Ain’t Misbehavin’ – Thanks to External Calls

When calling DLLs we are often more concerned about making the calls correctly, and not so much about what happens after we are done using it. However, when developing professional applications we have to be concerned about the entire process. As an example of the kind of things that can happen, I once built an application that called several proprietary DLLs. Moreover, these DLLs internally made calls to other DLLs that were occasionally updated. Due to this update requirement, my application also needed to be able to run the MSIs needed to uninstall the old versions of these internal DLLs and install the new versions.

For a while everything worked as it should, but gradually a problem began to appear. If the user updated the internal DLLs immediately after launching the application, all was well. However, if the user did anything that accessed the DLLs first, the MSI operations generated a warning saying that the DLL being changed was in use by my application and that a reboot might be necessary after the update – though in the end a reboot was never actually required. And to repeat an important point: my code never directly accesses the DLLs being changed, so I was left wondering why the MSI installer flagged my application as being the problem?

My first response was to back and double-checked all the DLL calls I was making to ensure that I was closing and disposing of all the resources I was using, but the problem persisted. In the end, I discovered that the DLLs my code called weren’t shutting down properly. Consequently, it appeared to Windows that those DLLs were still in use. Therefore, it appeared to Windows that the DLLs they were calling were also still in use. As a result, my application got the credit for holding open all the DLLs.

The Fix

As I was researched this problem, I learned that this sort of issue is not at all uncommon in the C/C++ programming world. In fact, since DLL developers typically blew-off fixing the root cause, there was even a well-defined workaround for the problem. All I had to do was turn all the routines that accessed the DLLs into standalone executables that I would call from my main program. With this alteration to the logic the problem goes away because when the little executable closes, Windows forcibly cleans-up the DLL mess.

Having done this sort of thing before, the basic shape of the process was pretty easy to grasp: Create a standalone executable and call it using the built-in LabVIEW System Exec.vi function. The unique part was that all the instances where I had used this technique in the past had one thing in common: They had all been higher-level processes that pretty much ran on their own with minimal connection to the main application. By contrast, these little executables needed to operate pretty much like a subVI.

Thinking About Interfaces

One of the main differences between a “high-level” executable and a “subVI” executable lies in how we handle the passing of data back and forth between the main application and the executables. When the executable in question is a higher-level process it typically doesn’t require a lot of interaction with the caller, and the interaction that is required is often built on top of a standardized infrastructure that provides well-defined mechanisms for such tasks as the passing of runtime data or the storing of results.

The situation, however, is very different if the executable is a small routine that is launched, does something simple, and then quits. In that situation, it’s hard to justify the overhead of such common techniques as a database interface, or TCP communications channel. Moreover, when we compare the data requirements of a large standalone process to a small “subVI” executable, we see that the inherent nature of the data differs between the two types of executables.

Standalone executable processes need primarily meta-data consisting of high-level information that in theory can change, but as a practical matter rarely does. This type of data can be effectively stored in an INI file. I’m thinking here about such things as the path to a database, or the port that a standard external process will be using for communications. The expectation is that with these bits of general data, the process can go and fetch for itself the detailed information that it needs in order to operate.

By contrast, because the “subVI” executable is operating logically as a subroutine, its only interface is the data it receives from the caller. Likewise, the result of its work needs to be returned to that same caller as directly and as easily as possible because you have no idea how an eventual developer will choose to you this “subroutine”.

Getting Data In

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a great proponent of simplifying interfaces through the process of Information Hiding, and while that concept still holds true here, the fact that the subroutine lives in a separate application adds a bit of complexity because its execution context is different from the main application. For example, one of the ways that the various VIs contained in a module can hide their inner workings is through shared memory structures like FGVs. However, if some part of that module resides in another executable that technique is no longer available.

Another issue is that the most secure, least error-prone technique for passing data is using complex data structures the mirror the input data’s inherent structure. Here the challenge is that while we can pass data into an executable using command-line parameters, that interface limits us to passing simple strings. Consequently, we will need to reformat our data, but do so in such a way that it is both easy to parse and doesn’t compromise the data’s integrity.

It appears that we have a conflict in requirements. We know, that in the end, everything has to be expressed as an ASCII string, but to transfer numeric data without compromising its precision we need to send binary information. Fortunately this problem isn’t a new one – in fact, it’s as old as the internet.

Originally, the internet was all about the text: no pictures, no sound files, no cat videos – everything was expressed as ASCII text. While is was amazing what people were able to do given that constraint, there soon arose applications that couldn’t be faked: they needed to be able to send real binary data through an ASCII “pipe”. The solution (which, by the way, is still used today) was to encode the binary data as a string using a subset of ASCII. One of the oldest and most common encoding scheme is called Base64, and its name is derived the way it encodes the data. It starts by stringing together consecutive 3 byte chunks of data into a single 24-bit value. This 24-bit value is then broken up into four, 6-bit values. Now a 6-bit binary can have 64 distinct values (hence the name). Finally, the technique assigns a printable ASCII value to each of the 6-bit values from 000000 to 111111. For this final mapping, Base64 uses the characters a through z, A through Z, 0 through 9, “+” and “/”. The result is a string that is guaranteed to pass through an ASCII network without being corrupted.

Applying this technique to our application, we find that we can flatten any LabVIEW datatype to a string, and then Base64 encode the flattened string. What we get for this minimal effort is a string that we can easily parse and convert back into LabVIEW data. To keep things simple and error free, when using this technique, you just need to be sure that the LabVIEW data you flatten is defined as a typedef. Here is an example of one simple encoding implementation…

Simple Data Encoding

…and the corresponding decoding logic…

Simple Data Decoding

The Base64 encoding and decoding VIs that I use are in the code linked at the end of the post. But what about the Information Hiding that I mentioned earlier? We can still hide the internal data structures, it just takes is one small additional step. Let’s say that you have a module that contains several VIs that all manipulate the same private (hidden) data structure. All you have to do is create a new member of the module that reads the private data and returns to the caller a Base64-encoded version of the data. Private data stays private, and yet the calling VI can pass it as a parameter to the external module member.

Note that because a Base64-encoded structure can’t contain spaces, carriage returns or other control characters, you can easily send (nearly) any number of structures using the command line.

Getting Data Out

So it turns out that using command line parameters with appropriate encoding makes getting runtime data into the external executable is pretty easy. Now, how do we go about getting an error cluster out. Oh sure, I could implement some sort of communications protocol using TCP or even just write the output to a file that I could then read from the main application, but the first of those options seems like an awful lot of work for just an error cluster, and the second is just plain clunky. A far more elegant solution would be to make use if a feature that has been built into the OS since the days of the DOS command line, and which is the output analog to the command line parameters: Standard Out, or stdout.

The stdout is a kind of buffer to which your code can write messages consisting of ASCII strings. Now if you are running a program that uses stdout from a command prompt, each message will appear as it is written. If you are running the program using the LabVIEW System Exec.vi function, the strings are all buffered and returned at once when the function finishes. Happily there are existing VIs that allow LabVIEW executables to write to the stdout. The API to the interface consists of three VIs that I have encapsulated into a single library (Stdout Operations.lvlib). Here is a simplified example of how they might be used:

Simple Test

This examples reads from the command line parameters a number that specifies how many times the loop should iterate, and includes logic to generate an error if the count s greater than 10. The first of the stdout VIs (Setup for StdOut.vi) opens the output buffer. Here is its front panel:

Setup for StdOut

Describing the internal operation of this VI is way beyond the scope of this article because it involves a lot of Windows minutia, so let’s just note that it has no inputs but the incoming error cluster. Likewise, although you might be expecting to see some sort of output reference, the only output is the outgoing error cluster. The reason for this stripped down interface lies in the the fact that the stdout is built on an internal Windows construct called the console. Because there can be only one console, Windows maintains the structure internally – hence, no references needed. With console open, we can start writing to it (Append String to StdOut.vi):

Append String to StdOut

Note that you have very little control over the contents of the stdout buffer. Every time you write to it, the new message is simply appended to the end of what was already there. In our little test program, with every iteration of the loop we append a timestamp and the current loop count. Finally when we are done with the loop, we need to close the reference, but first there is one more thing to do. We have added to the buffer several strings that are effectively status messages. What about any errors that might have occurred? How do we report those? We’ll look at a better solution in a bit, but for now let’s just unbundle the error message and append it to stdout output buffer.

Too Large Error Code

Finally the last VI (Terminate StdOut.vi) closes out the console associated with the stdout functionality. Here’s the front panel, but there still isn’t much to see here.

Terminate StdOut

Trying out this simple example

In the code for this post, I have included this simple example, so we can try it out. All you have to do is open a Windows command line window, navigate to the directory containing the executable, and run the command:

simpletest 4

You should see something like this:

Run Simple Test from Command Line

Now try the same command, but with a count of 15, rather than 4. In this case you should see the error message, and not the counts.

15 is Too Large

Ok, so far, so good. Let’s now consider an example that is a little more complete, and so could be used as a template for a deliverable application.

Building towards a better example

While the simple example is to some extent functional (Note that I avoided using the word “works”) there are many places where we can improve its structure. To begin with, the logic for reading and handling the command line parameters is rather ad-hoc. Defining some reusable VIs to handle that for you offers two benefits:

  1. Coding is Simpler: Having VIs that encapsulates (and therefore standardizes) this functionality means you don’t have to remember how it all works.
  2. Coding is Faster: Clearly if you can just drop down a subVI that does what you need, development will go faster than if you have to build the same logic, “yet again”.

In addition, while the basic stdout functions we used in the first example cover the basics needed to implement the functionality, there are a few places where we can add significant capability by building a bit on that existing foundation. To get started, let’s look at a VI I created to standardize how I deal with command line parameters.

A Reusable Command Line VI

One of the quirks of how LabVIEW returns command line parameters is that it breaks up the command line into an array of strings. The first element of this array is always the name of the application. The remaining elements hold the command line parameters delimited with spaces. Now I’m sure there was probably a really good reason for this approach but it certainly complicates parsing the parameters because it is much easier to parse a string than it is an array of strings. Consequently, the first thing I do in my command line parser (Get Command Line Arguments.vi) is delete the first element and then turn the remainder of the array back into a long string by inserting a space between each element.

To extract the parameters from the resulting string, I pass it into a loop that indexes through the string and separates into two new arrays: One of parameter labels and one of parameter values. Technically you don’t need the labels, but I find that using them is beneficial from the usability standpoint. Without the labels the parameters have to be provided in a particular order, and the user has to remember that order. With labels the parameters can be in any order. Moreover, it simplifies the implementation of default values for parameters that the user doesn’t provide.

Get Command Line Arguments

Examining the code, you can see that I derive two benefits from parsing the command line as a string. First, I can create a match string pattern that will find the equal sign regardless of whether there are spaces around it. If I were working with the original array, this simple operation would be much more complex as I would have to write code to deal with the equal sign at the beginning and end of an element, as well as the case where the equal is in an element by itself. A second related issue is that working with a string makes it easy for me to deal with parameters that include embedded spaces. All I have to do is look at the 1st character after equal sign and if it is a quotation mark I look for the other quote and anything between them is my parameter value. If, however, the 1st character is any other character, the parameter value only goes as far as the first space.

Building on Standard stdout

In our earlier discussion of this functionality, we saw three functions that implemented three basic operations: opening the stdout, writing a string to it, and finally closing it. However, as I have said before, part of your job as a developer is to take such basic operations and combine them in ways that extend the API in directions that enhance, or simplify, its operation. As I considered how stdout might be used to return data, I saw two places where it would be valuable to add a few enhancements.

First, there’s the matter of how to return non-string data. Mirroring our discussion of formatting data for command line, it should be obvious that we will often need to pass back data that isn’t naturally a string, and just as with that earlier discussion, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t result in the loss of any of its structure or precision. As you might expect, the solution we developed for the input will also work for the output.

My first step in creating this solution was to create a VI (Append Anything to StdOut.vi) that uses the same basic logic as the existing VI for writing to the stdout, but which processes the data in a systematic way before transmitting it:

Append Anything to StdOut

The first thing to note is the data input, which is a variant. Why a variant? Simple. When you place this VI on a block diagram, you can wire anything to a variant – hence, acting as a kind of “wildcard” this one VI will be able to handle any kind of LabVIEW data. Once we have all our data coerced to a variant, we use logic very similar to what we did for the command line: we flatten it, Base64 encode it and finally add it to the output buffer. To simplify the processing of this data in the caller, I also created a VI that reverses the process by Base64 decoding the string and unflattening it back to a variant.

Finally, before moving on I did one thing more to make life easier and (slightly) less error prone for the other customers that we always have: developers that will be maintaining/re-purposing our code after we are gone. Specifically, as things are now, we have two VI for returning data to the calling program: one for string data and one for everything else. Wouldn’t it be nice if a developer could just drop down a VI and have it auto-magically adapt as needed to accommodate the data that was wired to it? LabVIEW actually provides that ability in the form of a “polymorphic” VI.

Unlike a normal VI, a polymorphic VI doesn’t have a block diagram or a front panel. Rather, it just provides a table for linking to a number of normal VIs that are called “instance” VIs. Here is the polymorphic VI I created for the stdout data write function:

Polymorphic Append to StdOut

Now there is a lot of detail here that we won’t explore right now, but note two things. First, the table contains a list of two VIs: the version with the string input and the one with the variant input. Second, the checkbox labeled “Allow Polymorphic VI to Adapt to Data Type” is checked. The result is that future developers don’t have to worry about what the data being returned might be. Instead they simple place the polymorphic VI on their block diagram and LabVIEW will select the appropriate instance of the underlying VIs based on what you wire to the data input. If you wire a string, the string version will be selected. Wire anything else and LabVIEW will link in the variant version:

StdOut Polymorphism

Givin’ errors some love

The other place where we can benefit from expanding the stdout API is with error handling. I’m separating out error data for special attention because even if your executable returns nothing else, it should always return an error cluster to tell the calling application that things work as intended – or didn’t. Here is its block diagram of the VI I created for returning errors.

Error Encoder

It’s job is to simply take the error cluster, flatten it, Base64 encode it and write it to the stdout. Normally this value will be last one you write so I created a complementary VI for the caller that strips off the last line of the data and extracts from it the external app’s error cluster.

