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 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, we see how the FGV’s remaining two functions work.

Keeping Time

Next, let’s look at the reentant 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 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 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…

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 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 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 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 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, but this post is getting long so that will have to wait until next time.

Until Next Time…

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 ( 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 ( reads a data packet from the client that, in our application, represents a data or control request. Next comes the subVI ( that writes a response back to the client. Finally the code calls a subVI ( 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 that executes the command and returns the response. The response data is next flattened to a JSON string and written to the connection. Because the current implementation assumes a single request/response cycle per connection, the code closes the WebSockets connection and the TCP connection reference. However, it would be easy to visualize a structure that would not close the connection, but rather repeat one of the data read commands at a timed interval to create a remote “live” interface.

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

Testing our Work

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

The HTML and CSS

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

Main Screen

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

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

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

Graph Screen - Blank

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

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

…and now the code that defines the graph:

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

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

The JavaScript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing the Pages

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

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

Graph Screen

Image Screen

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

Big Tease

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

Until Next Time…

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

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 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 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", 
        "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 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…

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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

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 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 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.


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 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…

Using VI Server to Interact with Executables

We all want to be able to reuse code and a good way of accomplishing that goal is by repurposing executables that you wrote for other projects. The problem is how you control them. Last week we started addressing this challenge by looking at some of the general tools that are at our disposal for manipulating executables — regardless of where you got them. This time out we will complete the discussion by looking at some of the things you can do that are specific to LabVIEW-created executables.

First, we need an executable

As the title says, if we are going to talk about making VI Server calls to an executable, the first thing we need is an executable — and an executable, we have. Although the functionality it implements is, to be honest, rather sparse, it is sufficient to demonstrate what we need. Here’s what its front panel looks like:

A Small Test Executable - FP

Starting in the top left, it sports an indicator where you can see the command line that was used to launch it. Immediately below that string is an indicator showing the current time, a button for stopping the program manually, and a pair of LEDs that indicate when two different events are triggered: Application Instance Close? and Panel Close?.

To the right is a path indicator that displays one of two different paths depending on the state of the checkbox that is next to it. Below the path indicator are two numerics. One is the PID of the instance that is running. The other is the TCP/IP port number that was assigned to the executable when it was launched. Note that if you don’t provide a port number in the command line parameters, the executable will terminate almost immediately — though you may see it briefly appear in the Windows Task Manager.

Handling the front panel

Most of the code that makes this interface work is pretty straight forward, so I won’t take the time to describe it. The one exception is this bit in the initialization logic:

Intialization Logic

The reason that I’m pulling it aside for special attention is that it illustrates (at least part of) the solution for a problem that you will encounter the first time you create a VI that is designed to run entirely in the background. The heart of this problem is mismatched expectation: When LabVIEW runs an executable it expects to open the window associates with the top-level VI. You, on the other hand, wanting the executable is run unseen in the background, expect the window to stay closed. Consequently, what happens is that LabVIEW opens the window and starts the VI running in that order and your code immediately hides the front panel. What the user sees is a windows that open and then immediately closes without explanation, and if there is one things that worries users more than things happening too slowly, its things happening too fast — like windows flashing open and then closing.

The solution lies in a VI property called Transparency. The setting to control it can be found in the custom appearance dialog.

Transparency Dialog

When the box is checked and the percentage is set to 100, the window will be open but totally transparent. Hence, when the runtime engine launches the application, the window will still open but it will be invisible. A moment later, the code above will hide the window and set the transparency to 0 so that when we do decide to open it, we will be able to see it.

