How to Make Dynamic SubVIs

The last two posts discussed different ways to use dynamic linking and calling in situations where you want the target VI to run in parallel with the rest of the application. Another major use case for dynamic calling is to create software plugins.

I use the term “plugin architecture” to indicate a technique that strives to simplify code by facilitating runtime changes to limited portions of the code while allowing the basic logic for the function as a whole to remain intact and unchanged. For example, say you are implementing a control algorithm that has, for the sake of argument, two inputs: a position and a load. As long as the readings are accurate, timely and in the proper units, most of the control algorithm doesn’t care how these inputs are measured. It would, therefore, simplify the code base as a whole to incorporate a technique that allows the reuse all the common code by simply “plugging in” different acquisition modules that support the various different types of sensors that can measure position and load.

This isn’t rocket science

This goal might sound lofty, but the hurdle for getting into it is actually pretty low. In fact, when teach the LabVIEW Core 1 and 2 week, I will sometimes introduce what LabVIEW can do by demonstrating a simple plugin architecture that only uses concepts introduced and discussed in those two classes.

I start the demo by opening an application that I have written to implement a simple calculator. It has two numeric inputs labeled “X” and “Y” and an indicator labeled “Output”. The only other control is a popup menu that lists the two math operations it can perform: addition and subtraction. I first show that you can use the simple program to add and subtract numbers.

I then comment that it would be nice if my program could multiply numbers as well. So I drag the program window to one side but leave it running. I then open a new window and add two inputs and an output (labeled like the program). On the block diagram I drop down a multiplier, wire it up, and save the VI with the name Multiply.vi. After closing that VI’s front panel, I tell the class that although they just watched me create the ability to multiply numbers, the program which is already running has already acquired it. At this point, I pull the program front panel back over and show that the menu which only moments before said “Add” and “Subtract”, now has a third option: “Multiply”. Moreover, the new selection does indeed allow me to now multiply numbers. Finally, I make the point that this capability to dynamically expand and change functionality was created using nothing but things that they will be learning in the coming week.

While the students at this point might not be cheering, they are awake and have some motivation to learn. You better believe that when I show them the code Friday afternoon and they can recognize how the program works, they are excited. So let’s see what I can do now to motivate and excite you…

It’s all about the packaging

As we begin to get into the following use cases you should notice that the actual code needed to implement each solution is not really very complicated. If fact, in the following sections we will be dealing with many of the same functions as when we were dynamically launching separate processes. The tricky part here is that we need to fit all the data management and launch logic in a space that would otherwise be occupied by a single VI. For this reason we need to be very careful when packaging this code. To demonstrate what I mean, let’s consider three common use cases that all call a simple test VI (called amazingly enough Test.vi) that simply returns a random number. I have ordered these cases such that each example builds on what went before:

System Initialization

I like to start here when explaining these concepts because it is the simplest structure and so is easy to understand.

System Initialization

Here you see laid out all the basic pieces required to dynamically call a subVI. The first VI (the one marked “Dummy”) is the one we will use through-out this post to represent the data management needed to get the path to the VI that will be called dynamically. Depending upon your application this could come from an INI file, database, or what have you. We won’t go into a lot of detail with that VI because we have discussed the various techniques pretty thoroughly in other posts.

You should recognize the next node (Open VI Reference) as we have already used it a lot. It opens a reference to the VI specified in the input VI name or path. This action also has the effect of loading the VI into memory. Just as statically subVIs can be reentrant, you can specify it here, as well, if needed.

Once the VI is open, we pass its reference to a node that looks a lot like the Start Asynchronous Call we have already used. This node is Call by Reference and like the prior one it expects a strict VI reference and in return provides a connector pane for passing data to the target. However, unlike the asynchronous call, this node always waits until the target finishes executing before continuing, hence its representation of the target’s connector pane also allows us to get data from the target.

Finally, in order to remove the target VI from memory, we need to close the reference when we are done with it — which is what the last node does.

When using this technique it is important to keep in mind that, because it loads, executes and unloads the VI all at once, it is very inefficient when used is a situation where it will be run multiple times. Sort of like trying to use an Express VI inside a loop — but worse.

However, one place where this technique can be used very effectively is doing things like system initialization. Its not uncommon for large and complex applications to require an equally large and complex initialization process, especially the first time they are run. Although you could just write a VI to do this initialization and install it in the program, why should you burden your program with a bunch of code that may only execute one time — ever? This technique allows you to only load and execute a VI if you actually need it.

Function Substitution

This use case is perhaps the most common of the three. It uses the same nodes we just saw, but because it can be used essentially anywhere, the packaging has to be very efficient. A solution I often use is to create a mini state-machine that has states for loading, executing and unloading the target VI, as well as one more for deciding what to do first. The user interface has one (enumerated) control that allows you to specify whether you want to Load the target, Run the target, or Unload the target.

