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The Earth System Grid Federation (ESGF) is a multi-agency, international collaboration that aims at developing the software infrastructure needed to facilitate and empower the study of climate change on a global scale. The ESGF's architecture employs a system of geographically distributed peer nodes, which are independently administered yet united by the adoption of common federation protocols and application programming interfaces (APIs). The cornerstones of its interoperability are the peer-to-peer messaging that is continuously exchanged among all nodes in the federation; a shared architecture and API for search and discovery; and a security infrastructure based on industry standards (OpenID, SSL, GSI and SAML). The ESGF software is developed collaboratively across institutional boundaries and made available to the community as open source. It has now been adopted by multiple Earth science projects and allows access to petabytes of geophysical data, including the entire model output used for the next international assessment report on climate change (IPCC-AR5) and a suite of satellite observations (obs4MIPs) and reanalysis data sets (ANA4MIPs).