VI Server Operations

Last time, I presented this block of settings from the application’s INI file. Before we continue, we need to take a moment all consider what these settings mean — at least to the extent that anyone knows what they mean…

; server.tcp.port=3363
; server.tcp.serviceName=""

The first four parameters in this list control overall access to the application via TCP/IP. Consequently, they are the four that you are most likely need to muck with:

  • server.tcp.enabled=True: This setting enables the TCP/IP interface that VI Server uses. If this setting is False, nothing is happening.
  • ; server.tcp.port=3363: This setting specifies the port that the associated TCP/IP listener will be monitoring for a connection. Note that I have this line commented out because we will be assigning this value via command line parameter.
  • ; server.tcp.serviceName="": Also commented out, this optional parameter allows you to define a name that you can then use to reference the application, instead of a Port number.
  • server.tcp.acl=???: This setting defines the TCP/IP access control list (ACL) — or who is allowed to connect to the application. Already I can hear you wondering, what is the deal with that long string? Well, if you ever find out be sure and let me know. The bottom line is that the original interface included an ACL that simply listed the IP addresses that were and were not allowed to access the application. For reasons unknown, NI decided to change this common sense approach to something more enigmatic. So how do you generate this string? Glad you asked. According to LabVIEW’s documentation, you need to set up your development environment to have the same access list as you want your application to have, and then copy and paste the resulting string from LabVIEW’s INI file to your application’s INI file, seriously…

The remaining parameters specify in one way or another the specific resources that the remote program can access in the target application.

  •"+*": This parameter contains a list of VIs that are accessible through the VI Server interface. The default value shown allows access to all VIs.
  • This parameter specifies whether the remote program is allowed to run VIs contained in the executable. We leave this True so I can demonstrate that ability.
  • This parameter gives the remote program access to the executable’s application-class properties — like the names of all the VIs currently in memory.
  • This parameter gives the remote program access to the VI-class properties of individual VIs. This category include things like a reference to the VI’s front panel.
  • server.control.propertiesEnabled=True: This parameter gives the remote program access to the properties associated with individual controls on VI front panels. For example, you need to have this parameter enabled to do things like programatically set the value of a control. This value is True as I will be demonstrating this ability as well.

Finally, I want to state one thing that I hope is obvious. All these “security” settings are contained in a plain text file that can be edited by anyone who knows how to use a simple text editor. The point here is that while recent versions of Windows are making it harder and harder to modify files in the “Programs” directories, it is not by any stretch of the imagination bullet-proof. Hence, if there are truly sensitive things that need restricted access, don’t depend on these settings.

What we can do with these controls

So let’s put some of what we have been learning about into action. If you download the code from the SVN repository you will find, in addition to the source code, a compiled executable. For the following tests, you can either run the executable I have included, or compile it on your own — it’s up to you. You will also want to be sure to update your copy of the toolbox as I have added a couple useful VIs. One of the executable management VIs is where we will start:

Launching the Executable

Start by opening small test executable.lvproj and then open the routine Launch It’s job is to launch three copies of the test application (small test executable.exe) so on the front panel click the path browser button next to the path control and navigate to and then select the test application. Now, run the VI.

When it finishes, launch the Windows Task Manager. Nothing new under Apps, or Programs (depending on your version of Windows), so look in the Background Processes. Ah, there’s the executable, but why is it listed here? And why is there only one instance? The VI clearly looped 3 times, and there were no errors. Go to the directory where the test application is located and open its INI file. There are your answers. There is only one instance running because the INI file has multiple instances turned off, and the one executable that did launch shows up as a background process because the INI file also says to hide the root window. Leave the root window setting the way it is, but change the AllowMutipleInstances to True, and save and close the file.

Now back in the Task Manager, abort the one instance of the test application that is running now, and rerun Launch You should see when it finishes that there are now 3 instances of the test application running. The instances were given sequential TCP/IP port numbers from 3365 to 3367.

Firing Remote Events

The next thing I want to do is open the front panels of the 3 instances so we can observe their operation. Now if you look at the test application’s source code, there is a UDE that will make the front panel visible, so all I need to do is fire that event. But wait, those are three instances of a compiled executable — you can’t fire events in other executables! Well actually, you can. To see how, open the test VI, Open the Executable’s

Open Executable Front Panel

No magic here. All the code is doing is dynamically running a VI. But check out the function before Open VI Reference, it’s called Open Application Reference. Its job is to open a reference to a copy of LabVIEW or the LabVIEW runtime engine that is running somewhere else. That “somewhere else” is defined in terms of a machine name and a port number or service name. The machine name can be a DNS name, an IP address or (as in our case here) localhost to point to the local computer.

