Dropping-In on the Testbed

Last time out we started exploring one common application of so-called “drop-in” VI. The technique is based on the idea of creating VIs that are capable of performing something useful for the VI that is hosting it, but without interacting directly with that VI’s basic logic. The example we considered was manipulating the font and type size used to present textual data.

At the close of that post we has created a basic object-oriented structure that could manipulate the label or caption of any front panel control or indicator. I want to finish this discussion by looking at how to expand that basic implementation to allow it to set the text properties of text contained inside a control or indicator. For that we will return to our testbed application.

A Brief Recap

It has been a while since we have worked with this code, so a brief refresher on what it does is probably in order. The testbed application we will be modifying consists of several processes that run independently of one another. To begin with, there is a background process that oversees the reporting of errors that occur. Handling the user interface duties, a GUI process incorporates a subpanel that can display the front panels of several simulated acquisition and process-control VIs. The whole thing is kicked off by a launcher VI that loads the various processes into memory and starts them executing.

Our goal here will be to add the drop-in VI we created last time to all the user-facing VIs and add classes as necessary to allow it to handle the controls and indicators on those VIs. However, if you don’t already have a tool for editing database contents directly, you should first download a tool called Database .NET (the link is to a zip file, and is at the bottom of the page). The program is a simple utility that lets you examine and edit database data from a number of different DBMS. I don’t know the folks that wrote this, and have no vested interest in the program other than I have used it for years and found it very useful. Note that this program has no installer so it has a very small footprint – it will even run from a USB stick. To “install” the program, simply create a directory for it on your computer and then drag into it the program that is inside the zip archive you downloaded, and installation is complete. The easiest way to invoke it is to set it as the default application for *.mdb files.

  • Note that if you decide to install this utility in a subdirectory of the Program Files (x86) directory, you may have to play around with the folder permissions a bit before it will run. Because the program generates several temporary files when it’s starting up, the user has to have Full Access to the folder in which it is installed.

One other caveat to bear in mind before we dive into the modifications is that, these operations cannot override limits on these properties that might exist for other reasons. For example, these techniques will not work on controls that you have defined as strict typedefs. The reason: The strict typedef defines everything about the control’s appearance and the property node will throw an error if you try to change them. Likewise, a System-themed control will let you change the font characteristics, but will complain if you try to change colors.

Making With the Modifications

So where do we start? Well the first hing we need to do is to make a couple minor tweaks to the Display Font Manager.vi. First, we need to define what happens to the drop-ins errors. Because it’s important to preserve them, we will save the errors that arise in the drop-in to the same location that errors from the testbed application proper are stored – but without bothering the program’s operator. To accomplish that task, let’s reuse a the subVI that the error handling logic uses to store error data.

Drop-in Error Handling

Note that I had to add a case structure because the location where this subVI was originally used only executed if there was an error. So unless we want to have spurious records being posted, we have to add that logic here.

Next, as the code is currently written, the error chain in the drop-in’s logic starts with the Error In control and terminates in the Error Out indicator. Although this arrangement works fine during development and testing, when the time comes to deploy the code, this is not what we want. As I said last time, drop-in VIs should not interact with the host VI and should not inject their own errors into the host’s error stream. Still, it can be useful to be able to use the drop-in’s error IO to establish data dependencies that control when it runs. The solution is for the drop-in to have error clusters, but not have them be connected internally.

Errors - Straight Through

Changing the Testbed

Now that we are to install the drop-in, we need to look for where to install it. Completing that examination of the code, we see that there are 5 VIs that are user-facing:

  1. The Launcher (testbed.vi)
  2. The Main GUI (Display Data.vi)
  3. The Temperature Controller (Temperature Controller.vi)
  4. Two “Acquisition” VIs (Acquire Ramp Data.vi and Acquire Sine Data.vi)

So the first thing I do is modify each of these VIs by dropping a copy of the drop-in VI on to their block diagram outside the outer-most loop. For example, this is what the modified launcher block diagram looks like:

textbed.vi with drop-in installed

As promised earlier, this is all the modification that the application will need – which means we are ready to start testing.

The First Test

“But wait a minute…” you protest. “…we haven’t configured anything yet. There’s nothing to test!”

