If the socket fits, wear it…

One of this blog’s recurring themes is the importance of modularity as an expression of the age-old tactic of “divide and conquer”. What is perhaps new (or at least daunting) to some readers is the idea of spreading tasks across not just separate processes on the same computer, but across multiple networked computers. Of course if this strategy is to be successful, the key is communications and to that end we have been examining ways of incorporating remote access capabilities into out testbed application.

Last time out, we implemented the first interface for remote applications to monitor and control our application. That interface took the form of a custom TCP protocol that used packets of JSON data to carry messages over a vanilla TCP connection. I started there because it provides a simplified mechanism for exploring some of the issues concerning basic code structure. Although this interface worked well, and in fact would prove adequate for a wide variety of applications, it did exhibit one big issue. To wit, clients had to be written in a specific way in order to use it. This fact is a problem for many applications because users are growing increasingly reticent about installing special software. They want to know why they need to load special code to do a job? The way they see it, their PCs (and cell phones for that matter) come with a bunch of networking software preloaded on them – and they have a valid point! Why should they have to install something new?

A complete answer to that question is far beyond the scope of this post, but we can spend a few useful moments considering one small niche of the overall problem, and a standardized solution to that problem. Specifically, how can we leverage some of those networking tools (read: browsers) to support remote access to our testbed application? As we have discussed before, the web environment provides ample tools for creating some really nice interfaces. The real sticking point is how that “really nice” interface can communicate with the testbed application. You may recall that a while back we considered one technique that I characterized as a “drop box” solution. The idea was to take advantage of the database underlying a web application by using it to mediate the communications. In other words, the LabVIEW application writes new data to the database and the web application reads and displays the data from the database – hence the “drop box” appellation.

While we might be able to force-fit this approach into providing a control capability, it would impose a couple big problems: First, it would mean that the local application would have to be constantly polling a remote database to see if there have been any changes. Second, it would be really, Really, REALLY slow. We need something faster. We need something more interactive. We need WebSockets.

What are WebSockets?

Simply put, the name WebSockets refers to a message-based protocol that was standardized in 2011 as RFC 6455. The protocol that the standard defines is low-overhead, full-duplex and content agnostic, meaning that it can carry data of any type – even JSON-encoded text data (hint, hint).

An interesting aspect of this protocol is that its default port for establishing a connection is port 80 – the same as the default port for HTTP. While this built-in conflict might be confusing, it actually makes sense. You see when a client initiates an HTTP connection, the first thing it does is pass to the server a number of headers that provide information on the requested connection. One of those headers allows the client to request an Upgrade connection. The original purpose of this header was to allow the client to request an upgraded connection with, for example, enhanced security. However, in recent years it has become a mechanism to allow multiple protocols to listen to the same port.

The way the process works is simple: The client initiates a normal HTTP connection to the server but sets the request headers to indicate that it is requesting a specific non-HTTP protocol. In the case of a request for the WebSockets protocol, the upgrade value is websocket. The server responds to this request with a return code of 101 (Switching Protocols). From that point on, all further communications are made using the WebSockets protocol. It is important to note that while this initial handshake leads some to assume that WebSockets in some ways dependent upon, or rides on top of the HTTP protocol, such is not the case. Aside from the initial connection handshake, the WebSockets protocol is a distinct process that shares nothing with HTTP. Consequently, while the most common application of the technique might be web-based client-server operation, the WebSockets protocol is equally well-suited for peer-to-peer messaging. The only limitation is that one of the two peers needs to be able to respond correctly to the initial handshake.

It is also worth understanding why the basic idea of using Port 80 for the initial connection is significant. A conversation on Stackoverflow gives a pretty good explanation of several issues, but for me the major advantage of using port 80 is that it avoids IT-induced complications. Many corporate IT departments will lock down ports that they don’t recognize. While there are some that try to lock down port 80, it is much less common. Before continuing on, if you’re interested, you also can find the details of the initial handshake here.

The LabVIEW Connection

Ok, so it sounds like WebSockets could definitely have a place in our communications toolbox, but how are we going to take advantage of it from LabVIEW? The answer to that question lies in the work of LabVIEW CLA Sam Sharp. He has developed a set of “pure G” VIs that allows you to implement either side of the connection. Because these are written in nothing but G, there are no DLLs involved so they can run equally well on any supported LabVIEW platform. Making the deal even sweeter, he has documented his code, created a tutorial on them, released his VIs for anyone to use, and all the compensation he requests is “…it would be great if you credit me…”. So, Sam, may you have a million click-throughs.

