ICAT Server

Introduction to the ICAT Server

The ICAT server is a metadata catalogue to support  Large Facility experimental data, linking all aspects of the research chain from proposal through to publication.  It provides  SOAP and RESTful web service interfaces to an underlying database via easy to use APIs. It has powerful search features, a rule based authorization mechanism and it uses plugins for authentication. The service runs in a J2EE container such as Glassfish.

Database and Schema

The primary database is relational. ICAT should in principle work on any relational database  provided that there is a JDBC driver available though best understood are MariaDB/MySQL and Oracle. Some of the information held in the relational database is also indexed in Apache Lucene which is a fast text search engine.

This gives the benefit of the relational model for keeping the data organised and at the same time allows users to find things when they have no idea where to look.

The schema is designed to be as regular as possible.  All relationships are one to many and are cascaded in the one to many direction.  This means for example that if you delete a Dataset then all its Datafiles are deleted too. Entities are identified by an object in the many to one direction and one or more naming fields. For example a Datafile is identified by its Dataset and a name. This also means that a Datafile cannot exist without a Dataset and that it can only be “part of” one Dataset.

Authentication Plugins

An authenticator must implement a small interface. This interface allows ICAT to authenticate and to find out information about the authenticator. Each plugin is deployed as a separate application in the J2EE container and is accessed by ICAT as remote calls which behind the scenes uses Corba. Each authenticator accepts a map of key names to key values where typical key names would be “username” and “password”.

Accessing the service

The server exposes both SOAP and REST interfaces. Originally ICAT only exposed a SOAP interface but now REST interfaces are more common than SOAP. The intention is not to develop the SOAP interface further.

For the SOAP web service each table in the database is mapped onto a data structure exposed by the web service. When the web service interface definition (WSDL) is processed by a client then it has sufficient information to allow an object to be built on the client side matching rows of each table in the database. The convenience of using the SOAP interface depends critically upon the level of support provided by the libraries available. In Java support is good and tools such as wsimport can be used to generate client stubs to make it very easy to use and to provide type safety. Java client libraries have been generated – see icat.client. In the case of Python, Suds (or preferably the jurko fork of suds) can be used.  In addition there is the python-icat library which s a Python package that provides a collection of modules for writing programs that access an ICAT service using the SOAP interface. It is based on Suds and extends it with ICAT specific features and also provides a level of protection from server version dependency. The SOAP interface is easy to use but somewhat restricted and there is a tendency to bring back to the client side information which is not needed because it brings back whole rows from the database.

The RESTful interface uses the HTTP(S) methods PUT, DELETE, POST and GET as appropriate. Detailed documentation for each call is generated from the server code and can be seen by following the link from https://repo.icatproject.org/site/icat/server/ to the specific ICAT version your are using and then click on “RESTful interface”. ICAT clients are provided in Java and Python. These client libraries are very small and mainly look after error handling. The client documentation include the javadoc for the Java API and “pydoc” for the Python.  The Python API is the more convenient to use because instead of dealing with Json strings you pass nested Python dicts and arrays.


Authorization is entirely Rule based. Rules can be related to individual entries in the database however this is not the way they are normally expected to be used. The intention is that rules can be defined for example to say that if you are related to an Investigation then you can see all the data related to that Investigation. You could also define a rule to say that all Datafiles older than some time are public. The authorization system is such that if any rule allows the user to perform the action then it will be allowed. There are no rules forbidding things. The system is efficient because the rules are used in a way that allows the database to do most of the work.


There are very few calls and none of them are schema dependent. The API is providing a generic approach to accessing a relational database which follows a schema with a few special constraints as described earlier. Some tables stored in the database are however special and can affect subsequent operations. In particular the Rules table which controls authorization is populated and queried like any other table but controls access to all ICAT operations.

RESTful calls support import/export of the contents of the ICAT database. These operations like all the others are subject to the authorization rules.

The Lucene indexing is accessible through the RESTful interface. Currently three calls are provided to return Investigation, Dataset and Datafile Id values. These have been designed to match the needs of TopCAT but are not generic as each one only returns Id values for one specific table type.