Well you’re half right. We have not gone into the database and configured any controls to be modified, but we still have something to test. We still have to verify the drop-in’s default behavior, which by the way, is to do nothing. Yes, you read that right, we have to test that nothing happens. You see, a major aspect of the drop-in concepts is that drop-ins don’t do anything unless they are explicitly told to through their configuration. Right now we have installed the drop-in code, but there are no controls configured in the database so we need to make sure that the main application continues to run as it did before: no side-effects and no errors. In short, the drop-in right now should do nothing, and we need to make sure that it fulfills that requirement.

So launch the top-level VI (testbed.vi) or run the standalone executable. As before, the launcher will show the names of the processes it’s launching and when it finishes the main GUI will open. Again as before, you will be able to switch between screens using the popup menu and the plugins will operate just as they did before. Finally, if you look at the contents of the event table in the database, you will see that no errors have been generated.

It’s All About the Children

Now that we have “nothing” working, we need to finish implementing all the “somethings”. You will recall that when we ended last time I had created a basic implementation of the font manager functionality that could change the label or caption of any type of control. The tricky part, I said was going to be implementing the subclass, or children, methods that would modify the font of a configured control’s contents. So let’s look at those children.

The String and Digital Subclasses

I choose to start with these two because they are the easiest to understand, and are very much alike. Here’s the child method for handing strings…

String Subclass Method

…and the one for digital numerics…

Digital Subclass Method

In either subclass, the logic starts by calling the parent methods (which handles labels and captions) and then extracting from the parent’s class data the reference to the control that will be manipulated. At the same time that is going on, the Font Parameters data is unbundled and the Component to Set value controls what, if anything, happens next. If the selected component is Label or Caption a case is selected which does nothing but pass through the error cluster. If, however, the selected component is Contents the associated case casts the basic control reference from the parent class data into the control’s specific control class, and then sets the appropriate properties.

The Boolean and RingSubclasses

The next two I want to consider are, again, similar each other, but differ from the preceding pair in that they represent control classes that don’t have any readily discernible textual value. Booleans represent logical true and false conditions, while rings are technically numerics, but the number that is their value doesn’t appear anywhere. In this sort of situation, the idea is to look for text that is not the control’s value but is associated with that value. For example, Boolean controls in LabVIEW can have textual displays that state the control’s condition. These strings are called Boolean Text and are often used to label push buttons or lights…

Boolean Subclass Method

Likewise, the Ring control appears to the user as a pop-up menu, so we can use this code to set the text properties of the text that appears in the menu…

Ring Subclass Method

The WaveformChart Subclass

Finally, we need to take the idea of strings that are only associated with data one more step. What about complex controls that can have multiple strings associated with their values? Objects like charts are good examples of what I am talking about. Just to start, there is text associated with the axis tick marks, there is text that forms the axis labels, and there is text in the plot legends.

The most flexible approach would be to figure out how to uniquely identify each of these components, however we must be careful to not create an API that is so flexible that it is unusable. One solution would be to simply make all the text the same font and size – which is what they are anyway. A look that I prefer however is to have the tick mark labels slightly smaller than the axis labels. Here is one way to do that:

WaveformChart Subclass Method

As you can see, the code treats the two axes the same by combining references to them into an array and then passing that array into a loop that manipulates the display parameters. This logic makes the axis labels the size specified in the configuration, but does a bit of math to make the tick mark labels about 10% smaller. This difference might not seem like much, but it works. If this isn’t exactly what you want, that’s OK. The point here is not to present a canonical solution, but to present concepts and ideas that help you find your own way.

Adding Configurations

Now we are ready to add the font definitions to the database. I have created a total of 12 definitions covering 9 different controls and indicators and you can see them all by examining the SQL file in the _repos subdirectory in the project (starting at line 27). However, to give you a taste of what the SQL code for this functionality looks like, here is the SQL for the table holding the font configurations, and the font definition for the string indicator on the front panel of the launcher.

CREATE TABLE ctrl_font_definition (
    owner_name  TEXT(50) WITH COMPRESSION,
    ctrl_name   TEXT(50) WITH COMPRESSION,
    font_name   TEXT(20) WITH COMPRESSION,
    font_size   INTEGER,
    ctrl_comp   TEXT(20) WITH COMPRESSION

INSERT INTO ctrl_font_definition
  (owner_name, ctrl_name, font_name, font_size, ctrl_comp)
  ('testbed.vi', 'progress', 'Segoe UI', 24, 'Contents')

The goal of these initial definitions is to “turn-on” the functionality without changing too much. For example, the ‘Segoe UI’ font is the default font that LabVIEW uses on recent versions of the Windows platform. If you are running this code on the Macintosh or Linux (or an older version of Windows), the default font will be different. So on other platforms you may need to modify these definitions before you install them.