Error Decoder

One nuance that you might want to notice in this code is how I merge the error coming from the external program with the caller’s internal error chain. It might be tempting to simply make the error coming from the external program the output error cluster, like so:

Error Decoder - Bad

This approach would work fine except for one little problem: The external program isn’t the only place where an error can occur. In particular, an incoming error can cause you to receive a spurious error that is a direct consequence of the earlier failure. One common way to handle this issue is to simply put the code in a big case structure that only executes what’s inside if there is no error. The problem with this “common” approach is that, when applied universally, it can result is a lot of case structures cluttering up a lot of block diagrams.

By contrast, the Merge Errors node combines error streams while effectively prioritizing the output. As used here, if there is a preexisting error it gets reported, and not the returned error cluster. When working with code that can generate custom errors you always need to be sure that the code will always report the first error that occurs, and not a side-effect.

A practical example

So let’s now take all the pieces that we have put together, and use them to assemble our practical example of creating external “subVIs”. For this expanded example, let’s create a function that calculates a factorial.

Mathematically, a factorial is like a running total of consecutive numbers, but instead of adding you multiply. For example, a factorial of 4 (represented by the expression 4!) is calculated by 1*2*3*4, resulting in an answer of 24. Clearly, this calculation can generate some very large numbers very fast.

As we are designing our new external function, we see that we have one input value that we need to provide, and one output – plus several possible error conditions. To begin with, the user could enter an invalid value as the factorial limit. Invalid values include things like zero, a negative number, alpha characters and of course, no limit at all. Alternatively, the user could enter an input value that results in the answer overflowing the math’s integer representation, so we need to be able to identify that condition as well.

Initialization

The executable’s initialization logic has two tasks: set the correct window state (“Hidden”) and obtain the input from the command line parameters. Here is the logic that performs those tasks:

Factoral Initialization

Here we see in action the subVI that I wrote to obtain the command line parameters. To get the required value the code searches the list of parameter names for the parameter label “n”. It then uses the index thus obtained to index out the parameter value. The resulting value is turned into a number, which in turn drives the selector node of a case structure. Note that due to the way the indexing and numeric conversion work, two of our three bad inputs are guaranteed to generate an error condition.

Error condition

Here is the case that gets selected for inputs of 0 or less.

Factoral Input Error

For an error condition, the executable will only return one value: an error cluster identifying the problem. This logic generates an error that includes the extracted input value that raised the error.

Doin’ the factoral

The code that calculates the factorial generates a list of integers and then multiplies all the elements. As you can see, I am calculating the answer as an I64.

Factoral Calculation

The reason for this approach lies in the way LabVIEW handles overflow conditions in signed integers, compared to unsigned integers. If you overflow an unsigned integer, the value simply rolls over, with no indication that the overflow occurred. By contrast, if a signed number overflows a little bit, the output will appear as a negative number; and if it overflows a lot it will return a 0 – both of which are easy conditions to trap.

Terminating the function

When the case structure finishes, the code appends the error cluster to the stdout data, closes the buffer and shut-down the function.

Factoral Termination

Testing our work…

As always, the last thing we need to do is test the code we have created. For that work, I created a VI (Run Factoral.vi) that expects the executable in a subdirectory from where it’s located.

Run factoral

To try out the code, enter a value for N and click the run arrow. Note that because the VI calling the external function formats the input value you immediately avoid two possible errors. First, because the input is a number, the user can’t inadvertently send an alpha character. Second, because the input is a U8, the user can’t enter a negative number – though 0 is still a possibility, so give it a try to see the error message.

Using stdout
Toolbox – Release 19

The Big Tease

So what do we want to look into next time? One of the major resources that we have at our disposal as LabVIEW developers is the user forum. It can be an access point for discussing problems and issues with people who have decades of experience. Unfortunately a many people don’t get all the benefit that is available due to the way they ask questions. For example, people will ask overly general questions like:

Is it possible to save data to disk with LabVIEW?”

Or at the other end of the spectrum, folks will over qualify questions by filling them with too many details:

I have a [[insert here the name of some obscure type of instrument]] and am trying to [[insert here 2 or more paragraphs of very detailed information]]. The problem I’m having is I can’t figure out how to set the instrument’s GPIB address…

In either of these situations it is highly unlikely that the OP (original poster) will get answers to their questions – though I must confess that there have been times when being in a somewhat uncharitable frame of mind I have answered the first type of question with:

Yes, yes it can.
Mike…

The point of this post will be to consider several of the more common errors that people make when asking questions, and show how to get the information that you need.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

Implementing Dynamic User-Defined Events

In the previous post, we started looking at how to deal with the situation where you have reentrant VIs that need to have UDEs that are specific to particular instances of the VI. That post covers a lot of the basic theory and design issues, so if you haven’t read that post, please take a few moments to check it out as much of the following won’t make sense without that background.

Filling in the Blanks

The basic approach we took in designing our example consisted of first defining the program’s overall intended operation. With that theory sorted-out, we then began creating the program’s high-level structure, being sure to leave blanks or prototypes as placeholders for details that we hadn’t yet defined. At one time this sort of approach would have been considered heresy. The feeling was you hade to have everything worked out in detail before you wrote even one line of code or created even a single VI.

Clearly there are a lot of practical problems with this approach, but for one of the biggest (in terms of long-term impact on the project) is that it leads to a break-down in the walls that information hiding is trying so hard to erect. Think about it for a second, if an integral part of designing a process launcher includes figuring out the internal operation of the processes it is going to launch, it’s going to be very difficult to keep that knowledge from contaminating your launcher design. Or to put it another way, there will be a strong tendency to create code that depends on the process VIs behaving in a particular way.

You can see a better approach in the way we designed the launcher for our reentrant VI. Last time we defined a VI that (beyond the mechanics of how to launch a reentrant VI) only concerned itself with the data that the process VIs need to do their work. Based on a black-box description of what the routines were supposed to do, we able to create the logic for providing that data without worrying about what the routines were going to do with it. This is a Very Good Approach.

Getting Registered

One of the “blanks” that we left to be filled until now was a VI called DAQ Operations.lvlib:Interval Registry.vi. When we first considered this VI’s external persona we noted that, when passed an enumerated value Check and an interval, it would return a boolean flag indicating whether or not that interval already existed. However, we made no assumptions about how it might go about completing that task. Having taken, so to speak, a step inside the veil we can look at how it works.

Interval Registry - Check

This is the logic that completes the Check function, and as it turns out, there isn’t really very much to it. In fact, we see logic that implements a simple FGV. All the function in question really does is search an array of intervals to see if the one we asked about exists. Given this level of simplicity, a logical question would be, “Why bother with the subVI? The process manager has a loop, why not just use it to maintain the list of active intervals?”

This approach would handle half of the problem quit well – the half dealing with whether or not a particular interval was launched. But if you think about it, that isn’t what we really need to know. Operationally, we don’t care if a particular interval was ever launched. We want to know whether the interval is still running, and the interval’s current state is something of which the manager has no knowledge. Remember that when we defined the rules governing the high-level behavior of the acquisition subsystem, we said that when an acquisition process sees that it has no addresses left to poll it will shut itself down. How is the process manager supposed to know that happened?

Beyond this practical consideration, there is also a conceptual problem associated with storing the interval list in the process manager. You might not realize it, but all data has an associated “scope” that defines the area, or context, which owns the data. If we store the interval list in the process manager we are, conceptually, giving ownership of a piece of information that should belong to the subsystem as a whole, to one specific VI. Moreover, that one specific VI would then be required to manage all accesses to that data. Now while that functionality could certainly be implemented, it would be at the cost of additional complications in the form of additional signalling, and event handlers to respond to those messages.

By contrast, moving the array into a FGV that any VI in the subsystem can access, makes the data immediately available to the subsystem as a whole: No event handlers, no added signalling. As we get into the VI that performs the (simulated) Modbus IO Collect Data.vi, we see how the FGV’s remaining two functions work.

Keeping Time

Next, let’s look at the reentant VI (Metronome.vi) that is responsible for triggering acquisitions at a fixed interval. You will recall that the VI is passed three parameters when it is launched: The desired interval between acquisitions, the event to fire when the interval times out, and the event that will fire when the interval is shutting down. Here is the logic for initializing the VI.

Metronome - Initialization

We see that the interval value drives the Timeout node of an event loop, the shutdown event is registered, and the event that this VI will fire, is simply passed into the event loop. As you might expect, the event loop itself only has two events. Here is the Timeout event:

Metronome - Timeout

No surprises here: all the event needs to do is fire the acquisition event – which this code does with alacrity. The shutdown event (which handles both types of shutdown) is likewise uncomplicated:

Metronome - Stop Interval

It destroys the two dynamic UDEs and stops the event loop. The acquisition event is destroyed because once a shutdown is initiated, it is no longer needed. The interval stop event is destroyed because it is only fired in the acquisition VI, so by the time we get to this point in the code it has already been fired by the only other VI that needs it. The small delay between the two operations is to ensure that the acquisition VI has time to start shutting itself down.

Getting into the Publishing Business

The last code we need to look at is the reentrant VI that reads the simulated data and publishes it for use (Collect Data.vi). Again starting with the initialization logic, we see something very similar to the metronome VI:

Collect Data - Initialization

The main difference is that this VI needs to register to receive both dynamic UDEs. Although the VI will be generating the Delete Interval event it also needs to be able to respond to it because that context is the best place put the logic for deinitializing any acquisition logic that might be used. Another conceptual difference from the metronome is that this VI relates to the interval input in a way that is fundamentally different. For the metronome the interval is a number that has a specific meaning: it is the number of milliseconds between triggers. For this data collection routine however, it is simply a number that provides it way for it to identify itself. The broader point is that you need to remember to manage the expectations when different processes look at the same value and see different things.

Because this VI is going to be acquiring data, and performing other operations, its event loop is also more complex. Let’s look at the 5 events it will handle:

Timeout – This application is only generating simulated data, but in most other situations, there will need to be some sort of initialization performed, like opening DAQ references or establishing connections to one or more Modbus devices, and this event is a good place to handle such initialization. The way this logic is written, it is easy to make the initialization run just once, but still have it readily available if it ever needs to be run again.

Collect Data - Timeout

However, there is other initialization that needs to be performed even for simulated data. Specifically, if the initialization logic completes with no errors, we need to tell the rest of the application that this process is open and ready for business. To record that state change, we use our “repository” VI again, but this time running the Insert logic…

Interval Registry - Insert

…which is the very soul of simplicity.

Start Addresses – This event’s purpose is to maintain the process’ internal list of addresses in response to the user starting additional addresses. In completing this work, there are two cases that it will need to address.

Collect Data - Start Addresses - Adding

First there is the case where the interval number matches the value that the process is using to identify itself. In that situation the code needs to add the new addresses to the existing list, or more correctly, it needs to add addresses to the array that don’t already exist in the array. This logic protects the logic from what would be a very common operator mistake: adding addresses tht already exist. The second situation is one where the interval number does not match the value that the process is using to identify itself.

Collect Data - Start Addresses - Delete Case

In this case, we need to enforce the rule that only one process can be polling a given address. Hence, the logic needs to remove from its array any addresses any addresses contained in the new event. Of course this operation raises the spectre of the entire polling array being emptied out, with the contingent requirement that the interval shut itself down. The logic handles that scenario with a two-step process. First it tells the rest of the application that its stopping by calling the registry VI using the delete logic.

Interval Registry - Delete

After removing itself from the registry, the VI fires the Stop Interval UDE to close both itself and its associated metronome process.

Stop Addresses – This event has logic that is similar to the previous event’s delete logic, but is simpler because the only thing that matters is whether the indicated address is in the process’ address list.

Collect Data - Stop Addresses

Get Data – This event generates an array of simulated data and passes it to the static Publish Data UDE, along with an array of addresses associated with the data values. In addition for troubleshooting purposes, the code also writes the data to a front panel table.

Collect Data - Get Data

Stop Interval; Stop Application – Finally, this event stops this VI if either the interval or the application as a whole is shutting down.

Collect Data - Stop Interval

As the comment says, if the acquisition logic needs to be deinitialized, this in the place to put that logic. But why is the code interested in the front panel’s state? Although this VI usually runs in the background unseen, there are times that you want to be able to view its front panel so you can verify its operation. In this example, I implemented that functionality using the VI properties to force the front panel open when it starts running. This logic checks to see if the front panel is open and, if so, closes it.

Testing the Code

So with all the code implemented, here are the Subversion links to the application an the toolbox of reusable code:

Dynamic Registration – Release 1
Toolbox – Release 18

The first thing I would recommend after downloading the code, it to go through it while re-reading both this post and the previous one. Often times it is easier to understand things when looking at the code, that are otherwise a bit obscure when all you have are pictures of the code.

Next run the top-level VI (Dynamic Registration.vi). When the front panel opens, click on the Add Addresses button to define some addresses. For the purpose of this example, I created a simple dialog box that lets you specify a starting address, the number of consecutive addresses to collect, and the sample interval. The starting address needs to be between 40000 and 49999, the number of consecutive address must be less than 1000 and the sample interval needs to be between 300 and 5000 (milliseconds). These parameter limits are set in the dialog box code – feel free to change them as you desire. Likewise, the output of this dialog box is a list of addresses, so you can also change the selection interface if you so desire.

To get started, define 5 addresses starting at 40000 with a sample interval of 1000-msec. You should see the front panel of acquisition VI pop open showing the 5 addresses being updated once per second. In addition, the main GUI should show data from the same 5 addresses.

Click the Add Addresses button again, but this time define 5 addresses starting at 40008, and updating every 2000-msec. A second acquisition VI windows will open showing the 5 new addresses, and the main GUI will show a total of 10 addresses with the results changing at different rates.

Let’s next see what happens if you specify addresses that are already being polled. Click the Add Addresses button one more time and define 5 addresses starting at 40004, and updating every 3000-msec. This action defines a range where 40004 is already being polled once a second and 40008 is being polled every 2 seconds. In response you will see a third acquisition window open, but you will observe that one address is removed from each of the two existing polling lists, and that the main GUI shows a total of 13 addresses being polled.

Finally, to test the auto-shutdown operation click the Delete Addresses button and in the resulting dialog box, tell the system to delete 5 addresses starting at 40008. Because the 2000-msec interval is emptied out, the acquisition VI window associated with that interval will close. Finally, the polling list for the 3000-msec interval will be reduced by one.