The following discussion is written assuming Sam’s VIs which I have converted to LabVIEW 2015. One quick note, if you don’t or can’t use the VIPM, you can still use the *.vip file, all you have to do is change the “v” to a “z” and you are good to go. As a first taste of how these VIs work, let’s look (like we did with the TCP example last time) at an over-simplified example to get a sense of the overall logical flow.

The Simplist WebSockets Server

For our purposes here, the testbed application will be the “server” so our code starts by listening for a connection attempt on the default Port 80. When it receives a connection, a reference to that connection is passed to a VI (DoHandshake.vi) that implements the initial handshake to activate the WebSockets protocol. Note that a key part of this process is the passing of a couple of “magic strings” between the client and server to validate the connection and protocol selection.

With the handshake completed and both ends of the connection satisfied that the WebSockets protocol is going to be used, the following subVI (Read.vi) reads a data packet from the client that, in our application, represents a data or control request. Next comes the subVI (Write.vi) that writes a response back to the client. Finally the code calls a subVI (Close.vi) that sends a WebSockets command to close the connection, and then closes the TCP connection reference that LabVIEW uses.

Building the Interface

To build this bare logic into something usable, the structure of the server task is essentially identical to that of the TCP process we built last time. In fact, the only difference between the two is ports to which they are listening, and the specific reentrant handlers that they launch in response to a TCP connection. So let’s concentrate on that alternate process. During initialization, the handler calls the subVI that implements the initial handshake.

Handler Initialization

In addition to the connection reference, this routine also outputs a string that is the URI that was used to establish the connection. Although we don’t need it for our application, it could be used to pass additional information to the server. Once initialization is complete the main event loop starts, but unlike the TCP handler we wrote earlier, it is not based around a state-machine structure.

Main Event Loop

While we could have broken up the process into separate states, the fact that Sam has provided excellent subVIs implementing the read and write functionality makes such a structure feel a bit contrived – or at least to me it does. When the timeout event fires, the code waits for 500 msecs for the first user data coming from the connection. If the read times-out, the loop waits for another 500 msec and then tries again. This polling technique is important because it allows other things (like the system shutdown event) to interrupt the process. Likewise, because we are waiting for a response that is, at least potentially, coming from a remote computer the polling allows us to wait as long as necessary for the response.

When the request data does arrive, the JSON data string is processed by a pair of subVIs that we originally created for the TCP protocol handler. They create the appropriate Remote Access Commands object and pass it on to the dynamic dispatch VI (Process Command.vi) that executes the command and returns the response. The response data is next flattened to a JSON string and written to the connection. Because the current implementation assumes a single request/response cycle per connection, the code closes the WebSockets connection and the TCP connection reference. However, it would be easy to visualize a structure that would not close the connection, but rather repeat one of the data read commands at a timed interval to create a remote “live” interface.

In terms of the errors that can occur during this process, the code has to correctly respond to two specific error codes. First is error code 56, a built-in LabVIEW error that flags a network operation timeout. Because this is the error that is generated if server hasn’t yet received the client’s request, the code basically ignores it. Second is error code 6066, which is a WebSockets-specific error defined in RFC 6455 to flag the situation where the remote client closes a WebSockets connection. Our code responds by closing the TCP connection reference and stopping the loop.

Testing our Work

Now that we have our new server up and running we need to be able to test its operation. However, rather than creating another LabVIEW application to act as the test platform, I built it into a web application. The interface consists of a main screen that provides a pop-up menu for selecting what you want to do and 5 other screens, each of which focus on a specific control action. As these things go, I guess it’s not a great web application, but it is serviceable enough for our purposes. If you need a great application, talk to Sam Sharp – that’s what his company does.

The HTML and CSS

As I have preached many times before, one of the things that makes web development powerful is the strict “division of labor” between its various components: the HTML defines the content, the CSS specifies how the content should look, JavaScript implements client-side interactivity and a variety of languages (including JavaScript!) providing server-side programmability. So lets start with a quick look at the HTML that defines my web interface, and CSS that makes it look good in spite of me… In order to provide some context for the following discussion, here is what the main screen looks like:

Main Screen

It has a title, a header and a pop-up menu from which you can select what you want to do. As a demonstration of the effect that CSS can have, here’s the part of the HTML that creates the pop-up menu.