Once we have the definitions in the database, let’s try the testbed application again. You might not notice a lot of difference, that is sort of the point. This initial test is to reproduce the default values. One place where you will notice a difference is if you are running Windows and you have the display font scaling on your display set to the non-default value. The text size will now always be the same relative to the size of the window regardless of how the display setting changes.

From here I would recommend that you play around a bit and manually change the font and size of the various controls to see the effect.

Testbed Application – Release 16
Toolbox – Release 12
Testbed Installer – Release 16

Please note that I have included in this release a built version of the application so you can practice working with the database. The LocalDB.mdb file included with this installer has the table defined for holding the font definitions, but the table is empty. This release has two purposes: One, by adding to and manipulating the data in its database, you can see that you really can modify the visual presentation without changing code. Two, I have started using LabVIEW 2015 and realize that some of you may not have upgraded yet. If this version change is a problem, post a comment and I will send you a version of the code back-saved to LabVIEW 2014.

The Big Tease

One of the things that I like about NI Week is the opportunity to meet friends both new and old. Before a keynote address one morning I was talking to another one of the LabVIEW Champions, Jack Dunaway by name, and the topic of this blog came up. To make a long story short, he suggested a topic that sounded so good, I’m going to get started on it next time.

One good of way showing a lot of data in a small space is what is known as a tree control. It’s valuable because its structure is inherently hierarchical and so can display a lot of data while not taking up a lot of screen real estate. In addition, it can reduce the overwhelm that you sometimes feel when looking at large datasets because, when done well, they allow you to start with a high-level view of the data and gradually drill down to the specific results you want.

If you are working in Windows, there are two such controls available: one that is part of Windows, and one that is native to LabVIEW. So next time: the Native LabVIEW Tree Control. Be there or be square.

Until Next Time…


Drop-Ins Are Always Welcome

One of the key distinctions of web development is that the standards draw a bright line between content and presentation. While LabVIEW doesn’t (so far) have anything as powerful as the facilities that CSS provides, there are things that you can do to take steps in that direction. The basic technique is called creating a “drop-in” VI. These functions derive their name from the fact that they are dropped into an existing VI to change the display characteristics, but without impacting the host VI’s basic functionality.

The Main Characteristics

The first thing we need to do is consider the constraints under which these VIs will need to operate. These constraints will both assist in setting the scope of what we try to accomplish, and inform the engineering decision we have to make.

No Fraternization

The first requirement that a VI to meet in order to be considered truly “drop-in” capable, is that there must be no interaction between its logic and that of the VI into which it is being dropped. But if there is to be no interaction with the existing code, how is it supposed to change anything? Given that we are only talking about changing the aspects of the data presentation, all we need is a VI Server reference to the calling VI, and that we can get using the low-level Call Chain function.

VI Server Accesses

As you can see, from the VI reference you can get a reference to the VI’s front panel, and from that you can get an array of references for all the objects on the front panel. It is those references that allow you to set such things as the display font and size – which just happen to be the two things we are going to be manipulating for this example.

One potential problem to be aware of is the temptation to use these references to do things that directly affect how the code operates. However, this is a temptation you must resist. Even though it may seem like you “got away with it this time”, sooner or later it will bite you.

To be specific, changing the appearance of data is OK, but changing the data itself is, in general, not. However, there is one exception that when you think about it makes a lot of sense: localization. Localization is the process of changing the text of captions or labels so they appear is the language of the user, and not the developer. This operation is acceptable because although you might be changing the value in, for example, a button’s Boolean text you aren’t changing what the button does. The button will perform the same whether it is marked “OK”, “Si” or “Ja”.

Autonomous Error Handling

The next thing a drop-in has to be able to do is correctly manage errors. But here we have a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, errors are still important, so you want to know if they occur. However, you don’t on the other hand, want this added functionality to interrupt the main code because an error occurred while configuring something the user would consider as “cosmetic”.

The solution is for the drop-in to have its own separate error reporting mechanism that records errors, but doesn’t inject them into the main VI’s error chain. The error handling library we have in place already has the needed functions for implementing this functionality.

