to enable the various use cases, but there is more subtlety for when it is essential to use different link types. The best practice is to use one of the below catalog types, applying the link recommendations consistently, instead of just haphazardly applying anything the spec allows.

Self-contained Catalogs

A 'self-contained catalog' is one that is designed for portability. Users may want to download a catalog from online and be able to use it on their local computer, so all links need to be relative. Or a tool that creates catalogs may need to work without knowing the final location that it will live at online, so it isn't possible to set absolute 'self' URL's. These use cases should utilize a catalog that follows the listed principles:

  • Only relative href's in links: The full catalog structure of links down to sub-catalogs and items, and their links back to their parents and roots, should be done with relative URL's. This enables the full catalog to be downloaded or copy to another location and to still be valid. This also implies no self link, as that link must be absolute.

  • Use Asset href links consistently: The links to the actual assets are allowed to be either relative or absolute. There are two types of 'self-contained catalogs'. The first is just the metadata, and use absolute href links to refer to the online locations of the assets. The second uses relative href links for the assets, and includes them in the folder structure. This enables offline use of a catalog, by including all the actual data.

Self-contained catalogs tend to be used more as static catalogs, where they can be easily passed around. But often they will be generated by a more dynamic STAC service, enabling a subset of a catalog or a portion of a search criteria to be downloaded and used in other contexts. That catalog could be used offline, or even published in another location.

Self-contained catalogs are not just for offline use, however - they are designed to be able to be published online and to live on the cloud in object storage. They just aim to ease the burden of publishing, by not requiring lots of updating of links. Adding a single self link at the root is recommended for online catalogs, turning it into a 'relative published catalog', as detailed below. This anchors it in an online location and enable provenance tracking.

Published Catalogs

A 'published catalog' is one that lives online in a stable location, and uses self links to establish its location and enable easy provenance tracking. There are two types of published catalogs:

  • Absolute Published Catalog is a catalog that uses absolute links for everything, both in the links objects and in the asset hrefs. It includes self links for every item. Generally these are implemented by dynamic catalogs, as it is quite easy for them to generate the proper links dynamically. But a static catalog that knows its published location could easily implement it.
  • Relative Published Catalog is a catalog that uses relative links for everything, but includes an absolute self link at the root catalog, to identify its online location. This is designed so that a self-contained catalog can be 'published' online by just adding one field (the self link) to its root catalog. All the other links should remain relative. With this, the resolution of item and sub-catalog self links may be done by traversing parent and root links, but requires reading multiple sources to achieve this.

STAC on the Web

One of the primary goals of STAC is to make spatiotemporal data more accessible on the web. One would have a right to be surprised that there is nothing about HTML in the entire specification. This is because it is difficult to specify what should be on web pages without ending up with very bad looking pages. But the importance of having web-accessible versions of every STAC Item is paramount.

The main recommendation is to have an HTML page for every single STAC Item and Catalog. They should be visually pleasing, crawlable by search engines and ideally interactive. The current best practice is to use a tool in the STAC ecosystem called STAC Browser. It can crawl most any valid catalog and generate unique web pages for each Item and Catalog (or Collection). While it has a default look and feel, the design can easily be modified to match an existing web presence. And it will automatically turn any Item with a Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF asset into an interactive, zoomable web map (using tiles.rdnt.io to render the tiles on a leaflet map). It also attempts to encapsulate a number of best practices that enable STAC Items to show up in search engines, though that part is still a work in progress - contributions to STAC Browser to help are welcome!

Implementors are welcome to generate their own web pages, and additional tools that automatically transform STAC JSON into html sites are encouraged. In time there will likely emerge a set of best practices from an array of tools, and we may be able to specify in the core standard how to make the right HTML pages. But for now it is useful for catalogs to focus on making data available as JSON, and then leverage tools that can evolve at the same time to make the best HTML experience. This enables innovation on the web generation and search engine optimization to evolve independently of the catalogs themseleves.

Schema.org, JSON-LD, DCAT, microformats, etc

There is a strong desire to align STAC with the various web standards for data. These include schema.org tags, JSON-LD (particularly for Google's dataset search), DCAT and microformats. STAC aims to work with with as many as possible. Thusfar it has not seemed to make sense to include any of them directly in the core STAC standard. They are all more intended to be a part of the HTML pages that search engines crawl, so the logical place to do the integration is by leveraging a tool that generates HTML from STAC like STAC Browser. STAC Browser has implemented a mapping to schema.org fields using JSON-LD, but the exact output is still being refined. It is on the roadmap to add in more mapping and do more testing of search engines crawling the HTML pages.

Deploying STAC Browser & stac.cloud

There are a number of STAC Browser examples on stacspec.org, that are all deployed on the stac.cloud domain. Anyone with a public catalog is welcome to have a STAC Browser instance hosted for free. But the stronger recommendation is to host your catalog's STAC Browser on your own domain, and to customize its design to look and feel like your main web presence. The goal of stac.cloud is to bootstrap live web pages for catalogs, but not to be the central hub. STAC aims to be decentralized, so each catalog should have its own location and just be part of the wider web.

Static to Dynamic best practices

Many implementors are using static catalogs to be the reliable core of their dynamic services, or layering their STAC API on top of any static catalog that is published. These are some recommendations on how to handle this:

Ingestion and links

Implementors have found that it's best to 'ingest' a static STAC into an internal datastore (often elasticsearch, but a traditional database could work fine too) and then generate the full STAC API responses from that internal representation. There are instances that have the API refer directly to the static STAC Items, but this only works well if the static STAC catalog is an 'absolute published catalog'. So the recommendation is to always use absolute links - either in the static published catalog, or to create new absolute links for the STAC search/ endpoint responses, with the API's location at the base url. The /stac endpoint with the catalogs could either link directly to the static catalog, or can follow the 'dynamic catalog layout' recommendations above with a new set of URL's.

Ideally each Item would use its links to provide a reference back to the static location. The location of the static item should be treated as the canonical location, as the generated API is more likely to move or be temporarily down. The spec provides the derived_from rel attribute, which fits well enough, but canonical is likely the more appropriate one as everything but the links should be the same.

Keeping static and dynamic catalogs in sync with cloud notification and queue services

There is a set of emerging practices to use services like Amazon's Simple Queue Service (SQS) and Simple Notification Service (SNS) to keep catalogs in sync. There is a great blog post on the CBERS STAC implementation on AWS. The core idea is that a static catalog should emit a notification whenever it changes. The recommendation for SNS is to use the STAC item JSON as the message body, with some attributes such as a scene’s datetime and geographic bounding box that allows basic geographic filtering from listeners.

The dynamic STAC API would then listen to the notifications and update its internal datastore whenever new data comes into the static catalog. Implementors have had success using AWS Lambda to do a full 'serverless' updating of the elasticsearch database, but it could just as easily be a server-based process.

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