By the way, if you think it sounds like I just said that you could make this same code access an executable residing on a remote computer by simply changing localhost to an IP address, your right. I did just say that.

But as cool as that feature might be, how does it allow me to fire an event in a compiled executable? Look at the name of the file being run: Open Window.lvlib:Generate It’s the VI that fires the event, and since VIs called in this way actually execute in the remote LabVIEW environment, the event gets fired in the targeted executable.

To see this code in action, run it three times with the port number 3365, 3366 and 3367. Three windows will open.

Setting Control Values

Another way of interacting with an executable is to directly manipulate controls on its front panel. However, if the target VI is event-driven like our test application, we need to remember that there is a difference between setting a value and firing any value change events associated with that control. If all you need to do is set a value, there is a VI method called Control Value:Set that will do the job nicely. However, if you want to fire the value change event you have to set the control’s Value(Signaling) property — which frankly is a bit more work.

set the selector control value with signalling

This picture is the block diagram of the test VI Toggle the selector, but the good news is that for this little bit of extra effort, you can set (or read) any control property that can be changed while a VI is running.

Shutting Down the Executable

Finally, we need to be able to stop an application that is running. But the problem here is figuring out how to test it such that we can see that it really did what it was supposed to do. The solution is to turn to the trace technique we discussed a while back when we were learning about command line arguments. I have written the code such that if the executable is run with the argument “d1” in the command line, the code will write a line to the trace file saying how the instance was stopped. And to help demonstrate how this works, I have created a test VI (Stop the that can execute some of these termination paths.

To start off, leave both controls in their default state, and run the VI. This example stops the targeted executable by clicking the Stop button on its front panel. The instance with the port number 3365 will immediately close.

Now increment the Port Number to 3366 and set the Method control to Windows shutdown - Forced. This example stops the targeted executable by telling to Windows to abort it. The instance with the port number 3366 will immediately close.

Finally, we want to test the remaining instance’s response to the Application Instance Close event. To do that, restart your computer now. (That’s right, restart your computer. Don’t stop anything, don’t shut anything down — just restart.) When your computer is restarted and you are logged back in, go to the directory where the test application is installed and open the trace file. You will see two lines that look something like this:

07:29:39 05/24/2015 -- Shutdown 3365 -- Just Stop
07:42:52 05/24/2015 -- Shutdown 3367 -- Appl Inst Close

The second line shows that when you restarted your computer Windows did in fact generate the Application Instance Close? event and the application caught the event. You’ll note that there is no entry for the instance with the port number 3366. Remember, we stopped it by forcing an abort and a Windows abort is very much like clicking the red abort button when LabVIEW is running a VI: It just stops. No orderly shutdown. No deinitialization.

A Small Test Executable — Release 1
Toolbox — Release 9

The Big Tease

So that was, I hope, interesting. Starting next time I’m going to start delving into how to use LabVIEW code as the data collection and control backend for an application that has as its only customer-facing interface a web site. While there are many companies offering options that claim to be developer-friendly I have found that many of the marketing claims are largely based on FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). Simply put, they build up a “strong man” of supposed complexity and complication, and then tell you that the best (and perhaps, only) way to get past this obstacle is to buy their product. The truth, however, is that their “strong man” is really made of straw, and if you understand how it all fits together, doing it yourself isn’t really very hard.

Until Next Time…


Managing Standalone Executables

A while back when we were discussing opportunities for code modularization, I made the comment that it is even possible to incorporate processes into a new application that have already been compiled into standalone executables. At the time we didn’t have the time to go into detail on the point, but now we will take the time to consider the various tasks required to manage an existing standalone executable that you wish to leverage for a new application.

So What’s to Manage?

