Part I

 1 Introduction
 2 Further Reading

Accessing this document

A hypertext version of this document is available. To access it on Starlink systems type:

showme   ssn75

On non-Starlink systems access URL:

Paper copies can be obtained from the Starlink document librarian, who can be contacted as follows.

Postal address:

The Document Librarian. Starlink Project, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Chilton,
DIDCOT, Oxfordshire, OX11 0QX, United Kingdom.

Electronic mail:


from within the United Kingdom: 01235-445-848
from overseas: +44-1235-445-848

Obtaining assistance

If you run into difficulties writing a server then I might be able to offer advice or assistance. I can be contacted as follows.

Postal address:

A.C. Davenhall. Institute for Astronomy, Royal Observatory, Blackford Hill,
Edinburgh, EH9 3HJ, United Kingdom.

Electronic mail:


from within the United Kingdom: 0131-668-8416
from overseas: +44-131-668-8416

Revision history

26th July 2000: Version 1. Original version (ACD).

List of Figures

The table of values returned by the ACL server simpleserver.cgi.
A simple tab-separated table.

List of Tables

Abbreviations for institutions hosting ACL servers
Plotting symbols
Colours for plot symbols recognised by CURSA
CURSA data types
MIME types for compressed FITS images

1 Introduction

GAIA[4] and CURSA[3] can interrogate remote catalogues via the Internet to retrieve lists of objects which satisfy a given criterion. GAIA can also extract images of a specified region of sky from remote databases. Similar facilities are also available in other packages, such as the ESO SkyCat1 image display tool and the Gemini observing tool. This functionality is achieved by having servers on the remote systems which accept queries sent by GAIA etc, interrogate their local copies of the catalogues to find the data which satisfy the query and return them to the client which sent the query. This method of working is an example of a ‘client-server architecture’, with GAIA, CURSA etc. acting as the client. The server and client can communicate because the query is sent, and the results returned, in a standard format. This document describes how to write such servers and also the formats of the queries and results.

The standard formats for the queries and returned data were developed by Allan Brighton and colleagues at ESO for use with their Astronomical Catalogue Library (ACL). This subroutine library provides the functionality for a client to access a remote server, and is used by, for example, SkyCat and GAIA. Consequently, in this document the formats will be called the ‘ACL format’ and a server which accepts queries and returns data in these formats will be called an ‘ACL server’.

The communication between the client and the server uses the Hyper-Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) developed as part of the World Wide Web. The servers are, strictly speaking, gateways using the Common Gateway Interface (CGI). One way of thinking of the client is as a very specialised Web browser. A consequence of this approach is that if a site is to host an ACL server it must also be running a Web server. The HTTP and CGI protocols are, of course, enormously flexible and the ACL format is a set of additional rules and restrictions which sit ‘on top’ of them.

An ACL server is a CGI gateway, and CGI gateways can be provided in any number of different ways. However, the usual technique is to implement the gateway as a Perl script and this approach will be adopted in this document. Usually (though not always) the Perl script will invoke a special-purpose program or Database Management System (DBMS) to interrogate the catalogue database.

This document is divided into two parts:

Part I
– a tutorial example of creating a simple ACL server,
Part II
– reference material, mostly describing the ACL format.

2 Further Reading

The ACL format is documented in Section 2 of Allan Brighton’s Astronomical Catalogue Library User Manual[2] (and the description in Part II is largely based on this manual). It is a subset of a proposed general format for exchanging information between remote astronomical information services which is being developed at the Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg (CDS) and elsewhere. The full proposal is described in the working document Astronomical Server URL by M. Albrecht et al.[1].

There are numerous books describing the HTTP and CGI protocols; I have found the The HTML Source Book by Ian Graham[5] to be useful. Similarly, there are many books on Perl. I have used Learning Perl by Randall Schwartz[7] and Programming Perl by Larry Wall and Randall Schwartz[8] and found them comprehensive, convenient and accessible.