The Big Tease

So that’s about all for now on this topic, but what’s in store for next time? One of the things that I like to talk about in this venue are things that can cause unexpected complications, so next time I’m going to discuss what happens when a DLL misbehaves as you are trying to close it.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

Dynamic UDEs: the Power for Reentrant Processes

If you have an application that you want to construct from multiple parallel processes, a key requirement is signalling – telling the various parts of the application that something important has happened, or is happening, in one of the other processes. When it comes to fulfilling that requirement, a valuable tool to have at hand is the User Defined Event, or UDE. In fact, over the past year this blog has considered a variety of ways to use this tool. However, all these implementations have one thing in common: They all use static UDEs. In other words, the event that will be used to signal a particular occurrence is decided when the code is created and it never changes.

But what if you don’t know until runtime what event you want to use? For example, it is common with reentrant code that you won’t have a fixed set of UDEs because there isn’t a fixed set of VIs that are running. Sometimes you need to be able to send a message to one particular clone. In such a situation, you aren’t just sending general signals, but signals that are unique to a particular instance of a VI. The solution is to use UDEs that are dynamically generated in the same way that the reentrant VIs are.

To demonstrate this technique, the next couple posts will highlight this use case, starting this time with a discussion of some of the design considerations. Our into to this exploration is an application that I was once assigned to maintain.

The Problem Defined

The job asked me to expand an existing application that had been developed by a large LabVIEW consulting firms located here in the US. The problem is that the software wasn’t designed for expandibility. Specifically, a key part of the program was a subsystem that polled a user-defined list of Modbus registers at a rate that was also user-defined. Because the user-defined inputs could change at any time, the decision was made to make the acquisition loops event-driven, and create a separate “metronome” process that would fire an acquisition event at the user defined rate. So far, so good. The real issue is with the implementation of this concept.

Apparently, there was originally only going to be one timed interval but, as you might expect, a requirement was later added to create a second one. To meet this scope change, with as little effort as possible, the decision was made to simply duplicate all the VIs used for the first process while appending “2” to the end of the names – an expedient that is unfortunately common in code developed by “large LabVIEW consulting firms”. To make matters worse, the modularization was poor so the program was basically built around a huge cluster containing literally dozens of references for UDEs, notifiers and queues that ran through nearly every VI in the application.

In the end, the only way to implement the required functionality was to completely redesign and reimplement that portion of the code. The really ironic part is that it took me less time to implement the functionality correctly, than it did to do it poorly the first time. Using this description as a jumping-off point, I obviously won’t be discussing the solution that I implemented for the original application. What we will do is use it as “inspiration” for examining techniques that could cover a wide range of similar requirements.

Getting Moving in the Right Direction

First, we should recognize that while our earlier conversation incorporates a pretty good description of what the code basically needs to do, we do need to flesh it out a bit: At run time, we need to be able to create multiple independently-timed data reads with varying intervals between reads. In addition, the results from these timed acquisitions need to be “published” somehow so they can be used by the rest of the program.

With this broader functional definition in place, we can begin to consider the appropriate API for accessing that functionality. As I have said many times before, one of the corner stones of a good API is the concept of information hiding – the process of deciding what information to expose to the calling code, and what information to keep private. So like a politician running for reelection, our next job is to decide what to hide and where to hide it.

The basic principle in play is to hide any information that the calling code either doesn’t need to know, or which would be counter-productive for it to know. If we think about it, there are exactly three pieces of information that the calling VI actually needs to know in order to define and use an acquisition task:

  1. The Modbus address to read
  2. The interval between reads
  3. How to receive the published data

On the other hand however, there is a (much) large list of things that the calling code doesn’t need to know, among which are things like:

  1. How the Modbus is read
  2. How the timers work
  3. The signalling that the timers use
  4. How many acquisition processes there are
  5. How the timing is implemented
  6. Internal data structures
  7. etc…

Now that we have a handle on what we want to expose – and just as importantly, what we do not want seen – we can start designing the outward interface.

The Outside View

The obvious place to start is with the VI that will configure or setup the polling. Given that we have already decided that we only want to expose two parameters (addresses to read, and the read interval) we can go ahead and create a placeholder VI that provides the appropriate IO, but which is for now empty.

Start Addresses

Note that with the exception of the error cluster, this VI has no other outputs. Remember that all this VI is doing is identifying a group of addresses that some hidden “something” is going to read at the specified interval. Consequently, the only response that this VI can give is whether or not the specification process was successful. The assumption is that other parts of the software will independently report errors that occur during the data reads. In the same way, we are also going to need a VI to tell the “something” that is doing the reading that we are no longer wishing to poll particular addresses.

Stop Addresses

The interface to this VI is even more basic than the one for starting the polling of addresses, and the reason is simple. At this point we don’t care what rate at which a given address is being polled, we just want it to stop. You could argue that knowing the polling interval would make it easier for the code to find the addresses to delete, while that is true, it would also mean that the calling code would have to keep track of the addresses that it is monitoring – which could quickly become an awful lot of redundant information for the caller to remember and manage.

Last but not least, the third interface VI that we need to specify is the data publication mechanism. To keep things simple, we should use a technique that is easy to implement. So I am picking the logical equivalent of the callback techniques apparent in other languages: a User Define Event. For this application, the event will return an array of address/value pairs that the calling application can use as it desires. Note that in this implementation, all the acquisition processes will be sending their data to the same place, so this can be a static UDE.

The Test Application

Finally, while we’re talking about interfaces, let’s also look at the calling application. Because all the “heavy lifting” will be encapsulated in subVIs, the calling code can be very simple. It has buttons for identifying addresses that we wish to poll, addresses we want to stop polling, and stopping the application. To display the results, the application’s front panel incorporates a table that shows the addresses in ascending order, and the last data value acquired for that address.

Main GUI

The block diagram is, likewise, pretty plain. It is event-driven with one event for each of the three buttons on the front panel, plus one to handle the UDE that publishes the data. You can check out its code in the source later.

Crawling Under the Covers

With the front end interfaces thus defined, we now can start thinking about code that will make the interfaces do something useful. The simple part is the UDE for publishing the results because it uses the same technique that we have used many times over the past year. To summarize the implementation, a library named for the event (Publish Data.lvlib) has four subVIs: One (structured as a FGV) for creating/buffering a reference to the event, and one each for registering to receive the event, generating the event, and destroying the event. In addition, it incorporates a typedef that defines the event data.

Publish Data Event Library

The process for managing the addresses to read requires a bit more thought. To begin with, we know that there are only two address management operations: adding and removing addresses. However, we also know that if we are to conform to our API, we need to hide those explicit operations from the calling application. This situation is one of those development scenarios where the words that we use to talk about what we are doing can help or hinder our understanding of what we are trying to accomplish. To see what I mean, let’s consider a similar case that is part of LabVIEW itself: the logic for handling queues.

You may have noticed that with the built-in API you don’t “create” or “destroy” queues. Rather, you “acquire” and “release” references to the queue. While you may wonder what difference this wording makes, we need to remind ourselves that it isn’t simply a matter of an API developer running amuck with a thesaurus. It actually describes a very real and very important distinction. Instead of creating a queue, you are simply telling LabVIEW that you want to acquire a reference to a queue. Now, when you make this request, there are two possible situations:

  1. The queue doesn’t currently exist and LabVIEW needs to create one.
  2. The queue already exists so all you need is to get a reference to the one that is there.

Likewise, you don’t destroy a queue when you are done using it, you simply tell LabVIEW that you have no further need for it by releasing the reference you previously acquired. Because LabVIEW keeps track of how many open references are associated with each queue, LabVIEW can tell when the queue is no longer in use and destroy it automatically. Now consider for a moment the degree to which this hidden functionality simplifies your code. You no longer need to worry about what or who is using the queue, and when it is safe to destroy it. All that potentially complex logic is hidden in the way that the functionality is encapsulated, and the difference in terminology highlights that difference.

As we are designing our API, we need to adhere to the same idea. So instead of “adding” and “removing” address, let’s think about this problem in terms of “starting” and “stopping” acquisition from lists of addresses. To grasp the benefits that we can garner from this change in language, lets consider what actually needs to happen behind the scenes for each of these operations. Just to be clear, this complexity has nothing to do with how we choose to implement the functionality, it is inherent in what we are trying to do. This logic will have to be created regardless of how we structure the code.

Starting Acquisition: This might seem to be pretty easy, but what if users start acquiring data from an address at one rate, but then later changes their mind (or makes a mistake) and starts the same address at a different rate. There is no point to have the same address being read at two different rates. Likewise, it is not clear that this action should be considered an error. Therefore, to do what the user is requesting you first have to remove that address from the process that is currently polling it, and then reassign it to a different (perhaps new, perhaps preexisting) acquisition process. Taking the point further, what if the address you remove from a process is the only address that it is currently polling. Removing that address would leave that acquisition loop with nothing to do, and so we need some way to stop it.

Stopping Acquisition: For its part, stopping the acquisition of addresses can hide some complexity of its own. For example, say the user identifies a list of 4 addresses to be stopped. There is no guarantee that all the addresses are being polled by the same acquisition process – and even if they are all together, we don’t know which process is reading them. This fact implies a need to be able to search all the acquisition processes for a particular address. Plus, as before if we remove all the addresses associated with a particular interval we need to stop that acquisition task.

Remember, this functionality will always be needed, it is simply more robust (and therefore smarter) to hide it from the calling application by encapsulating it in our API.

Getting Down With the Acquisition

To this point we have described the acquisition processes as having two loops: One performs the acquisition and one is a “metronome” function that periodically fires an event that causes the acquisition loop to acquire one scan of all the channels contained in its current configuration. In addition, both of these processes need to be reentrant so multiple copies of each can be launched as needed. Now we need to refine that basic description be specifying the rules that will govern their operation.

First, let’s state that each process is self maintaining both in terms of its own operation and its data. What that requirement means is that each instance of the acquisition process will maintain for itself a list of the addresses that it is polling. Consequently, when a process receives a system message (via UDE) to stop polling on one or more addresses, it will examine its own list of addresses and remove any that are in the “stop polling” list.

Second, we will state that there will only one acquisition process running for each acquisition interval. Hence, if a process receives a system message specifying its own polling interval, it will add those addresses to the list of addresses it is already polling. For example, say there is a process running that is acquiring data from 4 addresses every 1000 msec and it receives a system message that the user wants to start an additional 5 addresses at that same sample interval. The code will add those 5 new addresses to the 4 that it is already polling.

Third, if an acquisition process receives a system start message that does not specify its polling interval, it will prevent duplicate polling by automatically search its configuration for the addresses in the message and delete any that it finds.

Fourth, if after stopping one or more addresses a process finds that its polling list is empty, it will shut itself down by firing an event that is unique to that particular instance.

Fifth, in the event that the user starts addresses for an interval that is not currently running, the logic incorporates a manager function that will start-up a new acquisition process to handle that interval.

Let’s Build Some Code

Finally we are ready to start writing some code to materialize what has to this point been mostly words. A good place to start this work is with the manager VI that will launch new acquisition processes for us. I like this approach because it will give us the opportunity look at how the pieces fit together.

How the Pieces Fit Together

The operational rules we listed earlier provide a number of clues as to where we are going next. To begin with, we talked a lot about messages. This information by itself is enough to let us design and implement the inner workings of the two interface routines we prototyped earlier. They are simply the event generation VIs of two more static UDEs (Start Addresses and Stop Addresses) – and we already know how to build those.

Next, because we have defined what the manager basically needs to do we can create an event-driven shell for it that can respond to two events: Stop Application and Start Addresses. Again, if you have been reading this blog for a while, the Stop Application event is an “old friend” so we will concentrate on the manager’s response to the Start Addresses event. Since this response will vary depending upon whether or not the specified interval already exists, we need to design a way for the code to make that determination, while continuing to bear in mind the principles of information hiding, to wit, the manager doesn’t need to know how the determination was made, just what the result was.

Start Addresses Event Handler

To support this functionality, we will create a VI (called Interval Registry.vi) that the acquisition processes will maintain as they start and stop. This function will support three operations: Check, Insert and Delete. For the Check operation we see here, the routine checks to see if there is already a process running at the indicated sample interval. If there isn’t, the VI returns a false Boolean value that causes the manager to call a launcher VI (Process Launcher.vi) that kicks off all the VIs needed to service the interval. If, however, the interval is already running there is nothing more for the manager to do, so the true case (not shown) does nothing.

Turning our attention now to the VI that launches the new process VIs, we have built this sort of launcher several times before, so we already know its basic structure. What we need clarity on is the details of the data that needs to be passed to the two VIs.

Starting with the simpler of the two (which we will call Metronome.vi) it’s only purpose is to fire an acquisition event at some predefined interval. However, if it is going to stop when it has nothing more to do, it also needs to know what event will tell it to stop. Note that both of these events are specific to each interval that is created. Consequently, they both need to be created on the fly when the acquisition process is launched with their references passed into the new clone as a parameters.

In the same way, looking at the acquisition VI (we’ll call it Modbus Reader.vi) we see that it is going to be receiving the acquisition event that the metronome fires and is also going to need to shut down like the metronome, so it will need to get references to the same to events. The only other messages it will need to receive are the static ones that we have discussed earlier, but because they are static we don’t have to be concerned with them here.

So we add in the event definition logic, and this is what our finished launcher VI looks like:

Process Launcher

The Big Tease

The next thing we need to look into is the VIs that are being launched and the logic that resides inside Interval Registry.vi, but this post is getting long so that will have to wait until next time.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

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>
</ul>

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…

<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">
  </fieldset>
</form>

…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:

$("#just-submit-button").click(function(){
  //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);
  wc_send(jsonData);
});

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
  $('#container').highcharts({
    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…
Mike…

Laying the good foundation, with TCP…

In case you are just joining the conversation, we are in the midst of a project to modify the testbed application that we have been slowly assembling over the past year. I would heartily recommend that you take some time and review the past posts.

To this point in our latest expansion project, we have created a remote control interface, embedded it in our testbed and performed some basic testing to verify that the interface works. Our next step is to create the first of several “middleware” processes. I call them middleware because they sort of sit between our application’s basic code and the external applications and users. In future installments we will look at middleware for .NET, ActiveX and WebSockets, but we will start with a more fundamental interface: TCP/IP.

The Roadbed for the Information Highway

Aside from giving me the opportunity to air out some tired metaphors, TCP/IP is a good place to start because it gives us the opportunity to examine the protocol that underlies a host of other connection options.