When I talk about managing an executable, I’m including all those tasks needed to control the executable from an operating system level. Therefore, to complete these tasks successfully we need a certain basic understanding of Windows and how it interacts with the programs that it is running. As you might imagine, most of these tasks will involve simply starting and stopping programs, but there are nuances that are important too. For example, when I double-click on a program the first time, Windows will launch it, but what if I double-click on it again? In this situation Windows has two possible options: launch another instance of the program or activate (bring to the front) the instance that is already running. One of the things that we will look at is how to specify that action for the executables we create,

Likewise, sometimes it isn’t enough to simply launch a program, sometimes we need to take high level look at its operation to determine such things as: How many instances of it are currently running or how much memory it is using. This information can help us decide how to best husband the computer resources that our application as a whole uses. Consequently, we will spend a little time considering the alternatives.

Finally, there can even be subtleties when it comes to stopping an executable. Can we simply signal the executable that it needs to stop, or do we need to force it to stop Now.

Getting Things Started

The first thing we want to cover is how to programmatically launch standalone applications. So to state the obvious, this topic is first and foremost about how to tell the operating system to launch the application for us. Luckily, this task is easily handled by the built-in System This function allows you to do from within LabVIEW anything you would do from a command prompt — though at times the operations aren’t done in the exact the same way. In fact, for some older versions of Windows the differences can be significant. But even in Windows 8 there can be small inconsistencies. For example, say you have a program called Small Test Executable.exe that can accept a couple of command-line arguments like p3365 fpd2. You could launch this program from the command line like so:

C:\"Program Files\Test Executable\Small Test Executable.exe" -- p3365 fpd2

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work with System, which simply returns an (undocumented) error. To get the command to work you have to either write it to a temporary batch file and then execute the batch file, or modify the command like this:

"C:\Program Files\Test Executable\Small Test Executable.exe" -- p3365 fpd2

Don’t see a difference? Check out the location of the first double quote… To simplify dealing with these variations, I have created a subVI to encapsulate the functionality called Launch Executable w-Command Line and included it in the new release of the toolbox.

Launch EXE with Parameters

The other thing about getting an executable running is that there are a few important launch parameters that we can only set in the application INI file, so we’ll deal with those next.

A Windows Convention

One of the conventions that Windows imposes is that the INI for an executable will have the name as the executable (but with the file extension ini) and the standard configuration parameters will reside is a section with the same name as the file (but minus the file extension). It is in this section that the runtime engine expects to find the parameters that it needs to successfully launch the executable.

The first such parameter we need to discuss controls the behavior when the executable is called more than once. By default, when you create an executable with LabVIEW only one copy of it will launch. If you call it again, Windows will simple bring to the front the one instance of the program that is already running. However, you can change this behavior by including this line in the INI file:

AllowMultipleInstances = TRUE

With this parameter set as shown, Windows will launch another instance of the program each time it is called. An important point to remember, however, is that no matter how many instances you launch, they all share the same INI file. Consequently, if you want to pass unique parameters to each instance, you will have to do so through the command line when the instances are launched.

The second INI file parameter I want to mention controls the program’s visibility to the computer user. Regardless of whether its GUI is visible, when a program normally launches it has a tab that appears on the taskbar. But what if you are creating a program that is intended to run unseen in the background? This setting handles that case.

HideRootWindow = True

When this setting is true, the program can still have a user interface but there is no tab associated with its window on the taskbar. As a side effect, the program also doesn’t appear in the task manager as an “App”, but rather lists it as a “Background Process”. Please note that this terminology is what Windows 8.x uses, older versions make the same distinction but use the word “Programs” and “Processes” to describe it.

The third INI file setting to discuss, is really not so much of a setting, as it is a family of settings that work together to control the program’s ability to respond to external connections via TCP/IP and VI Server.


Some of these settings are easy to understand, while others are rather obtuse. For right now, don’t worry about what these settings all mean. Next week we will.look at these parameters in detail.

Passing Parameters

To reiterate a point I made earlier, creating a standalone executable that will support multiple instances pretty much necessitates the use of command line arguments. In some ways, this situation is analogous to the situation concerning reentrant clones. The instance needs to be able to identify itself in the midst of a cloud of identical instances.

