The Network Common Data Form, or netCDF, is an interface to a library of data access functions for storing and retrieving data in the form of arrays, and it's also by extension the name of the format in which the data are stored. An array is an n-dimensional rectangular structure containing items which all have the same data type (e.g., 8-bit character, 32-bit integer). A scalar (simple single value) is a 0-dimensional array.
NetCDF is an abstraction that supports a view of data as a collection of self-describing, portable objects that can be accessed through a simple interface. Array values may be accessed directly, without knowing details of how the data are stored. Auxiliary information about the data, such as what units are used, may be stored with the data. Generic utilities and application programs can access netCDF datasets and transform, combine, analyze, or display specified fields of the data. The development of such applications has led to improved accessibility of data and improved re-usability of software for array-oriented data management, analysis, and display.
The mere use of netCDF is not sufficient to make data "self-describing" and meaningful to both humans and machines. The names of variables and dimensions should be meaningful and conform to any relevant conventions. A number of groups have defined their own additional conventions and styles for netCDF data.