Just the basics

Although the idea of creating a “server” can have a certain mystique, there really isn’t much to it really – at least when you are working with LabVIEW. The underlying assumption to the process is that there is something monitoring the computer’s network interface waiting for a client application to request a TCP/IP connection. In network parlance, this “something” is called a “listener” because listens to the Ethernet interface for a connection. However a given listener isn’t simply listening for any connection attempt, rather the network standards define the ability to create multiple “ports” on a single interface, and then associate particular ports with particular applications. Thus, when you create the listener you have to tell it what port that it is to monitor. In theory, a port number can be any U32 value, but existing standards specify what sorts of traffic is expected on certain port numbers. For example, by default HTTP connections are expected on ports 80 or 8080, port 21 is the default for FTP and LabVIEW by default listens to port 3363. All you have to do is pick a number that isn’t being used for anything else on your computer. To create a listener in LabVIEW, there is a built-in function called TCP Create Listener. It expects a port number, and returns a reference to the listener that it creates – or an error if you pick a port to which some other application is already listening.

Once you have created the listener, you have to tell it to start listening by calling the built-in function TCP Wait On Listener. As its name implies, it waits until a connection is made on the associated port, though you will typically want to specify a timeout. When this function sees and establishes an incoming connection it outputs a new reference specific to that particular connection. A connection handler VI can then use that reference to manage the interactions with that particular remote device or process.

Finally, when you are done with your work, you kill the server by closing the listener reference (TCP Close Connection), and all connection references that you have open. Put these three phases together, you come up with something like this.

The Simplest TCP Server

This simple code creates a listener, waits for a connection, services that connection (it reads 4 bytes from it), and then quits. While this code works, it isn’t really very useful. For example, what good is a server that only waits for one connection and then quits? Thankfully, it’s not hard to expand this example. All you have to do is turn it into a mini state-machine.

One Step at a Time

As usual, the state-machine is built into the timeout event so the following states include a shift register pointing to the next state to be executed, and a second one carrying the delay that the code will impose before going to that state. But before we get into the specifics, here’s a state diagram showing the process’ basic flow.

State Diagram

Execution starts with the Initialize Listener state. It’s main job at this point is to create the TCP listener. Next is the aptly named state, Wait for Connection. It patiently waits for a connection by looping back to itself with a short timeout. As long as there is no connection established, this state will execute over and over again. This series of short waits gives other events (like the one for shutting down the server) a chance to execute.

When a connection is made, the machine transitions to the Spawn Handler state. Since it is critical that the state machine gets back to waiting for a new connection as soon as possible, this state dynamically launches a reentrant connection handler VI and immediately transitions back to the Wait for Connection state.

The state machine continues ping-ponging between these last two states until the server is requested to stop. At that point, the code transitions to the Close Listener state which disposes of the listener and stops the state machine. So let’s look at some real code to implement these logical states – which, by the way resides in a new process VI named TCP-IP Server.vi.

The Initialize Listener State

This state at present only executes once, and its job is to create the listener that initiates connections with remote clients. The TCP Create Listener node has two inputs, the first of which is the port that the listener will monitor. Although I could have hard-coded this number, I instead chose to derive this value from the application’s Server.Port property. In a standalone executable, the application reads this value from its INI file at start-up, thus making it reconfigurable after the application is deployed. If the server.tcp.port key does not exist in the INI file, the runtime engine defaults to LabVIEW’s official port number, 3363.

Initialize Listener

When running in the development environment, this value is still reconfigurable, but it is set through the My Computer target’s VI Server settings. To change this value, right-click on My Computer in the project explorer window and select Properties. In the resulting dialog box, select the VI Server Category. At this point, the port number field is visible in the Protocols section of the VI Server page, but it is disabled. To edit this value, check the TCP/IP box to enable the setting, make the desired change and then uncheck the TCP/IP box, and click the OK button. It is critical that you remember to uncheck TCP/IP before leaving this setting. If you don’t, the project will be linked to the specified port and the TCP server in the testbed application will throw an error 60 when it tries to start.

The other input to the TCP Create Listener node is a timeout. However, this isn’t the time that the node will wait to finish creating the listener. We will be testing this code on a single computer and so don’t have to worry about such things as the network going down – even momentarily. In the broader world, though, there are a plethora of opportunities for things to go wrong. For example, the network could go south while a client is in the middle of connecting to our server. This timeout addresses this sort of situation by specifying the amount of time that the listener will wait for the connection to complete, once a connection attempt starts.

The Wait for Connection State

This state waits for connection attempts, and when one comes, completes the connection. Unfortunately, LabVIEW doesn’t support events based on a connection attempt so this operation takes the form of a polling operation where the code checks for a connection attempt, and if there is none, waits a short period of time and then checks again. The short wait period is needed to give the process as a whole the chance to respond to other events that might occur.

Wait for Connection

The logic implementing this logic starts with a call to the built-in TCP Wait On Listener node with a very short (5-msec) timeout. If there is no connection attempt pending when the call is made, or an attempt is not received during that 5-msec window, the node terminates with an error code 56. The following subVI (Clear Errors.vi) looks for, and traps that error code so its occurrence can be used to decide what to do next. If the subVI finds an error 56, the following logic repeats the current state and sets the timeout to 1000-msec. If there is no error, the next state to be executed is Spawn Handler and the timeout is 0.

If there is a successful connection attempt, the TCP Wait On Listener node also outputs a new reference that is unique to that particular connection. This new reference is passed to a shift-register that makes is available to the next state.

The Spawn Handler State

In this state, the code calls a subVI (Launch Connection Handler.vi) that spawns a process to handle the remote connection established in the previous state. This connection handler takes the form of a reentrant VI that accepts two inputs: a reference to a TCP connection and a boolean input that enable debugging operations – which at the current time consists of opening the clone’s front panel when it launches, and closing it when it closes.

Spawn Handler

It is important that the connection handler be a reentrant process for two reasons: First, we want the code to be able to handle more than one connection at a time. Second, the listener need to get back to listening for another new connection as quickly as possible. We’ll discuss exactly what goes into the connection handler in a bit.

The Close Listener State

Finally, when the process is stopping, this event closes open connections, sets the timeout to -1, and stops the event loop.

Close Listener

But why are there two connections to be closed? Doesn’t the connection handler that gets launched to manage the remote connection handle closing that reference? While that point is true, the logic behind it is flawed. There is a small, but finite, delay between when the remote connection is completed and the Spawn Handler starts executing. If the command to stop should occurring during that small window of time, the handler will never be launched, and so can’t close that new connection and its associated reference.

Turning States into a Plugin

Now that we have an understanding of the process’ basic operation, we need to wrap a bit more logic around it to turn it into usable code.

Adding Shutdowns and Error Handling

To begin with, if this new process is going to live happily inside the structure we have already defined for testbed application plugins, it is going to need a mechanism to shut itself down when the rest of the application stops. Since that mechanism is already defined, all we have to do is register for the correct event (Stop Application) and add an event handler to give it something to do.

Loop Shutdown

Nothing too surprising here: When the shutdown event fires, the handler sets the next state to be executed to Close Listener and the timeout to 0. Note that it does not actually stop the loop – if it did the last state (which closes the listener reference) would never get the chance to execute. Finally, we also need to provide for error handling…

Add in Error Handling

…but as with the shutdown logic, this enhancement basically consists of adding in existing code. In this case, the application’s standard error reporting VI.

Defining the Protocol

With the new middleware plugin ensconced happily in the testbed framework, we need to create the reentrant connection handler that will handle the network interactions. However, before we can do that we need to define exactly what the communications protocol will look like. In later posts, I will present implementations of a couple of standardized protocols, but for now let’s explore the overall communications process by “rolling our own”.

As a quick aside, you may have noticed that I have been throwing around the word “protocol” a lot lately. Last time, I talked about creating a safe protocol for remote access. Then this time we discussed the TCP protocol, and now I am using the word again to describe the data we will be sending over out TCP connection. A key concept in networking is the idea of layers. We have discussed the TCP protocol for making connections, but that isn’t whole story. TCP is build on top of a lower-level protocol called IP – which is itself built on even lower level protocols for handling such things as physical interfaces. In addition, this protocol stack can also extend upwards. For example, VI Server is at least partially built on top of TCP, and we are now going to create our own protocol that will define how we want to communicate over TCP.

This layering may seem confusing, but it offers immense value because each layer is a modular entity that can be swapped out without disrupting everything else. For example, say you swap out the NIC (Network Interface Card) in your computer, the only part of the stack that needs to change are the very lowest levels that interface to the hardware.

The first thing we need to do is define the data that will be passed back and forth over the connection, and how that data will be represented while it is in the TCP communications channel. Taking the more basic decision first, let’s look at how we want to represent the data. Ideally, we want a data representation that is flexible in terms of capability, is rigorous in its data representations and easy to generate in even primitive languages like C++. The first standard that was created to fill this niche was a spin-off of HTML called XML. The problem is that while it excels in the first two points, the third is a problem because when used to encode small data structures the same features that make it incredibly flexible and rigorous, conspire to make it is very verbose. Or to put it another way, for small data structures the data density in an XML document is very low.

Fortunately, there is an alternative that is perfect for what we need to do: JSON. The acronym stands for “JavaScript Object Notation”, and as the name implies is the notation originally used to facilitate the passing of data within JavaScript applications. The neat part is that a lot of the JSON concepts map really well to native LabVIEW data structures. For example, in terms of datatypes, you can have strings, numbers and booleans, as well as arrays of those datatypes. When you define a JSON object, you define it as a collection of those basic datatypes – sort of like what we do with clusters in LabVIEW. But (as they say on the infomercials), “Wait there’s more…” JSON also allows you include other JSON objects in the definition of a new object just LabVIEW lets us embed clusters within clusters. Finally, to put icing on the cake, nearly every programming language on the planet (including LabVIEW) incorporates support for this standard.

To see how this will work, let’s consider the case of the temperature controller parameters. When wanting to configure this value, the remote application will need to send the following string: (Note: As with JavaScript itself, the presence of “white space” in JSON representations is not significant. I’m showing this “pretty-printed” to make it easier to understand.)

{
    "Target":"Dog House TC", 
    "Data":{
        "Error High Level":100,
        "Warning High Level":90,
        "Warning Low Level":70,
        "Error Low Level":60,
        "Sample Interval":1
    }
}

This string defines a JSON object that contains two items. The first is labeled Target and it holds a string identifying the specific plugin that it is wanting to configure – in this case the Dog House TC. In the same way, the name of the second item is labeled Data, but look at its value! If you think that looks like another JSON object definition, you’d be right. This sub-object has 5 values representing the individual parameters needed to configure a temperature controller. In case you’re wondering, this is what the code looks like that parses this string back into a LabVIEW data structure:

Unflattening JSON

That’s right, all it takes is one built-in function and one typedef cluster. The magic lies in the fact that the string and the cluster represent the exact same logical structure so it is very easy for LabVIEW’s built-in functions to map from one to the other.

The Unflattened JSON Data

The other thing to note is that the Sample Interval value in the cluster has a unit associated with it, in this case milliseconds. The way LabVIEW handles this situation is consistent with how it handles units in general: When converting data to a unitless form (like a JSON value) it expresses the value using the base unit for the type of data that it is. In the example shown, Sample Interval is time, and the base unit for time is seconds, so LabVIEW expresses the 1000 msecs as 1 sec in JSON. Likewise when unflattening the string back to a LabVIEW data structure, the function interprets the input value in the value’s base units as defined in the cluster.

We are about done with what our message will look like, but there are still a couple of things we need to add before we can start shooting our data down a wire. To begin with, we need to remember that Ethernet is a serial protocol and as so it’s much easier to uses if a receiver can know ahead of time how much data to be expecting. To meet that need, we will append a 2-byte binary value that is the total message. The other thing we need is someway to tell whether the message arrived intact and without corruption, so we will also append a 2-byte CRC. Moreover, to make the CRC easy for other applications to generate we will use a standard 16-bit CCITT form of the calculation. So this is what one of our command data packets will look like:

Message Format

In the same way, we can use the same basic structure for response messages. All we have to do is redefine the JSON “payload” as a JSON object with two objects: a numeric error code (where 0 = “No Error”), and a string that is a contains any data that the response needs to return. As you would expect, this string would itself be another JSON-encoded data structure.

Creating the Connection Handler

We are finally ready to implement the reentrant command handler that manages these messages, and the important part of that job is to ensure that it is fully reentrant. By that I mean that it does little good to make the VI itself reentrant if its major subVIs are not. So what is a “major” subVI? The two things to consider are:

  • How often does the SubVI execute? If the subVI rarely executes or only runs once during initialization, it might not be advantageous to make it reentrant.
  • How long does it take to execute? In the same way, subVIs that implement simple logic and so execute quickly, might not provide a lot of benefit as reentrant code.

As I am wont to do, I defined the handler’s overall structure as a state machine with three states corresponding to the three phases of the response interaction. So the first thing we need to do (and the first state to be executed) is Read Data Packet. Its job is to read an entire message from the new TCP connection, test it for validity and, if valid, pass the command on to the Process Command state.

Read Data Packet

The protocol we have defined calls for each message to start with a 2-byte count, so the state starts by reading two bytes from the interface, casting the resulting binary value to U16 number and then using that number to read the remainder of the message. Then to validate the message, the code performs a CRC calculation on the entire message, including the CRC at the end. Due to the way the CRC calculation works, if the message and CRC are valid, the result of this calculation will always be 0. Assuming the CRC checks, the code strips the CRC from the end of the string and sends the remaining part of the string to a subVI that converts the JSON object into a LabVIEW object. I chose an object-oriented approach here because it actually simplifies the code (no case structures) and it provides a clear roadmap of what I need to do if I ever decide to add more interface commands in the future. If the CRC does not check, the next state to execute is either Send Response if no error occurred during the network reads, or Stop Handler if there was.

Moving on, the Process Command state calls a dynamic dispatch method (Process Command.vi) that is responsible for interfacing to the rest of the application through the events we defined last time, and formatting a response to be sent to the caller. The object model for this part of the code has 5 subclasses (one for each command) and the parent class is used as the default for when JSON command structure does not contain a valid command object. It should surprise no one that the command processing subclass methods look a lot like the test VIs we created last time to verify the operation of the remote access processor, consequently, I am not going to take the time or space to present them all again here. However I will highlight the part that makes them different:

Parsing Response for Error or Data

This snippet shows the logic that I use to process the response coming back from the remote access engine in response to the event that reads the graph data. Because the variant returned in the response notifier can be either a text error message, or an array of real data, the first thing the code does is attempt to convert the variant into a string. If this attempt fails and generates an error, we know that the response contains data and so can format it for return to the remote caller. If the variant converts successfully to a string, we know the command failed and can pass an error back to the caller.