Given that point, one of the things you should consider when creating such an application is how the program should respond if the required command line parameters are missing. The answer to that question depends, to a large extent, on the nature of the parameters. If the input is essentially a customization for which there is a valid default value, it might be acceptable to simply accept that default and go on. However, in some situations there is no default value possible, so you should consider shutting down the program if the command line parameter is invalid or missing.

Getting Status

After we have gotten the instance (or instances) of a program up and running, one of the things that we might want to do is check on how, and perhaps what, it is doing. For now we will consider this matter in terms of the performance aspects that are visible to Windows. It is certainly possible to access the executable programmatically to obtain internal status information, and even control its operation, but that discussion will have to wait until next week.

General Information

One of the most basic indicators of the health of a program is its memory usage. You should expect the memory that a program has allocated will rise and fall over time. It should not treat trend steadily upwards without regard for what the program is actually doing. If a program’s memory consumption does consistently increase over time, that condition is referred to as a “memory leak” and it is a condition that needs to be addressed. Typically this remediation takes the form of figuring out why the program wants ever-increasing amounts of memory (like programming errors resulting in file or I/O being left open) and fixing the problem. Occasionally however, you will find that the leak is occurring in a place where you have no visibility — like inside LabVIEW itself. In those situations all you can do is try forcing Windows to deallocate the memory or change the way you are doing something so the problem doesn’t arise.

A simple way to read memory usage is to call the simple command line function tasklist and parse the result. Here is the code I wrote to do the job. Its name is Read Task

Read Task List

If you leave the Image Name control empty, the call returns information on all the tasks currently running. However, if you populate that control with the name of a program, it returns a list of all the programs with that name. For example, on my computer right now LabVIEW.exe returns 1 item, while chrome.exe returns 13. (Why does Chrome need 13 instances of itself running in the background?)

The two most valuable pieces of information that you can get from this command is the application’s memory usage (expressed in kilobytes) and its PID. The PID is a numeric tag that uniquely identifies each program that is currently running. It is important because other commands or system calls will often require the PID of the program that you are wanting to check.

Digging for the Details

Beyond this basic information there is a variety of other details that you can find, For example, here you can find a community-developed VI that makes direct calls to a .NET assembly in order to return a plethora of information about your computer in general, and the programs that are running in particular. From the standpoint of accessing this information programmatically, this VI has two big problems:

  1. The code is at least 7 years old: This is a problem because there are places where the same operations could be done much more efficiently using techniques that LabVIEW has introduced in the intervening time.
  2. It’s essentially undocumented: To figure out how to really use it you will have to spend time researching the calls and the specific parameters — which can vary from one version of Windows to the next.
  3. It was designed for manual operation: In other words, it was designed to be used interactively, and not programmatically.

Because we need something that is usable from within a program, I created two subVIs that essentially repackage the functionality in a more program-friendly form. The first subVI is called Get Available To see why this VI is needed, think back to the output of the tasklist function. In that output multiple instances of the same executable (like the 13 copies of chrome) all had the same name. They were distinguished from one another by a numeric id number called a PID. The designers of the .NET interface must have thought this approach confusing because they took a different approach that did away with the PID in favor of a name that was modified to make it unique — as in chrome through chrome#12. Likewise, any file extension was also dropped from the name.

Get Available Instances

The other subVI (Get Task accepts as inputs an instance name and an enumeration that lists the available performance parameters that the VI can fetch under Windows 8.

Get Task Performance

But what is the deal with the loop and all the “extra” logic? This loop is needed because, while some of the parameters are instantaneous values that can be read at any time, others are not. As a case in point, consider the processor usage measurements. Everyone knows (or at least everyone in this business should know) that a CPU can really only do one thing at a time. In fact, the illusion that is central to much of modern technology is the programmatic slight of hand that makes it look like computers are doing multiple things at once.