<button class="btn btn-default dropdown-toggle" type="button" data-toggle="dropdown">Available Actions<span class="caret"></span></button>
<ul class="dropdown-menu">
  <li><a href="ReadGraphData.html">Read Graph Data</a></li>
  <li><a href="ReadGraphImage.html">Read Graph Image</a></li>
  <li class="divider"></li>
  <li><a href="SetAcquisitionRate.html">Set Acquisition Rate</a></li>
  <li><a href="SetDataBufferDepth.html">Set Data Buffer Depth</a></li>
  <li><a href="SetTCParameters.html">Set TC Parameters</a></li>

You’ll notice that pop-up menu is constructed from two separate elements: A button and an unordered list – normally a set of bullet points – where each item in the list is defined as an anchor with a link to one of the other pages. However, as the picture shows, when this code runs we don’t see a button and a set of bullet points, we see one pop-up menu. How can this be? The magic lies in CSS that dramatically changes the appearance of these elements to give them the appearance of a menu. Likewise, some custom JavaScript makes the visually manipulate elements work like a menu. What is very cool, however, is that the resources making this transformation possible are part of a standard package, called Twitter Bootstrap, that is free for anyone to use. In a similar vein, let’s look at the page that displays a plot of data acquired from the testbed application:

Graph Screen - Blank

At the top of the screen there’s a small form where the user enters information defining the task to be performed, and a button to initiate the operation that the user is requesting. Below that form, is a blank area where the software will draw the graph of the acquired data. Let’s look at two specific bits of HTML, first the code that builds the data entry form…

  <fieldset class="input-box">
    <legend>View Graph Data</legend>
    <input type="text" class="str-input" id="ipAddr" value="localhost">  Host</input><br>
    <input type="number" class="num-input" id="portNum" value="80">  Port Number</input><br>
    <select id = "targetPlugin">
      <option value = "Sine Source">Sine Source</option>
      <option value = "Ramp Source">Ramp Source</option>
      <option value = "Hen House TC">Hen House TC</option>
      <option value = "Dog House TC">Dog House TC</option>
      <option value = "Out House TC">Out House TC</option>
    </select><label>  Select Target for Action</label><br>
    <input type="button" id="just-submit-button" value="Send Command">

…and now the code that defines the graph:

<div id="container" style="min-width: 310px; height: 400px; margin: 0 auto"></div>

But, something seems to be missing. The first snippet will create data-entry fields and a button, but what happens when the button is clicked? Apparently, nothing. Likewise, the consider the graphing element. We can see how large the area is to be, but where is the data coming from? And where are the graphing operations? To answer those questions, we need to look elsewhere.

The JavaScript

The power behind much of the web in general – and our application in particular – is the interpreted language JavaScript. In addition to being able to access all resources on your computer, JavaScript can interact directly with web pages and their underlying structures. For folks that like to split hairs, JavaScript is “object-based” because it does support the concept of object, but it is not “object-oriented” because it doesn’t explicitly support classes.

More important for what we are going to be doing is that it supports the concept of “callbacks” (read: User Defined Events). In other words, you can tell JavaScript to automatically performs functions when certain events occur. For example, our JavaScript code is going to be interacting with the web page that loaded it, we need to be sure that the page is fully loaded before that program starts. In order to accomplish that goal, the JavaScript file associated with the page includes this structure:

$(window).load(function() {
	...  // a lot of stuff goes here

This code creates a callback for the .load() event. The parameter passed to the .load() event is a reference to the function that JavaScript will run when the event fires. As is common in JavaScript, the code declares the function in line so everything between the opening and closing curly brackets will be executed when the event fires. So after declaring a few variables the code includes this:

  //The code here retrieves all of the input data and formats the request.
  target = $("#targetPlugin").val();
  remAddr = $("#ipAddr").val();
  remPort = $("#portNum").val();
  jsonData = '\"Read Graph Data\":' + JSON.stringify({"Target":target}); 

  // the websocket logic
  wc_connect(remAddr, remPort, parseData);

So the first thing the code does when the page finishes loading is register another callback, but this one defines what JavaScript will do when the user clicks the button in the form. The first three lines read the values of the form data entry fields, and the fourth assembles that data into the JSON string that will be sent to the server. The last two lines are the interface to the WebSockets logic. The first of these lines establishes the connection to the server, while the other one sends the command. But what about the response? Shouldn’t there be a line with a command like wc_receive? You really should be expecting this by now: Inside the wc_connect command the code registers another callback to handle the response.