At this point, we now have a response ready to send back to the caller, so the state machine transitions to the Send Response state. Here we see the logic that formats and transfers the response to the caller:

Send Response

Since the core of the message is a JSON representation of a response cluster, the code first flattens the cluster to a JSON string. Note however, the string that it generates contains no extraneous white space, so it will look different very from the JSON example I showed earlier. The logic next calculates the length of the return message and the CRC of the JSON. Those two values are added to the beginning and end, respectively, of the JSON string and the concatenated result is written back to the TCP connection.

Finally, the Stop Handler state closes the TCP connection and stops the state machine loop, which also stops and removes from memory the reentrant clone that has been running.

Testing the Middleware

Finally, as always we need to again test what we have done, and to do that I have written a small LabVIEW test client program. However, if you know another programming language, feel free to write a short program to implement the transactions that we have defined. The program I created is included as a separate project. The top-level VI opens a window that allows you to select the action you want to perform, the plugin that it should target and (if required) enter the data associated with the action. Because this is a test program, it also incorporates a Boolean control that forces an invalid CRC, so you can test that functionality as well.

So open both projects and run the testbed application, nothing new here – or so it seems. Now run the simple TCP client, its IP address and port number are correct for this test scenario. As soon as the client starts, the waveform graph for displaying the plugin graph data appears, so let’s start with that. You should be able to see the data from each of the 5 testbed plugins by selecting the desired target and clicking the Send Command button. You should also be able to see all 5 graph images.

Now try generating some errors. Turn on the Force CRC Error check-box and retry the tests that you just ran successfully. The client’s error cluster should now show a CRC Error. Next turn the Force CRC Error check-box back off and try doing something illegal, like using the Set Acquisition Rate action on one of the temperature controllers. Now you should see an Update Failed error.

Continue trying things out, verifying that the thing which should work do, and that the things that shouldn’t work, don’t. If you did the testing associated with the last post, you will notice that there is a lag between sending the command and getting the results, but that is to be expected since you are now running over a network interface. Finally, assuming the network is configured correctly, and the desired ports are open, the client application should be able to work from a computer across the room, across the hall or across the world.

Testbed Application – Release 19
Toolbox – Release 16
Simple TCP Client – Release 1

Big Tease

So what is in store for next time? Well, let’s extend things a bit further and look at a way to access this same basic interface, but this time from a web browser! Should be fun.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

It’s a big interconnected world – and LabVIEW apps can play too

If I were asked to identify one characteristic that set modern test systems apart from their predecessors, my answer would be clear: distributed processing. In the past, test applications were often monolithic programs – but how things have changed! In the past we have talked several times about how the concept of distributed processing has radically altered our approach to system architecture. In fact, the internal design of our Testbed Application is a very concrete expression of that architectural shift. However, the move away from monolithic programs has had a profound impact in another area as well.

In the days of yore, code you wrote rarely had to interact with outside software. The basic rule was that if you wanted your program to do something you had to implement the functionality yourself. You had to assume this burden because there was no alternative. There were no reusable libraries of software components that you could leverage, and almost no way to pass data from one program to another. About all you could hope for were some OS functions that would allow you to do things like read and write disk files, or draw on the screen. In this blog we have looked at ways that our LabVIEW applications can use outside resources through standardized interfaces like .NET or ActiveX. But what if someone else wants to write a program that uses our LabVIEW code as a drop in component? How does that work?

As it turns out, the developers saw this possibility coming and have provides mechanisms that allow LabVIEW application to provide the same sort of standardized interface that we see other applications present. Over the next few posts, we are going to look at how to use incorporate basic remote interfaces ranging from traditional TCP/IP-based networking to building modern .NET assemblies.

What Can We Access?

However, before we can dig into all of that, we need to think about what these interfaces are going to access. In our case, because we have an existing application that we will be retrofitting to incorporate this functionality, we will be looking at the testbed to identify some basic “touchpoints” that a remote application might want to access. By contrast, if you are creating a new application, the process of identifying and defining these touchpoints should be an integral part of you design methodology from day one.

The following sections present the areas where we will be implementing remote access in our testbed application. Each section will describe the remote interface we desire to add and discuss some of the possible implementations for the interface’s “server” side.

Export Data from Plugins

The obvious place to start is by looking at ways of exporting the data. This is, after all, why most remote applications are going to want to access our application: They want the data that we are gathering. So the first thing to consider is, where does the data reside right now? If you go back and look at the original code, you will see that, in all cases, the primary data display for a plugin is a chart that is plotting one new point at a time. Here is what the logic looked like in the Acquire Sine Data.vi plugin.

Simple Acquisition and Charting

As you can see, the only place the simulated data goes after it is “acquired” is the chart. Likewise, if you looked at the code for saving the data, you would see that it was getting the data by reading the chart’s History property.

Save Chart Data to File

Now, we could expand on that technique to implement the new export functionality, but there is one big consequence to that decision. Approaching the problem in this way would have the side-effect of tying together the number of data points that are saved to the chart’s configuration. Hence, because the amount of data that a chart buffers can’t be changed at runtime, you would have to modify the LabVIEW code to change the amount of data that is returned to the calling application.

A better solution is to leverage what we have learned recently about DVRs and in-place structures to create a storage location the size of which we can control without modifying the application code. A side-effect of this approach is that we will be able to leverage it to improve the efficiency of the local storage of plugin data – yes, sometimes side-effects are good.

To implement this logic we will need three storage buffers: One for each of the two “acquisition” plugins and one for the reentrant “temperature controller” plugin. The interface to each storage buffer will consist of three VIs, the first one of which is responsible for initializing the buffer:

Initialize Buffer

This screenshot represents the version of the initialization routine that serves the Ramp Signal acquisition process. The basic structure of this code is to create a circular buffer that will save the last N samples – where “N” is a reconfigurable number stored in the database. To support this functionality, the DVR incorporates two values: The array of datapoints and a counter that operates as a pointer to track where the current insertion point is in the buffer. These VIs will be installed in the initialization state of the associated plugin screen’s state machine. With the buffer initialized, we next need to be able to insert data. This is typical code for performing that operation:

Insert Data Point

Because the DVR data array is initialized with the proper number of elements at startup, all this logic has to do is replace an existing value in the array with a newly acquired datapoint value, using the counter of course to tell it which element to replace. Although we have a value in the DVR called Counter we can’t use it without a little tweaking. Specifically, the DVR’s counter value increments without limit each time a value is inserted, however, there is only a finite number of elements in the data array. What we need for our circular buffer is a counter that starts at 0, counts to N-1 and then returns to 0 and starts over. The code in the image shows the easiest way to generate this counter. Simply take the limitless count and modulo divide it by the number of points in the buffer. The output of the modulo division operation is a quotient and a remainder. The remainder is the counter we need.

Modulo division is also important to the routine for reading the data from the buffer, but in this case we need both values. The quotient output is used to identify when the buffer is still in the process of being filled with the initial N datapoints:

Read All Data.1

During this initial period, when the quotient is 0, the code uses the remainder to trim off the portion of the buffer contents that are yet to be filled with live data. However, once the buffer is filled, the counter ceases being the a marker identifying the end of the data, and it becomes a demarcation point between the new data and the old data. Therefore, once the quotient increments past 0, a little different processing is required.

Read All Data.2

Once the circular buffer is full, the element that the remainder is pointing at is the oldest data in the array (chronologically speaking), while the datapoint one element up from it is newest. Hence, while the remainder is still used to split the data array, the point now is to swap the two subarrays to put the data in correct chronological order.

Retrieve Graph Images from Plugins

The next opportunity for remote access is to fetch not the data itself, but a graph of the data as it is shown on the application’s GUI. This functionality could form the basic for a remote user interface, or perhaps as an input to a minimalistic web presentation. Simplifying this operation is a control method that allows you to generate an image of the graph and the various objects surrounding it like the plot legend or cursor display. Consequently, the VI that will be servicing the remote connections only needs to be able to access the chart control reference for each plugin. To make those references available, the code now incorporates a buffer that is structurally very similar to the one that we use to store the VI references that allow the GUI to insert the plugins into its subpanel. Due to its similarity to existing code, I won’t cover it in detail, but here are a few key points:

  • Encapsulated in a library to establish a namespace and provided access control
  • The FGV that actually stores the references is scoped as Private
  • Access to the functionality is mediated though publicly-scoped VIs

This FGV is the only new code we will need to add to the existing code.

Adding Remote Control

One thing that both of the remote hooks we just discussed have in common is that they are both pretty passive – or to make this point another way, they both are monitoring what the application is doing without changing what it is doing. Now we want to look at some remote hooks that will allow remote applications control the application’s operation, at least in a limited way.

Since the way the application works is largely dependent upon the contents of the database, it should surprise no one that these control functions will need to provide provisions for the remote application to alter the database contents in a safe and controlled way.

Some Things to Consider

The really important words in that last sentence are “safe” and “controlled”. You see, the thing is that as long as you are simply letting people read the data you are generating, your potential risk is often limited to the value of the data that you are exposing. However, when you give remote users or other applications the ability to control your system, the potential exists that you could lose everything. Please understand that I take no joy in this conversation – I still remember working professionally on a computer that didn’t even have a password. However, in a world where “cyber-crime”, “cyber-terrorism” and “cyber-warfare” have become household terms, this conversation is unavoidable.

To begin with, as a disclaimer you should note that I will not be presenting anything close to a complete security solution, just the part of it that involves test applications directly. The advice I will be providing assumes that you, or someone within your organization, has already done the basic work of securing your network and the computers on that network.

So when it comes to securing applications that you write, the basic principle in play here is that you never give direct access to anything. You always qualify, error-check and validate all inputs coming from remote users or applications. True, you should be doing this input validation anyway, but the fact of the matter is that most developers don’t put a lot of time into validating inputs coming from local users. So here are a couple of recommendations:

Parametrize by Selecting Values – This idea is an expansion on a basic concept I use when creating any sort of interface. I have often said that anything you can do to take the keyboard out of your users’ hands is a good thing. By replacing data that has to be typed with data menus from which they can select you make software more robust and reduce errors. When working with remote interfaces, you do have to support typed strings because unless the remote application was written in LabVIEW, typing is the only option. But what you can do is limit the inputs to a list of specific values. On the LabVIEW-side the code can convert those string values into either a valid enumeration, or a predefined error that cancels the operation and leaves your system unaltered. When dealing with numbers, be sure to validate them also by applying common-sense limits to the inputs.

Create Well-Defined APIs – You want to define a set of interfaces that specify exactly what each operation does, and with as few side-effects as possible. In fancy computer-science terms, this means that operations should be atomic functions that either succeed or fail as a unit. No half-way states allowed! Needless to say, a huge part of being “well-defined” is that the APIs are well-documented. When someone calls a remote function, they should know exactly what is expected of them and exactly what they will get in response.

Keep it Simple – Let’s be honest, the “Swiss Army Knife” approach to interface design can be enticing. You only have to design one interface where everything is parametrized and you’re done, or at least you seem to be for a while. The problem is that as requirements change and expand you have to be constantly adding to that one routine and sooner or later (typically sooner) you will run into something that doesn’t quite fit well into the structure that you created. When that happens, people often try to take the “easy” path and modify their one interface to allow it to handle this new special case – after all, “…it’s just one special case…”. However once you start down that road, special cases tend to multiply like rabbits and the next thing you know, your interface is a complicated, insecure mess. The approach that is truly simple is to create an interface that implements separate calls or functions for each logical piece of information.

With those guidelines in mind, let’s look at the three parameters that we are going to be allowing remote users or applications to access. I picked these parameters because each shows a slightly different use case.

Set the Acquisition Sample Interval

One of the basic ways that you can store a set of parameters is using a DVR, and I demonstrated this technique by using it to store the sample rates that the “acquisition” loops use to pace their operation. In the original code, the parameter was already designed to be changed during operation. You will recall that the basic idea for the parameter’s storage was that of a drop box. It wasn’t important that the logic using the data know exactly when the parameter was changed, as long as it got the correct value the next time it tried to use the data. Consequently, we already have a VI that writes to the DVR (called Sample Rate.lvlib:Write.vi) and, as it turns out, it is all we will need moving forward.

Set Number of Samples to Save

This parameter is interesting because it’s a parameter that didn’t even exist until we started adding the logic for exporting the plugin data. This fact makes it a good illustration of the principle that one change can easily lead to requirements that spawn yet other changes. In this case, creating resizable data buffers leads to the need to be able change the size of those buffers.

To this point, the libraries that we have defined to encapsulate these buffers each incorporate three VIs: one to initialize the buffer, one to insert a new datapoint into it, and one to read all the data stored in the buffer. A logical extension of this pattern would be the addition of a fourth VI, this time one to resize the existing buffer. Called Reset Buffer Size.vi these routines are responsible for both resizing the buffer, and correctly positioning the existing data in the new buffer space. So the first thing the code does is borrow the logic from the buffer reading code to put the dataset in the proper order with the oldest samples at the top and the newest samples at the bottom.

Put the Data in Order

Next the code compares the new and old buffer sizes in order to determine whether the buffer is growing larger, shrinking smaller or staying the same size. Note that the mechanism for performing this “comparison” is to subtract the two value. While a math function might seem to be a curious comparison operator, this technique makes it easy to identify the three conditions that we need to detect. For example, if the values are the same the difference will be 0, and the code can use that value to bypass further operations. Likewise, if the two numbers are not equal, the sign of the result will indicate which input is larger, and the absolute magnitude of the result tells us how much difference there is between the two.

This is the code that is selected when the result of the subtraction is a positive number representing the number of element that are to be added to the buffer.

Add points to Buffer

The code uses the difference value to create an array of appropriate size and then appends it to the bottom of the existing array. In addition, the logic has to set the Counter value point to the first element of the newly appended values so the next insert will go in the correct place. By contrast, if the buffer is shrinking in size, we need to operate on the top of the array.