External Configuration Storage

Finally, the drop-in VI needs configuration data that is stored in a central location outside the VI itself – after all, we want this drop-in to be usable in a wide variety of applications and projects. For implementing this storage you have at your disposal all the options you had when creating the main application itself, and as with the main application, the selection of the correct storage location depends on how much of this added capability will be exposed to the user. If you intend to let the user set the values, you can put the settings in an INI file. You just need to make sure that you quality the data they enter before you try using it. Otherwise you could end up in a situation where they specify a non-existent font, or a text size that is impossibly large or small.

To keep things simple for this test case, we will store the data in the same database that we use to store all the other configuration values. The data that we store in the database will also be (for now) simple. Each record will store the data needed to modify one part of one control, so it will contain a field for the name of the VI, the name of the control, an enumeration for selecting what part of the control is to be set, and finally the font name and size. The enumeration Component to Set will have 3 values: Label, Caption and Contents. Note that to keep things organized and easy to modify or expand, this structure as a whole, and the enumeration in particular are embodied on the LabVIEW side in type definitions.

The Plan of Action

So how can we implement this functionality? The literary device of the “omniscient author” has always bothered me so rather than simply heading off in a direction that I chose before I started writing, let’s take a look at a couple of implementation options and see which one of the two will work the best for us. Remember that the only thing more important that coming up with the right answer, is knowing how you came up with the right answer.

The “Normal” Way

For our first try, let’s start with the basic logic for getting the control references we saw a moment ago, and add to it a VI that returns the font configuration data for the VI that is being configured. Note that the input to this fetch routine (which gets the data from the application database) is the name of the VI that is calling the drop-in. This name is fully qualified, meaning it contains not just the VI name, but also the names of any library or class of which it might be a member.

Font Manager - Deadend

The output from the database lookup consists of a pair of correlated arrays. Correlated arrays are arrays where the data from a given element in one array correlates to, or goes with, the data from the same-numbered element in the other array. In this case, one array is a list of the control names and the other array is a list of all the font settings that go with the various parts of that control.

The first thing the code does is look to see if there are any font settings defined for the VI by checking to see if one of the arrays are empty. It is only necessary to check one of the arrays since they will always have the same number of elements. If there are font settings defined for the VI, the code takes the array of control references from the VI’s front panel and looks at them one-by-one to determine whether the label for that particular control or indicator is contained in the array of control names. When this search finds a control that is in the list of control names, the code unbundles the font settings data and uses the Component to Set value to select the frame of a case structure that contains the property node for the specified component’s property.

This approach works pretty well for labels and captions because all controls and indicators can, regardless of type, have them. In addition, regardless of whether the control is a string, numeric, cluster or what have you, the properties are always named the same. (The property for manipulating a control’s Caption is shown.)

Unfortunately, things begin to get complicated once you move past the properties that all controls share in common and start changing the font settings for the data contained inside the control – what we are calling the Contents. For example, the property for setting the font of the contents of a string control is called Text.FontName, whereas the property for setting the corresponding information in a digital numeric is called NumText.FontName. Things get even stranger when you start talking about setting the font of the Boolean text in the middle of a button, or worse the lines in a listbox – there each row has to be set individually.

The fundamental problem that this simple approach has is that the settings for controls and indicators are built on object-oriented principles. Labels and Captions are easy because they are common to all controls, but as soon as you start talking about text that is contained inside a control, you have to deal with a specific type, or subclass, of control. Plus to even get access to the required properties you need to cast the generic Ctl reference to a more specific class like a Str (string) or DigNum (digital numeric). We could, of course, simply expand the number of items in the Component to Set enumeration to explicitly call out all the various components that we want to be able modify. Then in each case we could do something like this:

'fixing' a problem

Because we know that the String Text is only valid for strings, we could cast the reference to the proper subclass, set the appropriate property, and call it done. If you look at very much code you will see this sort of thing being done all the time. But looking closer in those situations you will also see all the code that gets put into trying to fix this implementation’s shortcomings. For example, because the subclass selection logic is in essence being driven by the enumeration, and the enumeration value is stored in the database; we have created a situation where the contents of the database needs to be kept “in sync” with the controls on the front panels. Hence if a string control should be changed to a digital numeric (or vice versa) the database will need to be manually updated to track the change. This fact, in turn, means that we will need to add code to the VI to handle the errors that occur when we forget to keep the code and the database in sync.