The event (called onmessage) that is tied to this callback fires when a message is received from the server. The code implementing the callback resides in the file websockets.js (in case you’re curious) and its job is to read the JSON response data packet, check for errors, parse the data and generate the output – the graph. The only question now is, “How does it know how to parse the data and generate the graph?” And the answer is (all together now): “There’s another callback!” See the third parameter of wc_connect, the one named parseData? That value is actually a reference to a function contained in the JavaScript code for this particular page, and is an example of how JavaScript implements a “plugin architecture”. So here is how the data parser for this page starts…

var parseData = function(rawData){
  var plotData = JSON.parse(rawData);
  // trim decimal places
  plotData.forEach(function(element, index, array){
    plotData[index] =  Number(element.toFixed(3));

At this point in the process, the data portion of the response is still a string, so to make processing the data easier, we first parse it to convert it into a JSON object. In the case of this particular response, the resulting object is the array of numbers expressed as strings. Really long strings. You see when LabVIEW encodes a number as a JSON string it includes far more digits of precision than are really needed, so forEach element in the array, I convert the value to a number with 3 decimal places. Here’s the rest of the code:

  // logic for drawing the graph
    title: { text: 'Recent Data', align: 'center' },
    subtitle: { text: 'System: '+remAddr+':'+remPort, align: 'center' },
    xAxis: { title: { text: 'Samples' }, tickInterval: 1 },
    yAxis: { title: { text: 'Amplitude' }, gridLineColor: "#D8D8D8" },
    tooltip: { headerFormat: '<small>Sample: {point.key}</small><br>' },
    series: [{ turboThreshold: 0, name: target, data: plotData, lineWidth: 1, marker:{enabled: false}, color: '#000000' }]

This is the code that does the plotting, and as we shall see in a moment, this small amount of code produces a beautiful and highly functional chart that displays the values of individual points in a tooltip when you hover over them with the mouse and even provides a pop-up menu that allows you to save the plot image in a variety of image formats. This functionality is possible thanks to a plotting library called Highcharts that uses the structure defined in the HTML as a placeholder for what is going to draw. I have used this library before in demonstrations because in my experience it is stable, easy to use, and very well-documented. I also like the fact that regardless of what kind of plot I am trying to create they have a demo online that gets me about 95% of the way to my goal. Please note that this library is a commercial product, but they make it available for free for “non-Commercial” applications – however even for commercial usage, the one-time license fee is really pretty reasonable. Finally, even though it doesn’t appear that they actively police their licensing with things like crippled versions or the like, if you are using this on a professional project, pay the people. They have certainly earned their bread.

Testing the Pages

So at last we have our server in place and some test web pages (and supporting code) created. We need to consider how to run the web client. Here you have three options: First, you could just double-click the top-level file in Windows Explorer and Windows will dutifully open the file in your browser and everything will work as it should. Second, if you have access to an existing web server you can copy the dozen or so files to it and test it from there. Third, you could create a small temporary server strictly for testing. If you choose that path, a good option is a server called Express.js. As it name implies, it is written in JavaScript, which means it runs under the Node.JS execution engine. You can set one up sufficient to test our current code in about 10 minutes – including the time required to download the code.

The overall test process is similar to what we did to test the custom TCP server last time. The only significant change is the interface. First, test things that should work to make sure they do. Second, test the things that shouldn’t work and make sure they don’t. Here are examples of what you can expect to see on the graphing and image-fetch screens:

Graph Screen

Image Screen

Testbed App – Release 20
Toolbox – Release 17
WebSockets Client – Release 1

Big Tease

So what’s next? We have looked at access via a custom TCP interface and the standard WebSockets interface. How about next time, we look at how to do embed this connectivity in a C++ program using a DLL?

Until Next Time…