Remove points from buffer

Because the buffer is getting smaller, the difference is a negative number representing the number of elements to be removed from the buffer data. Hence, the first thing we need to do is extract the number’s absolute value and use it to split the array, effectively removing the elements above the split point. As before, we also need to set the Counter value, but the logic is a little more involved.

You will remember that the most recent data is on the bottom of the array, so where does the next data point need to go? That’s right, the buffer has to wrap around and insert the next datapoint at element 0 again, but here is where the extra complexity comes in. If we simply set Counter to 0 the data insert logic won’t work correctly. Reviewing the insert logic you will notice that the first pass through the buffer (modulo quotient = 0) is handled differently. What we need is to reinitialize Counter with a number that when subjected to the modulo division will result in a remainder of 0, and a quotient that is not 0. An easily derived value that meets that criteria is the size of the array itself.

Finally we have to decide what to do when the buffer size isn’t changing, and here is that code. Based on our discussions just now, you should be able to understand it.

buffer size not changing

Set Temperature Controller Operating Limits

Finally, there are two reasons I wanted to look at this operation: First, it is an example of where you can have several related parameters that logically form a single value. In this case, we have 5 separate numbers that, together, define the operation of one of the “temperature controller” processes. You need to be on the look-out for this sort of situation because, while treating this information as 5 distinct value would not be essentially wrong, that treatment would result in you needing to generate a lot of redundant code.

However, this parameter illustrates a larger issue, namely that changes in requirements can make design decisions you made earlier – let’s say – problematic. As it was originally designed, the temperature controller values were loaded when the plugins initialized, and they were never intended to be changed during while the plugin was running. However, our new requirement to provide remote control functionality means that this parameter now needs to be dynamic. When confronted with such a situation, you need to look for a solution that will require the least rework of existing code and the fewest side-effects. So you could:

  1. Redesign the plugin so it can restart itself: This might sound inviting at first because the reloading of the operating limits would occur “automatically” when the plugin restarted. Unfortunately, it also means that you would have to add a whole new piece of functionality: the ability for the application to stop and then restart a plugin. Moreover, you would be creating a situation where, from the standpoint of a local operator, some part of the system would be restarting itself at odd intervals for no apparent reason. Not a good idea.
  2. Redesign the plugin to update the limits on the fly: This idea is a bit better, but because the limits are currently being carried through the state machine in a cluster that resides in a shift-register, to implement this idea we will need to interrupt the state machine to make the change. Imposing such an interruption risks disrupting the state machine’s timing.

The best solution (as in all such cases) is to address the fundamental cause: the setups only load when the plugin starts and so are carried in the typedef cluster. The first step is to remove the 5 numbers associated with the temperature controller operating parameters from the cluster. Because the cluster is a typedef, this change conveniently doesn’t modify the plugin itself, though it does alter a couple of subVIs – which even more conveniently show up as being broken. All that is needed to repairs these VIs is to go through them one by one and modify the code to read the now-missing cluster data values with the corresponding values that the buffered configuration VI reads from the database. Said configuration VI (Load Machine Configuration.vi) also requires one very small tweak:

Reload Enable

Previously, the only time logic would force a reload of the data was when the VI had not been called before. This modification adds an input to allow the calling code to request a reload by setting the new Reload? input to true. To prevent this change from impacting the places where the VI is already being called, the default value for this input is false, the input is tied to a here-to-fore unused terminal on the connector pane, and the terminal is marked as an Optional input.

Building Out the Infrastructure

At this point in the process, all the modifications that need to be done to the plugins themselves have been accomplished, so now we need is a place for the external interface functionality itself to live. One of the basic concepts of good software design is to look at functionality from the standpoint of what you don’t know or what is likely to change in the future, and then put those things into abstracted modules by themselves. In this way, you can isolate the application as a whole, and thus protect it from changes that occur in the modularized functionality.

The way this concepts applies to the current question should be obvious: There is no way that we can in the here and now develop a compete list of the remote access functionality that users will require in the future. The whole question is at its essence, open-ended. Regardless if how much time you spend studying the issue, users have an inherently different view of your application than you do and so they will come up with needs that you can’t imagine. Hence, while today we might be able to shoe-horn the various data access and control functions into different places in the current structure, to do so would be to start down a dead-end road because it is unlikely that those modifications would meet the requirements of tomorrow. What we need here is a separate process that will allow us to expand or alter the suite of data access and control functionality we will offer.

Introducing the Remote Access Engine

The name of our new process is Remote Access.vi and (like most of the code in the project) it is designed utilizing an event-drive structure that ensures it is quiescent unless it is being actively accessed. The process’ basic theory of operation is that when one of its events fire, it performs the requested operation and then sends a reply in the form of a notification. The name of the notification used for the reply is sent as part of the event data. This basic process is not very different from the concept of “callbacks” used in languages such as JavaScript.

Although this process is primarily intended to run unseen in the background, I have added three indicators to its front panel as aides in troubleshooting. These indicators show the name of the last event that it received, the name of the plugin that the event was targeting, and the name of the response notifier.

The Read Graph Data Event

The description of this event handler will be longer than the others because it pretty much sets the pattern that we will see repeated for each of the other events. It starts by calling a subVI (Validate Plugin Name.vi) that tests to see if the Graph Name coming from the event data is a valid plugin name, and if so, returns the appropriate enumeration.

Validate plugin name

The heart of this routine is the built-in Scan from String function. However, due to the way the scan operation operates, there are edge conditions where it might not always perform as expected when used by itself. Let’s say I have a typedef enumeration named Things I Spend Too Much Time Obsessing Over.ctl with the values My House, My Car, My Cell Phone, and My House Boat, in that order. Now as I attempt to scan these values from strings, I notice a couple of “issues”. First there is the problems of false positives. As you would expect, it correctly converts the string “My House Boat” into the enumerated value My House Boat. However, it would also convert the string “My House Boat on the Grand Canal” to the same enumeration and pass the last part of the string (” on the Grand Canal”) out its remaining string output. Please note that this behavior is not a bug. In fact, in many situations it can be a very useful behavior – it’s just not the behavior that we want right now because we are only interested in exact matches. To trap this situation, the code marks the name as invalid if the remaining string output is not empty.

The other issue you can have is what I call the default output problem. The scan function is designed such that if the input string is not scanned successfully, it outputs the value present at the default value input. Again, this operation can be a good thing, but it is not the behavior that we want. To deal with this difference, the code tests the error cluster output (which generates and error code 85 for a failed scan) and marks the name as invalid if there is an error.

When Validate Plugin Name.vi finishes executing, we have a converted plugin name and a flag that tells us whether or not we can trust it. So the first thing we do is test that flag to see whether to continue processing the event or return an error message to the caller. Here is the code that executes when the result of the name validation process is Name Not Valid.

Name Not Valid

If the Response Notifier value from the event data is not null, the code uses it to send the error message, “Update Failed”. Note that this same message is sent whenever any problem arises in the remote interface. While this convention certainly results in a non-specific error message, it also ensures that the error message doesn’t give away any hints to “bad guys” trying to break in. If the Response Notifier value is null (as it will be for local requests) the code does nothing – remember we are also wanting to leverage this logic locally.

If the result of the name validation process is Name Valid, the code now considers the Plugin Name enumeration and predicates its further actions based on what it finds there. This example for Sine Source shows the basic logic.

Name Valid - Remote

The code reads the data buffer associated with the signal and passes the result into a case structure that does one of two different things depending on whether the event was fired locally, or resulted from a remote request. For a remote request (Response Notifier is not null), the code turns the data into a variant and uses it as the data for the response notifier. However, if the request is local…

Name Valid - Local

…it sends the same data to the VI that saves a local copy of the data.

The Read Graph Image Event

As I promised above, this event shares much of the basic structure as the one we just considered. In fact, the processing for a Name Not Valid validation result is identical. The Name Valid case, however, is a bit simpler:

Read Graph Image

The reason for this simplification is that regardless of the plugin being accessed, the datatypes involved in the operation are always the same. The code always starts with a graph control reference (which I get from the lookup buffer) and always generates an Image Data cluster. If the event was fired locally, the image data is passed to a VI (Write PNG File.vi) that prompts the user for a file name and then saves it locally. However, if instead of saving a file, you are wanting to pass the image in a form that is usable in a non-LabVIEW environment, a bit more work is required. To encapsulate that added logic, I created the subVI Send Image Data.vi.

Send Image Data

The idea is to convert the proprietary image data coming from the invoke node into a generic form by rendering it as a standard format image. Once in that form, it is a simple matter to send it as a binary stream. To implement this approach, the code first saves the image to a temporary png file. It then reads back the binary contents of the file and uses it as the data for the response notifier. Finally, it deletes the (now redundant) temporary file.

The Set Acquisition Rate Event

This event is the first one to control the operation of the application. It also has no need to be leveraged locally, so no dual operation depending on the contents of the Response Notifier value.

Set Acquisition Rate

Moreover, because the event action is a command and not a request, the response can only have one of two values: “Update Failed” or “Update Good”. The success message is only be sent if the plugin name is either Sine Source or Ramp Source, and no errors occurs during the update. While on the topic of errors, there are two operations that need to be performed for a complete update: the code must modify both the database and the buffer holding the live copy of the setting that the rest of the application uses. In setting the order of these two operations, I considered which of the two is most likely to generate an error and put it first. When you consider that most of the places storing live data are incapable of generating an error, the database update clearly should go first.

So after verifying the plugin name, the subVI responsible for updating the database (Set Default Sample Period.vi) looks to see if the value is changing. If the “new” value and the “old” value are equal, the code returns a Boolean false to its Changed? output and sets the Result output to Update Good. It might seem strange to return a value to the remote application that the update succeeded when there was no update performed, but think about it from the standpoint of the remote user. If I want a sample period of 1000ms, an output of Update Good tells me I got what I wanted – I don’t care that it didn’t have to change to get there. If the value is changing…

Set Default Sample Period

…the code validates the input by sending it to a subVI that compares it to some set limits (500 < period < 2500). Right now these limits are hardcoded, and in some cases that might be perfectly fine. You will encounter many situations where the limits are fixed by the physics of a process or a required input to some piece of equipment. Still, you might want these limits to be programmable too, but I’ll leave that modification as, “…as exercise for the reader.” In any case, if the data is valid, the code uses it to update the database and sets the subVI’s two outputs to reflect whether the database update generated an error. If the data is not valid, it returns the standard error message stating so.

The Set Data Buffer Depth Event

The basic dataflow for this event is very much like the previous one.

Set Data Buffer Depth

The primary logical difference between the two is that all plugins support this parameter. The logic simply has to select the correct buffer to resize.

The Set TC Parameters Event

With our third and (for now at least) final control event, we return to one that is only valid for some of the plugins – this time the temperature controllers.

Set TC Parameters

The interesting part of this event processing is that, because its data was not originally intended to be reloaded at runtime, the live copy of the data is read and buffered in the object-oriented configuration VIs.

Save Machine Configuration

Consequently, the routine to update the database (Save Machine Configuration.vi) first creates a Config Data object and then use that object to read the current configuration data. If the data has changed, and is valid, the same object is passed on to the method that writes the data to the database. Note also, that the validation criteria is more complex.

Validate TC Parameters

In addition to simple limits on the sample interval, the Error High Level cannot exceed 100, the Error Low Level cannot go below 30, and all the levels have to be correct relative to each other.

Testing

With the last of the basic interface code written and in place, we need to look at how to test it. To aide in that effort, I created five test VIs – one for each event. The point of these VIs is to simply exercise the associated event so we can observe and validate the code’s response. For instance, here’s the one for reading the graph data:

Test Read Graph Data

It incorporates two separate execution paths because it has two things that it has to be doing in parallel: Sending the event (the top path) and waiting for a response (the bottom path). Driving both paths, is the output from a support VI from the notifier library (not_Generic Named Notifier.lvlib:Generate Notifier Name.vi). It’s job is to generate a unique notifier name based on the current time and a 4-digit random number. Once the upper path has fired the event, it’s work is done. The bottom path displays the raw notifier response and graphs of the data that is transferred. Next, the test VI for reading the graph image sports similar logic, but the processing of the response data is more complex.

Test Read Graph Image

Here, the response notifier name is also used to form the name for a temporary png file that the code uses to store the image data from the event response. As soon as the file is written, the code reads it back in as a png image and passes it to a subVI that writes it to a 2D picture control on the VI’s front panel. Finally, the three test VIs for the control operations are so similar, I’ll only show one of them.

Test Resizing Data Buffers

This exemplar is for resizing the data buffers. The only response processing is that it displays the raw variant response data.

To use these VIs, launch the testbed application and run these test VIs manually one at a time. For the VIs that set operating parameters, observe that entering invalid data generates the standard error message. Likewise, when you enter a valid setting look for the correct response in both the program’s behavior and the data stored in the database. For the VI’s testing the read functions, run them and observe that the data they display matches what the selected plugin shows on the application’s GUI.

Testbed Application – Release 18
Toolbox – Release 15

The Big Tease

In this post, we have successfully implemented a remote access/control capability. However, we don’t as of yet have any way of accessing that capability from outside LabVIEW. Next time, we start correcting that matter by creating a TCP/IP interface into the logic we just created. After that introduction, there will be posts covering .NET, ActiveX and maybe even WebSockets – we’ll see how it goes.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

Tree-Control Menus: A Case Study in Data Management

The last time we were together, we discussed the first of two common use cases for tree controls: displaying tabular data. This time out, we are going to look at the other major use case: using tree controls as a sort of menu system to control an application’s operation – or at least its GUI.

The Problem We’re Solving

If you look at the testbed application that we have been working on for almost a year, it’s pretty clear that much of the work has been going on “behind the scenes” and not in the GUI. Oh it is nicely modularized thanks to a structure built around a subpanel interface, but the actual controls are really pretty bare bones. A good example of the utilitarian, but unsophisticated structure is the usage of a simple pop-up menu to select the screen to view. Right now it works pretty well because there is only a handful of plugin screens from which we can choose. However, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the mess that would result if there were a dozen, or even hundreds of screens available. We need better organization.

Fixing the Data

The biggest conceptual difference between our current goal, and the one we worked on last time is that in our earlier discussion we were displaying data that already existed outside the application. In other words, my disk has directories that contain files and other directories whether or not I chose to create a program that can read and display the directory’s contents. By contrast, the data we are going to be displaying now only exists within the context of our program, or perhaps within the context of our test environment as a whole. One big consequence of this fact is that we a lot more freedom to define the data’s structure and presentation.

