A geometric Dirichlet brane is a triple (L, E, ∇_{E}) – a submanifold L ⊂ M, carrying a vector bundle E, with connection ∇_{E}.

The real dimension of L is also often brought into the nomenclature, so that one speaks of a Dirichlet p-brane if p = dim_{R}L.

An open string which stretches from a Dirichlet brane (L, E, ∇_{E}) to a Dirichlet brane (K, F, ∇_{F}), is a map X from an interval I ≅ [0,1] to M, such that X(0) ∈ L and X(1) ∈ K. An “open string history” is a map from R into open strings, or equivalently a map from a two-dimensional surface with boundary, say Σ ≡ I × R, to M , such that the two boundaries embed into L and K.

The quantum theory of these open strings is defined by a functional integral over these histories, with a weight which depends on the connections ∇_{E} and ∇_{F}. It describes the time evolution of an open string state which is a wave function in a Hilbert space H_{B,B′} labelled by the two choices of brane B = (L, E, ∇_{E}) and B′ = (K, F, ∇_{F}).

Distinct Dirichlet branes can embed into the same submanifold L. One way to represent this would be to specify the configurations of Dirichlet branes as a set of submanifolds with multiplicity. However, we can also represent this choice by using the choice of bundle E. Thus, a set of N identical branes will be represented by tensoring the bundle E with C^{N}. The connection is also obtained by tensor product. An N-fold copy of the Dirichlet brane (L, E, ∇_{E}) is thus a triple (L, E ⊗C^{N}, ∇_{E} ⊗ id_{N}).

In physics, one visualizes this choice by labelling each open string boundary with a basis vector of C^{N}, which specifies a choice among the N identical branes. These labels are called * Chan-Paton factors*. One then uses them to constrain the interactions between open strings. If we picture such an interaction as the joining of two open strings to one, the end of the first to the beginning of the second, we require not only the positions of the two ends to agree, but also the Chan-Paton factors. This operation is the intuitive algebra of open strings.

Mathematically, an algebra of open strings can always be tensored with a matrix algebra, in general producing a noncommutative algebra. More generally, if there is more than one possible boundary condition, then, rather than an algebra, it is better to think of this as a groupoid or categorical structure on the boundary conditions and the corresponding open strings. In the language of groupoids, particular open strings are elements of the groupoid, and the composition law is defined only for pairs of open strings with a common boundary. In the categorical language, boundary conditions are objects, and open strings are morphisms. The simplest intuitive argument that a non-trivial choice can be made here is to call upon the general principle that any local deformation of the world-sheet action should be a physically valid choice. In particular, particles in physics can be charged under a gauge field, for example the Maxwell field for an electron, the color * Yang-Mills field* for a quark, and so on. The wave function for a charged particle is then not complex-valued, but takes values in a bundle E.

Now, the effect of a general connection ∇_{E} is to modify the functional integral by modifying the weight associated to a given history of the particle. Suppose the trajectory of a particle is defined by a map φ : R → M; then a natural functional on trajectories associated with a connection ∇ on M is simply its * holonomy* along the trajectory, a linear map from E|

_{φ}(t

_{1}) to E|

_{φ}(t

_{2}). The functional integral is now defined physically as a sum over trajectories with this holonomy included in the weight.

The simplest way to generalize this to a string is to consider the l_{s} → 0 limit. Now the constraint of finiteness of energy is satisfied only by a string of vanishingly small length, effectively a particle. In this limit, both ends of the string map to the same point, which must therefore lie on L ∩ K.

The upshot is that, in this limit, the wave function of an open string between Dirichlet branes (L, E, ∇) and (K, F, ∇_{F}) transforms as a section of E^{∨} ⊠ F over L ∩ K, with the natural connection on the direct product. In the special case of (L, E, ∇_{E}) ≅ (K, F, ∇_{F}), this reduces to the statement that an open string state is a section of EndE. Open string states are sections of a graded vector bundle End E ⊗ Λ•T∗L, the degree-1 part of which corresponds to infinitesimal deformations of ∇_{E}. In fact, these open string states are the infinitesimal deformations of ∇_{E}, in the standard sense of quantum field theory, i.e., a single open string is a localized excitation of the field obtained by quantizing the connection ∇_{E}. Similarly, other open string states are sections of the normal bundle of L within X, and are related in the same way to infinitesimal deformations of the submanifold. These relations, and their generalizations to open strings stretched between Dirichlet branes, define the physical sense in which the particular set of Dirichlet branes associated to a specified background X can be deduced from string theory.