The inputs are pretty simple, and the state-machine logic mirrors that simplicity. If the function requested is Load, the Startup state transitions directly to the Open VI state which opens and buffers the VI reference. Here is the code for these two states:

Function substitution - Startup - Load

Function substitution - Open VI

If the function requested is Run (the input’s default value, by the way), the Startup state first checks to see if the VI reference is valid and if it is, transitions to the Execute state.

Function substitution - Startup - Run

Function substitution - Execute

If the reference is not valid, execution instead continues with the Open VI state which returns to the Execute state after opening the reference.

Finally, if the function requested is Unload, the Startup state transitions directly to the Close VI state:

Function substitution - Startup - Unload

Function substitution - Close VI

The result of all this work is a flexible VI that can be used in a variety of different ways depending upon system requirements. For example, if the target VI loads quickly or the calling process doesn’t have tight timing constraints, you can just install it and let the first call to both load the VI into memory and run it. Alternately, if you don’t want the first call to be delayed by that initial load, you can call it once in a non-time-critical part of the code to just Load the target and then Run it as many times as you like later.

In the same way, the Unload function, which normally isn’t needed, can be used to release the memory resources used by a large dynamic subVI when you know that you aren’t going to be needing it for a while.

This approach could even be extended to create a simple test executive that dynamically loads and unloads whole sets of VIs. In such a situation, though, you probably don’t want to be tied to a single connector pane, so you should consider changing the VI reference to non-strict and modifying the Execute state to use our old friend the Run VI method like so.

Function substitution - Execute - Run VI Method

Interprocess Communication

This use case is in many ways the most expansive of the three because it supports communications between different processes regardless of their physical location. In terms of code, there is very little difference between this case and the previous one. In fact, the only change that is really required is to the Load state. This is what the network-enabled version looks like:

Function substitution - Open VI - IPC

That new icon in front of Open VI Reference is the one that makes the magic. Its name is Open Application Reference and its job is to return a reference to the instance of LabVIEW that is hosting the VI that you want to access. To make this connection, you need to know the host-name or IP address of the computer running the LabVIEW application, and the port number the instance is using for incoming connections. If the application that you are wanting to access in on your own computer, you can either leave the host name string empty or use the name localhost. The port can be any number that isn’t already being used. One common people mistake is to simply accept the default value, which is the port that LabVIEW listens to by default. This causes problems when they go to test their application because now there are two processes (the LabVIEW development environment and their application) trying to use the same port.

An important point to remember is that while the Call by Reference node passes data back and forth, the called VI actually executes on the remote system. Hence, this sort of operation works independent of the target system’s operating system or even the version of LabVIEW that it is running.

The tasks for setting up a system to use this technique involves properly configuring the application to which you are going to be connecting — though it often doesn’t require any code changes. This amazing benefit is possible because the underlying networking is handled by the runtime engine, not the application code you write. I have on a couple occasions come into a place and added remote control functionality to an old application that was not even designed with that capability in mind.

You will, however, have to make changes to the target application’s INI file to enable networking, And you, obviously, will need to have access to the application’s source code so you know what VIs to call. Likewise, if you are accessing a computer outside your local network there can be a variety of network communications details to sort out that are beyond the scope of this post. One other thing to bear in mind is that it is always easier to connect to a remote VI if it is already in memory. The reason for this fact is that if the VI is already in memory all you need to know is the VI’s name. If you are also loading it into memory, you have to know the complete path — the annotation of which can change between platforms.

But assuming you establish the connection, what exactly can you do with it? The answer to that lies in what VIs you choose to execute from the remote process. If you execute a VI that fires an event, that event gets fired on the remote system, so you can use it as a channel for controlling that application.

Alternately, say you chose to execute a VI that is a function global variable (FGV). Depending on whether you are reading from or writing to the FGV, you are now either passing data to the remote system, or collecting data from it. By the way, this is the method I still typically use for passing data over a network between LabVIEW applications — not network-enabled shared variables. Unlike this later “enhancement”, the dynamic calling of a FGV doesn’t need to be “deployed”, is more memory efficient, has a smaller code footprint, is far easier to troubleshoot if there is a problem, and works across all releases of LabVIEW back to Version 6.

The only real limit to what you can do with this technique is your imagination.

So there are the three major use cases for the dynamic linking of subVIs. This discussion is by no means a complete consideration of the topic, but hopefully it will whet your appetite to experiment a bit. The link below is to an archive containing all three examples to get you started.

Dynamic Linking Examples

Next time: Command Line Parameters are not a relic of the past.

If you have spent any time poking into some of the more esoteric corners of the application builder, you may have noticed a checkbox in the Advanced section¬†labeled, “Pass all command line arguments to application”, and wondered what that is all about. Well, wonder no more, that little checkbox is what we are going to discuss next time out — and while we’re at it I’ll cover a really neat use for it.

Until next time…

Mike…

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