For instance, when our testbed runs right now, there are two “acquisition” processes and three “temperature controllers”. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the controller functions are dispersed geographically, and what we see on the local interface is status data from three remote processes. In such a situation, we can observe that there is no “correct” way of viewing that overall structure. Depending upon who the user is and what they need to do there are (at least) two ways that these systems could be organized.

One user, might want to see a top-level breakdown that groups systems based on the function they perform. With this approach to organization, you would have sections for “Data Sources” and “Temperature Controllers”. The individual screen would then be grouped under one or the other of those headings:

By Function

Alternatively, a different user might want to see the network resources grouped primarily by each system’s geographical location, with the functions for each site then grouped together like so:

By Location

However, as I said before, neither view is any more “correct” than the other. Therefore. we need to be able to support either one – and any other structure that our customers request, as well. Although this level of flexibility might seem to be a tall order, the truth of the matter is that the tree control’s basic operation is very simple, so all we are really talking about is a matter of data management. Moreover, we already have in our hands the tools we need to accomplish the job. I am talking, of course about our database.

Creating the Data Management Structures

So in defining our data structures, we can start with what we already know: The user needs to be able to select basic menu structures by changing a single value. From this requirement it’s obvious that we’re going to need a table to identify the menu’s basic context. We will then use the values stored in that table to qualify the menu item groupings. Here is the definition for this table, and the three records we are going to insert into it:

CREATE TABLE menu_context (
  id     AUTOINCREMENT PRIMARY KEY,
  label  TEXT(100),
  CONSTRAINT contextlabel_uc UNIQUE(label)
  )
;

INSERT INTO menu_context (id, label) VALUES (0,'NULL');
INSERT INTO menu_context (label) VALUES ('By Function');
INSERT INTO menu_context (label) VALUES ('By Location');

The second table we need to define, will hold the records that describe the actual menu entries. Each record defines one line of the tree control’s contents.

CREATE TABLE menu_group (
  id           AUTOINCREMENT PRIMARY KEY,
  context_id   INTEGER NOT NULL,
  item_name    TEXT(100),
  parent_id    INTEGER NOT NULL,
  sort_order   INTEGER,
  CONSTRAINT context_group_fk FOREIGN KEY (context_id) REFERENCES menu_context(id),
  CONSTRAINT self_ref_fk FOREIGN KEY (parent_id) REFERENCES menu_group(id)
  )
;

As is typical, the data for each record incorporates a primary key that uniquely identifies it. Next, comes a foreign key value that relates each record to one of the menu context values defined in the menu_context table. The last three fields store the data that controls the entry’s appearance in the tree control. The item_name field contains the text that will appear for the item’s entry in the tree control. The parent_id is the ID key for the item’s parent. A key value of 0 indicates a top-level item. Note that this values relates to the id field value in the same table. This sort of self-referential relationship is common when creating tables that are, in essence, linked lists. Finally, the sort_order field defines the order in which the menu entries will be added to the tree control. This last field is necessary because we are storing the configuration data in a database – and as you will recall DBMS make no promises about the order of data in queries unless you explicitly include an ORDER BY clause in the query.

Now that we have a table defining the overall tree control menu structure, we need to be able to insert into that structure the entries that will represent the plugin screens. In order to accomplish that task we need a table that relates data we already have in the database (the contents of the launch_item table) to the specific tree control entries that will be their parents in the tree control. The following table fulfills that task:

CREATE TABLE subpanel_group_xref (
  id               AUTOINCREMENT PRIMARY KEY,
  launch_item_id   INTEGER NOT NULL,
  menu_group_id    INTEGER NOT NULL,
  menu_context_id  INTEGER NOT NULL,
  CONSTRAINT launchid_subpanel_FK FOREIGN KEY (launch_item_id) REFERENCES launch_item(id),
  CONSTRAINT groupid_subpanel_FK FOREIGN KEY (menu_group_id) REFERENCES menu_group(id),
  CONSTRAINT contextid_subpanel_FK FOREIGN KEY (menu_context_id) REFERENCES menu_context(id)
  )
;

This table might seem a strange candidate for implementing this crucial bit of functionality because it doesn’t appear to actually store any data. The table only has 4 fields and they are all seem to be holding integers. The distinction here is that while most of the tables we have considered serve to store data, this table stores relationships – specifically the 3-way relationship that defines where each plugin will appear in the menu for each menu context. To see how these bits fit together we need to start considering the LabVIEW code that will read these structures and build the tree control based menus.

Creating the LabVIEW

The basic approach that we will take in creating the entries for the tree control is going to incorporate two distinct phases.

  1. Draw the menu structure
  2. Fill in the entries associated with the plugins

Reading the Data

The VI that is responsible for reading the menu data from the database (Config Data_DB_ADO:Read Tree Menu Structure.vi) has an enumerated input that selects the menu context the code will display. This value drives a subVI (Get Menu Context ID.vi) that reads and buffers the id value associated with the desired menu context.

Read Tree Menu Structure

In one sense, this subVI really isn’t necessary because you could theoretically perform this look-up operation using a so-called “subquery”, but this approach is far less efficient because it forces the DBMS to repeat the look-up with each query. In addition, these values are not going to change, so better to let LabVIEW remember them. To my way of thinking, however, the biggest issue with this approach is that it complicates the query itself. Given that this is the logic that maintainers (who may not be knowledgeable in SQL) are going to see, it’s a good idea to keep the SQL logic as simple as possible. The other thing to notice about the query is that it puts the entries in the correct order for display by incorporating the clause ORDER BY parent_id, sort_order ASC. Finally, you can see that I built this logic inside the generic ADO database subclass of the existing Config Data object structure.

For reading the tree entries associated with the plugins we use this VI, which is similar to the one for reading the main menu structure, but with some important differences.

Read Tree Menu Plugin Entries

The first obvious thing is that the query is much more complex because the primary table being queried is a cross-reference table. Consequently, we have to de-reference the id numbers to derive the data we need to build the menu entries. In learning how this de-referencing works, it’s important to remember that SQL is a language created by a mathematician – specifically a mathematician who specialized in a branch of mathematics called “Set Theory”. His (incredibly optimistic) idea was that if he could create a language based on mathematic principles, he would be able to prove, in the mathematical sense, that the program was correct (read: bug free).

While his grand hope evaporated in the face of the harsh reality that most programming has surprising little to do with mathematics (i.e. computing an answer), the set orientation of SQL has survived. For example, when you perform a query, what you are really doing is SELECTing a data subset FROM a larger set of data – which is typically a table. However, sometimes you need to gather data from a still larger set of data that is spread across multiple tables. To do that, you need to temporarily JOIN those tables together into one large virtual dataset based ON some criteria, like matching id numbers. Get the idea?

A not-so-obvious thing about this LabVIEW code is where it is located in the Config Data object structure. Unlike the routine for reading the basic menu structure, this VI is not located in the generic ADO database subclass. Instead it can be found in the JET database subclass, and the reason for this placement lies in the query. Unlike the other query operation which was implemented in generic SQL, there are aspects of this query that utilize JET-specific syntax (specifically, all the parentheses).

Generating the Menu Tags

With the data in hand that defines the tree-control menus, we now need to turn that data into menu entries. The first step in that transformation is to process the raw data we have acquired from the database to generate the tags that are needed to properly organize the tree entries. I won’t take up the room to show the code for this VI (Parse Tree Management Data.vi) because it’s easy to explain what it does – but feel free to check it out in the code. The VI’s primary program structure is a while loop that iterates through the raw tree-definition data generating the tags and formatting the data to generate the tree items. The loop has on it two shift registers: one holds an array of ID numbers that the loop has already processed, the other holds an array of clusters. Each element contains the four items that we will need to define a menu item (Parent Tag, Child Name, Child Tag and Child Only?).

With each iteration, the loop extracts the top element from the array and tests the Parent ID. If it is zero, the item is a top-level entry so the code builds its entry and continues with the next iteration. If Parent ID is anything other than 0, it searches the array of processed IDs to see if its parent has already been processed. When the comparison finds the new entry’s Parent ID it uses its tag value to synthesize the new entry’s child tag. When the new entry’s Parent ID is not found, the code adds the entry’s element back onto the bottom of the array of entries to be processed so it can be retried later. Normally, this search should never fail because the ordering in the queries should put the elements in the correct order, but this is just in case. This operation continues until there are no more entries left to process.

Finally, in terms of tree control infrastructure, the only thing we have left is to actually insert the entries that we have defined into the tree control. By the time we get to this point in the code we have gotten the definitions in the correct order so all we have left to do is disable front panel updates, clear the tree control, add the new tree entries and re-enable front panel updates. Again, this code is very simple so to save space I will refer you to the last post (http://www.notatamelion.com/2015/09/14/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-labview/) for details on the call and how it works.

Integration with the Testbed

To integrate this code with the existing testbed application requires very little work. First off on the front panel, we remove the existing ring control that we were using to select screens and add the tree control (I’m using he one from the System-themed palette), and a System-themed enumeration that will allow the operator to switch between the two menu context values. Note that this control could also be defined as a ring with the String[] control populated at run time to show the available options. This implementation would be useful if you want to provide the ability in your program to either allows the users to dynamically configure the basic structure of the tree control menus, or provide different options depending on who is using the system.

New Front Panel Controls

On the block diagram, the front panel changes impact the program logic in two places. First, we need to create a new Value Changeevent to handle the Menu Context control. This event (which is also fired when the GUI initializes itself) is responsible for rebuilding the tree-control menu display.

Menu Context-Value Change Event

The event handler starts by calling a subVI (Get Tree Menu Data.vi) that accepts as an input a Menu Context value and internally calls the two database query VIs we discussed above. After concatenating the arrays that it gets from the two routines, it passes the raw data to the VI (Parse Tree Management Data.vi) I described that converts the raw data into tree control entries. Finally it returns the array of tree control entries to the event handler, which passes it, and two references to the subVI (Draw Menu.vi) which does exactly what it name says. The first of the references is, obviously, a control reference to the tree control. The other is a VI reference to the GUI itself so the subVI can defer and then re-enable front panel updates.

The other block diagram change is to purpose an existing value change event. The event n question used to handle the ring control that changed screens and while it will still be a value change event, it will be a value change event on the aptly labeled tree control, Tree.

Tree-Value Change Event

The original logic that occupied this space took the string value of the selected ring item and used it to look up the name of the associated screen in an array of strings. The string array consisted of screen labels that were generated when the GUI loaded the subpanel VIs into memory and started them running. The resulting index was then used to index the screen’s VI reference from an array of plugin screen VI references. This VI reference would, in turn, drive the subpanel’s Insert VI method to make that screen visible in the subpanel.

The modified form works basically the same, but with a couple minor differences. Although the tree control’s value is a string, the string is the tag associated with the entry. Since the part we need to perform our search is the last item in the colon-delimited list, the first thing we need to do is strip off everything up to, and including, the lastcolon in the string. Moreover because we want this operation to be efficient as possible – so no looping. A very efficient solution is to use the built-in Match Pattern function with the rather curious-looking pattern shown. To see how it works, consider that a dot (“.”) is a special character matches any character. Next, the asterisk (“*”) is a special character that matches the longest sequence of the token that came just before it. Hence, it will match the longest sequence of any characters. Finally, the colon is not a special character so it will match just a colon. The end result is that the complete pattern will match the longest sequence of characters that are followed by a colon, and it works the same whether there is one colon in the string or a dozen. The string I want will be what is left after the match.

The other change that was needed for the tree control, is the case structure, which is there to work around a bug in the way LabVIEW handles value change events with tree controls. I configured the tree control such that only entries that are marked as Child Only are selectable. The bug is that when you click on one of the parent items, LabVIEW still fires the value change event even though the value of the tree control isn’t changing. To work around this issue, the event handler bypasses all further event processing of the “selected” item when it isn’t found in the list of screens.

Testing the Interface

As always, the “Proof of the pudding is in the eating” so let’s try running the application with its new GUI feature. One minor difference in behavior is that the subpanel now remains empty at startup until the user makes a selection. However, from the time the application starts, the user has visible a complete list of all the display screens that are available. In addition, the tree will automatically reconfigure itself when a different context is selected.

Testbed Application – Release 17
Toolbox – Release 14

The Big Tease

At one time when I started doing this work, test systems were surprisingly homogeneous. While it was true that instruments came from many different vendors, the software environment was pretty monolithic. Today, however, things have really changed. Every day it is becoming more common and accepted to have multiple applications running in parallel that were developed using a variety of development tools ranging from C++ to Java to C# and F.

In the past we have talked about creating a LabVIEW-based backend application with the main GUI built using standard web tools such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript (http://www.notatamelion.com/2015/06/08/building-a-web-backend-in-labview/). Over the next few posts I want to consider some of the other ways that your LabVIEW application can work with external applications.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn LabVIEW

This time out, I want to start exploring a user interface device that in my opinion is dramatically under-utilized. I am talking about the so-called tree control. This structure solves a number of interface challenges that might otherwise be intractable. For example, the preferred approach to displaying large amounts of data is to avoid generating large tabular blocks of data, opting instead to display these datasets on graphs. However, there can be situations where those large tabular blocks of data are exactly what the customer wants. What a tree control can do is display this data using a hierarchical structure that makes it easier for the user to find and read the specific data they needs. A good example of this sort of usage is Windows explorer. Can you imagine how long it would take to you find anything of all Windows provides was an alphabetical list of all the files on your multi-gigabyte hard drive?

Alternately, a tree control can provide a way of hierarchically organize interface options. For instance, to select the screen to display in the testbed application we have been building, the program currently uses a simple pop-up menu containing a list of the available screens. This technique works well is you have a limited number of screens, but does not scale well.

We will structure our evaluation of tree controls around two applications that demonstrate its usage both as a presentation device for large datasets and as a control interface. Starting that discussion, this week we will look how display a large amount of data (all the files on your PC). Then in the following post we will explore its usefulness for controlling the application itself by modifying the testbed application to incorporate it.

Our Current Goal

To demonstrate this control’s ability to organize and display a large amount of tabular data, we are going to consider an example that displays a hierarchical listing of the files on your computer starting with a directory that you specify. The resulting display will represent folders as expandable headings, and for files show their size and modification date.

