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Open and proprietary formats: how the IFC file format works

What are the main differences between open file formats and proprietary file formats? Let’s find out how the IFC file format works

A lot has been said about the IFC file format but not everything. Let’s look at some operational aspects, starting by clarifying what ‘open non-proprietary format‘ means.

Open formats

By definition, an open format specifies a public domain technique used for the description and storage of digital data free from legal restrictions.

The main objective of open formats is to allow access to data in the long term without uncertainty towards legal rights or specific techniques (interoperability).

Another purpose of using open formats is to encourage competition instead of allowing one single developer to maintain control over a proprietary format.

Proprietary formats

Proprietary formats are controlled and defined by private interests.

A user could lose all the information contained in a proprietary format if the only proprietary software that could correctly operate with such data is no longer made available, or worse, if the software house that had released it would disappear from the market (thus losing the data forever), making the data stored in the files unreadable.

All the information gathered in the public archives (bodies, institutions, administrations, etc.) would become unusable in very short times.

You might have needed to go back in time for some past building construction practice: the presence of dossiers has granted to overcome uncertainties and difficulties.

The MP3 format is, for instance, a proprietary format as well as an open format because, even if patented, its specifications are public. The publication of a specific technique represents a way to spread the format and making it become an international standard

An open proprietary format may be different from an open-source format, as the first one can only be modified with a proprietary program. Open-source formats can be both read and edited by any application.

The great value of the IFC file format thus emerges: the independence of the data file format where it is stored and channelled/conveyed.

How is the IFC file format created

Let’s get an ‘.ifc‘ file format of an architectural BIM model.

Render of an architectural BIM model with Edificius

Render of an architectural BIM model

Let’s try to rename it and modify the extension in ‘.txt‘, and open it with any text editor (like a Microsoft Notepad present in all the Windows versions).

IFC model opened with a Notepad

IFC model opened with a Notepad

This is a list of not just geometric parameters (properties), organized by objects and logically structured, with its value and perfectly redeable.

An IFC file then can easily be read (as a text file) or graphically displayed through an online IFC viewer  or edited thanks to an IFC editor.

This is the reason why it is possible to state that an IFC file format allows to efficiently transfer information among the different actors of a building construction process that would decide to exchange such files.


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