As bad as that might sound, it is not the worst problem. The real deal-breaker is that every time you want or need to add support for another type of control, or another Component to Set, you will be back here modifying this VI. This ongoing maintenance task pretty much means that reusing this code will be difficult to impossible. Hopefully you can see that thanks to these problems (and these are just the two biggest ones), this “simple” approach built around a single case structure ends up getting very, very messy.

But if the object-oriented structure of controls is getting us into trouble, perhaps a bit more object orientation can get us out of trouble…

Riding a Horse in the Direction it’s Going

When programming you will often find yourself in a situation where you are wanting to extend a structure that you can see in a way that you can’t yet fully see or understand. When confronting that challenge, I often find it helpful to take some time and consider the overall trajectory of the part of the structure I can see to see where it’s pointing. Invariably, if you are working with a well-defined structure (as you are here) the best solutions will be found by “riding the horse in the direction it’s already going”.

So what direction is this “horse” already going? Well, the first thing we see is that it is going in the direction of a layered, hierarchical structure. In the VI Server structure that we can see, we observe that the basic control class is not at the top of the hierarchy, but rather in the middle of a much larger structure with multiple layers both above and below it.


The other thing we can note about the direction of this architectural trendline is that the hierarchy we just saw is organized using object-oriented principles, so the hierarchy is a hierarchy of classes, of datatypes. Hence, each object is distinct and in some way unique, but the objects as a group are also related to one another in useful ways.

Taking these two points together it becomes clear that we should be looking for a solution that is similarly layered and object-oriented. However, LabVIEW doesn’t (yet) have a way to seamlessly extend its internal object hierarchy, so while developing this structure using classes of our own creation, we will need to be careful to keep “on track”.

Moving Forward

The basic for this structure is a class that we will call Display Properties.lvclass. Initially this class will have two public interface VIs: One, Create Display Properties Update Object.vi, does as its name says and creates an object associated with a specific control or indicator. This object will drive what is now the only other interface VI (Set Control Font.vi) which is created for dynamic dispatch and will serve as the entry point for setting the font and size of text associated with GUI controls and indicators. I am building the class in this way because it is easy to imagine other display properties that we might want to manipulate in the future (e.g. colors, styles, localization, etc.). This is the code I use to dynamically load and create display property update objects:

Create Font Object

In general, it is very similar to code I have presented before to dynamically create objects, but there are a few differences. To begin with, the code does not buffer the object after it is created because unlike the other examples we have looked at over the past weeks, these objects do not need to be persistent. In other words, these objects will be created, used and then discarded.

Next, to simplify in their identification, all VI Server classes have properties that return a Class ID number and a Class Name. The code uses the latter value to build the path and class name of the child class being requested.

Finally, after the code builds the path and name of the subclass it wants to use, it checks to see if the class exists and only attempts to load it if the defining lvclass file is found. If the file is missing, the code outputs a parent class object. The reason for this difference is twofold:

  1. Without it, if a control class was called that we had not implemented, the code would throw an error. Consequently, in order to prevent those errors I would have to create dozens of empty classes that served no functional purpose – and that is wasteful of both my time and computer resources.
  2. With it, the logic extends what normally happens when a method is not overridden in a subclass, to include the case where the subclass hasn’t even been implemented yet: the parent class and, – more to the point – the parent methods, are invoked.

Taken Care of Business

The dynamic dispatch VI Set Control Font.vi is obviously the parent method for what will eventually be a family of override methods that will address specific types of controls. But that begs the question: What should go in this VI?

Well think about it for a moment. In the first possible implementation we looked at, things initially looked promising because changing the font and size of labels and captions was so easy. You’ll remember that the reason they were easy, was because all controls and indicators can have them and the properties are always named the same. That sounds like a pretty good description of what we would want in a parent method – so here it is:

Set Font Parent

The structure is pretty simple, the code retrieves the control reference from where it was stored in the class data and passes it into a case structure that has cases for Label and Caption. In addition, it has an empty case that handles the Contents value of Component to Set. This case is empty because that value will be handled during override. So all we have left to do for right now is look at how these VIs look incorporated into the structure we looked at earlier – all we really needed to replace was the case structure…

Font Manager

…and here it is. Nothing much new to see here, so let me just recommend that you take a good look at this code because you probably won’t be seeing it again. Since we will be adding functionality in the context of the class structure we created, we won’t need to revisit this logic any time soon, and maybe ever.

The Big Tease

So with the basic structure in place, all we have to do is start populating the subclasses we need. But that will have to wait for next time when I will also post all the code.

Until Next Time…