I picked this application as an example because it provides the opportunity to discuss an interesting concept that I have been wanting to cover for some time (i.e. recursion). Moreover, on a practical level, this application makes it easy to generate a very large set of interesting data – though it isn’t very fast. But more on that in a bit. For now, let’s start by considering what it takes to make this tree grow. Then we can look at the application’s major components.

Becoming a LabVIEW Arborist

Although tree controls and menus occupy different functional niches, their APIs bear certain similarities. For example, they both draw a distinction between what the user sees and the “tags” that are used internally to identify specific items. Likewise, when creating a child item, both APIs use the parent’s tag to establish hierarchical relationships.

A big difference between the two is that a tree control can have multiple columns like a table. In fact, one way of understanding a tree control is as a table that lets you collapse multiple rows into a header row. So in designing for this thing, the first thing we need to do is decide what values are going to represent the “header rows”, and what values the “data rows”. For this, our first excursion into utilizing tree controls, the “header” rows will define the folders – so that is where we go first.

Showing the Folders

The code that we will use to add a new folder to the tree resides in a VI called Process New Directory Entry.slow.vi (the reasons for the “slow” appellation will be explained shortly).

Process New Directory Entry.slow

Because this logic resides in a subVI, the reference to tree control comes from a control on the VI’s front panel. Next, note that the way you get the row into the control is by using an invoke node that instantiates the Edit Tree Items:Add Item method. I point out this fact because it tells you something important: All the data we are going to be displaying in the control are properties of the control, not values. Consequently, they will be automatically saved as part of the control whenever you save the VI that contains the control.

Next, let’s consider the inputs to the method. The top-most item is Parent Tag. The assumption is that the method is defining a new child item, so this input defines the parent under which the new child will reside. Therefore, a Parent Tag that is a null string indicates an item with no parent (i.e. a top-level item). The next item down from the top is Child Position and its job is to tell the method where to insert the new child that it is creating. A value of -1, as is used here, tells the method to put the new child after any existing children of the identified parent. In other words, if this code is called multiple times, the children will appear in the control in the order in which they were created.

The next two input items (Left Cell String and Child Text) control what the user will see in the control. You will recall that I said that tree controls are sort of like hierarchical, collapsible tables. In that representation, the left-most cell shows the hierarchical organization through indentation. In addition, by default, every row that has other rows nested beneath it shows a small glyph indicating that the row can be expanded. The other cells in the row are like the additional columns in the table and can hold whatever data you want. When creating entries for directories, the left-most cell will contain the name of the directory, and the remainder of the row will be empty. To implement this functionality, the input path is stripped to remove the last item. This value is passed to the Left Cell String input. In addition, an empty string array is written to the Child Text input.

Next, the Child Tag input allows you to specify the value that you want to use to uniquely identify this row when creating children under it, or reading the value of control selections. Now the documentation says that if you don’t wire a string to this input, it will reuse the Left Cell String value as the tag, but you don’t want to depend on this feature. The problem is that tags have to be unique so to prevent duplication, LabVIEW automatically modifies these tags to insure that they are unique by appending a number at runtime. While it is true that the method returns a string containing the key that LabVIEW generated, not knowing ahead of time what the tag will be can complicate subsequent operations. To avoid this issue, I like to include logic that will guarantee that the tag value that I write to this input is unique. For this application, if the parent tag is a null string (indicating a top-level item), the code takes the entire path, converts it to a string and uses the result as the child tag. In the parent tag is not null, the code generates the tag by taking the parent tag value and appending to it a slash character and the string that is feeding the child’s Left Cell String input. If this reason for this logic escapes you, don’t worry about it – you’ll see why it’s important shortly.

Finally, the Child Only? input is a flag that, when false, allows other rows to be added hierarchically beneath it.

Showing the Files

With the code handled for creating entries associated with directories, now we need to implement the logic for creating the entries that represent the files inside those directories – which as you can see below, utilizes the same method as we saw earlier, but plays with the inputs in a slightly different ways.

Process New File Entry.slow

Named Process New File Entry.slow.VI, this VI is designed to use the additional columns to provide a little additional information about the file: to wit, its size and last modification date. Therefore, the first thing the code does is call a built-in function (File/Directory Info) that reads the desired information. However, this call raises the potential of an error being generated. When errors are possible you need to spend some time thinking about what you want to have happen when they occur. In this situation, there are three basic responses:

  1. Propagate the Error: With this approach, the error would simply be propagated on through the code and be reported like any other error. This action would ensure that the error would be reported, but would stop the processing of the interface.
  2. Don’t Include this File in the List: By trapping the error and preventing it from being passed on, we can use it to block the display of files for which we can’t retrieve the desired error. This technique would allow the interface processing to run to completion, by simply ignoring the error.
  3. Include the File but not its Data: A variation of Option 2, this approach would still block the error from being propagated. However, it would still create the file’s entry in the table but with dummy data like, “Not Available”, or simply “n/a” for the missing data.

So which of these options is the correct one? This is one of those situations where there is no universally correct answer. Sorting out which option is the correct one for your application is why, as a software engineering professional, you earn the “big bucks”. For the purpose of our demonstration, I picked Option 2.

Next, the New Directory Tag input is the tag that is associated with the folder in which this file resides. Finally, the Child Tag value is calculated by taking the Parent Tag value and appending to it a slash character and the name of the file stripped from the input path.

Pulling it all Together

So those are the two main pieces of code. All we have to do now is combine them into a single process that will process a starting directory to produce a hierarchical listing of its contents. The name of this VI is Process Directory.slow.vi, and this is what its code looks like:

Process Directory.slow

So you can see that the first thing is does is call the subVI we discussed for creating an entry in the tree control for the directory identified in the Starting Path input, using the tag value from the My Parent Tag input. The result is that the folder is added to the tree, and the subVI returns the tag for the new folder item. The next step is to process the folder’s contents so the code calls the built-in List Folder function to generate lists of the directory’s files and subdirectories.

The array of file names is passed into a loop that repeatedly calls the subVI we discussed earlier that creates entries in the tree control for individual files. The array of subdirectory names drives a loop that first verifies that the first character of the name is not a dollar sign (“$”). Although this check is not technically necessary, it serves to bypass various hidden system directories (like $Recycle Bin) which would generate errors anyway. Assuming that the subdirectory name passes the test, the code calls a subVI that we haven’t looked at before – or have we? If you open this subVI and go to its block diagram and you will see this:

Process Directory.slow

Look familiar? I have not simply duplicated the logic in Process Directory.slow.vi, rather I am using a technique called recursion to allow the VI to call itself. This idea might sound more than a little confusing, but if you think about it, the idea makes a lot of sense. Look at it this way, to correctly process these subdirectories, we need to do the exact same things as we are doing right now to process the parent directory, so why not use the exact same code?

The way it works is that Process Directory.slow.vi is configured in its VI Properties as a shared clone reentrant VI. To review, when LabVIEW runs code utilizing share clones, it creates a small pool of instances of the VIs code in memory. When the shared clone VI is actually called, LabVIEW goes to this pool and dynamically calls one of the share clones that isn’t currently being used. If the pool every “runs dry” LabVIEW automatically adds more clones to the pool. It is this behavior relative to shared clones that is key to the way LabVIEW implements recursion. In order to see how this recursion operates, let’s consider this very basic top-level VI:

Getting Processing Started.slow

The code first clears any contents that might already exist in the tree control and then makes the first call to Process Directory.slow.vi. When the runtime engine sees that call, it goes to the pool, gets a clone of the VI and starts executing it. An important point to remember is that even though all the clones in the pool were derived from the same VI, they are at this point separate entities. It is as though you manually created several copies of the same VI, except LabVIEW did the copying for you.

When running this first clone, LabVIEW will eventually get to the call that it makes to Process Directory.slow.vi. As before, the runtime engine will go to the pool, get a second clone of the VI and start it executing, and so it will go until execution gets to a directory that only has files in it. In that case, the cloned VI will not get called and that Nth-generation clone will finish its execution. At this point LabVIEW will release the clone back to the pool for future reuse, and return to executing the clone that called the one that just finished. This calling clone may have other subdirectories to process, or it may be done – in which case it will also finish its execution, LabVIEW will release it back to the pool, and continue executing the clone that called it. This process will continue until all the clones have finished their work.

Some Further Points

And that, dear readers, is how the process basically works, but there are a couple important things still to cover. We need to talk about memory consumption, performance and how to interact with this control in your program once you have it populated with data.

Memory Considerations

I mentioned earlier that the information that you enter into a tree control are actually properties of the control – not its data. I also stated that as a result of that fact, said information will automatically be saved as part of the control. As a demonstration of that fact, consider that the very basic top-level VI I just showed you consumes about 14 kbytes on disk. However, as a test I turned the process loose on my PC’s Program Files (x86) directory. After it had finished processing the 14,832 folders(!) and 122,533 files(!!) contained therein, I saved the VI again. At that point, the size of the VI on disk ballooned to 2.6 Mbytes.

The solution is to remember to always remember to delete all items from a tree control when the program using it stops. Although you obviously don’t have to worry about this sort of growth is a compiled application (a standalone application can’t save changes to itself), this convention will help to keep you from inadvertently saving extraneous information during development and artificially expanding the size of your application.

Performance Considerations

The test I did to catalog my PC’s Program Files (x86) directory also highlighted another issue: execution speed. To complete the requested processing took about an hour and a half. Doing the same processing, but minus the tree control operations, took less than a minute, so the vast majority or this time was clearly spent in updating the tree control. But what exactly was it that was taking so long? As it turns out, there are two sources of delay, the first of which is actually pretty easy to control.

The way the code is currently written, the tree control on the front panel updates its appearance after each addition – a problem by the way that is not unique to tree controls. The solution is to tell LabVIEW to stop updating the front panel for a while, and here is how to do it:

Getting Processing Started w-Defer Panel Updates

A VI’s front panel has a property called Defer Panel Updates when you set this property to true, LabVIEW records all changes to the VI’s front panel, but doesn’t actually update it to reflect those changes. When the property is later set to false, all pending changes are applied to the front panel at once. The additions shown reduces the time to process my entire Program Files (x86) directory by 66% to just 30 minutes – which is much better, but still not great.

To reduce our processing time further, we have to take more drastic measures – starting with a fundamental change in how we add entries for individual files. The issue is that the technique we are using to add entries is very convenient because we are explicitly identifying the parent under which each child is to be placed. Consequently, we have the flexibility to add entries in essentially any order. However, as the total number of entries grows larger we begin to pay a high price for this convenience and flexibility because, under the hood, the control’s logic has to incorporate the ability to insert entries at random into the middle of existing data.

The solution to this problem is to use a different method. This method is called Edit Tree Items:Add Multiple Items to End and as it names says it simply appends new items to the end of the current list of entries. Of course for this to work, it means that we have to take responsibility for a lot of stuff that LabVIEW was doing for us, like updating the control in order and maintaining the indentation to preserve the hierarchical structure. Thankfully, that work isn’t very hard. For instance, here is the code for creating the new directory entry:

Process New Directory Entry

The first thing you will notice is that the invoke node is gone. The method that we will be invoking sports a single input which is an array of clusters representing the tree entries that it will add. The purpose of the logic before us is to assemble the array element that will create the parent folder’s entry in the tree.

Next, note that the information needed to define the entry is slightly different. First, we don’t need to specify a tag for the parent because we are assuming that the node are going to be simply added to the display in the order that they occur in the array. However, that simplification raises a problem. How do you maintain the display’s hierarchical structure? The thing to remember is that the hierarchy is defined visually, but also logically, by the indentations in the entries. Therefore the entry definition incorporates a parameter that explicitly defines the number of level which the new entry should be indented. Due to the way that we have been building the tags, this value is very easy to calculate. All we have to do is count the number of delimiters (“\”) in the entry’s tag and then subtract the number of delimiters in the starting path. The first part of that calculation occurs in the subVI Calculate Indent Level.vi and the second part is facilitated by a new input parameter Indent Offset.

Making the same adaptations to the routine for adding a new file entry and you get this:

Process New File Entry

Nothing new to see here. The important part is how these two new VIs fit together and to see that we need to look at the recursive VI Process Directory.vi (I have zoomed in on just the part that has changed):

Process Directory

This logic’s core functionality is to build the array of entry definitions that the Edit Tree Items:Add Multiple Items to End method needs to do its work. The first element in this array is the entry for the directory itself, and the following elements define the entries for the files within the directory. Finally, we have a make a small change to the top-level VI as well:

Getting Processing Started

Specifically, we need to calculate the Indent Offset value based on the Starting Path input. But the important question, is does all this really help? With these optimizations in place the processing time for my PC’s Program Files (x86) directory drops to just a hair under 10 minutes. Of course while that improvement is impressive, it might still be too long, but the changes to reduce the processing time further are only necessary if dealing with very large datasets. Plus they really have nothing to do with the tree control itself – so they will have to wait for another time.

Event Handling

The last we have left out so far is what happens after the tree control is populated with data. Well, like most controls in LabVIEW, tree controls support a variety of events including ones that allow event structures to respond when the user selects or double-clicks an item in the control. But this point begs the question: What is the fundamental datatype of a tree control? By default, the datatype of a tree control is a string, and its value is the tag of the currently selected item. Alternatively, if no items are selected, the tree control’s value is a null, or empty string.

Top Level File Explorah

Because the control’s datatype is a string, you can programmatically clear any selection by writing a null string to a Value property node or a local variable associated with the control. However, note the words “By default…” like a few other controls (such as listboxes) tree controls can be configured to allow multiple items to be selected at once. In that case, the control’s datatype changes to an array of strings where each element is the tag of a selected item.

The other thing I wanted to point out through this example is the importance of carefully considering how to define tags for items. it may seem obvious but if you are taking the time to put data into this control, you are probably going to want to use it in the future. it behooves you therefore to tag it in such as way as to allow you to quickly identify and parse values. For example, in this example I put together the tags such that they mirror the data’s natural structure – its file path. By mimicking your data’s natural structure you make it easier to locate the specific information that you need.

File Explorer – Release 1
Toolbox – Release 12

The Big Tease

OK, that is enough for now. Next time we will return to our testbed application and look at using tree controls as a control element. With this use case the focus shifts from volume of data, to organization of the GUI to simplify operator interactions.

Until Next Time…
Mike…

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 (
    id          AUTOINCREMENT PRIMARY KEY,
    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)
VALUES
  ('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…

Mike…

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.

Menus

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…

Mike…