Dataset storage, exchange, and access play a critical role in scientific applications. For such purposes netCDF serves as a portable, efficient file format and programming interface, which is popular in numerous scientific application domains. However, the original interface does not provide an efficient mechanism for parallel data storage and access. In this work, we present a new parallel interface for writing and reading netCDF datasets. This interface is derived with minimal changes from the serial netCDF interface but defines semantics for parallel access and is tailored for high performance. The underlying parallel I/O is achieved through MPI-IO, allowing for substantial performance gains through the use of collective I/O optimizations. We compare the implementation strategies and performance with HDF5. Our tests indicate programming convenience and significant I/O performance improvement with this parallel netCDF (PnetCDF) interface.