Now since a CPU can only do one thing at a time, logically there are only two possible immediate answers to the question of how much processor are you’re using. Either you are not executing (in which case you have 0%) or you are executing (resulting in 100% usage). In short, for this type of measurement to have any sort of meaning it has to be approached as a statistic, not an absolute measurement. In the VI, this task is implemented by making two calls to the same measurement counter. The first call — which always returns a 0 — starts the measurement process, with the second and subsequent reads returning the statistical results for the previous measurement period.

Oh, and the logic for stopping the loop after just one iteration? That’s to optimize operation for parameters that are absolute.

Stopping: Fast and Half-Fast

It has been said that, “All good things must come to an end” and this is true for programs as well. However Windows actually provides two different types of shutdown events. The first causes Windows to simply abort the targeted program. This approach, while very fast, is logically equivalent to clicking the abort button on a LabVIEW program — and carries with it all the same dangers. The other type of shutdown event takes longer, but is much safer. It basically sends a message to the targeted program that requests it to stop. However, to reiterate something we learned before, for this messaging to work properly the executable must be written such that the Application Instance Close event will always initiate an orderly shut down.

In addition to using these messages for its own purposes, Windows also provides a command line function that allows users and individual programs to generate these messages as well. I implement both types of shut down requests in the subVI Task

As a polymorphic VI, the routine incorporates instances that can shut down processes by name and by PID. You simply pick the version that gives you the level of control that you need. For instance, if I wanted to shut down all 13 instances of chrome, using the name version of the code would get the job done all at once. However, if I wanted to stop just a few select instances, I would use the version that uses the PID input. Here is the name version of the code.

task killer

But why start and stop at all?

Before ending this time, there’s one more idea that we should consider. To this point we have been thinking about the management of executables in a rather conventional sort of way: Start something just before we use it and close it when we are done. But might not there be situations where the “conventional” doesn’t make sense? I would assert that there are more than you might at first imagine.

The whole point of interacting with a process that is deployed as a separate standalone executable is that it obviously implements some bit of functionality that more than one application would need. Given that fact, starting and stopping it — especially stopping it — can get complicated. Just because one application is stopping and no longer needs it, that doesn’t mean there might not still be another application that does. One obvious solution to this problem is to simply let Windows handle it all. Install the background task such that it starts when either the computer boots, or the user logs in; and then stops when Windows shuts down. This solution might seem wasteful, but what is the real impact of such a solution? Oh sure, the program will be in memory, but if it isn’t being used it will probably be shuffled off to the page file pretty quickly. Likewise, if the executable is written correctly, it will be event driven which means that unless it is accessed by a program that is using it, the process won’t be burning up any CPU cycles either — so what is there to lose?

Just something to be thinking about.

Toolbox Release 8

The Big Tease

Ok, this is all for now. Next time I’ll introduce a little executable that will let us practice some of the theory we have examined today — and expand the conversation to include how to use VI Server to interact with executables created in LabVIEW.

Until Next Time…


Expanding Data Processing Bandwidth — Automatically

Well-written software can typically deal with any performance requirement pretty easily as long as the requirement is constant. It’s when requirements change over time that things can get dicey. For example, if your test system generates a new data packet to process every second and it consistently takes 5 seconds for the data to be processed, a little simple math will tell you how much processing bandwidth you need to create to keep up with the flow of data. But how are you to properly size things when variability is inserted into the process? What if the time between data packets can vary between 100 msec and several minutes? Or what if the data processing time can change dramatically due to things like network traffic?

These are the kind of situations where the processing needs to be more than simply “flexible”, it has to be able to automatically maintain its own operation and reconfigure itself on the fly. To demonstrate one possible implementation of this “advanced” technique, we will build on the simple pieces that we have learned in the past. In some ways, good software design techniques are like Lego blocks. Each one by itself is not very impressive, but when you stick them together, magic happens. But before we can stick anything together, we need to understand…

…what we’re going to do.

You’ll notice that any of the bandwidth management challenges that I mentioned earlier can be addressed by either adding more data processing clones, or removing existing ones that are being underutilized. Consequently, the question of how to implement this self-maintenance functionality really gets down to a matter of how to dynamically manage the number of data processing clones that are currently available — which in turn boils down to answering two very simple questions:

1. How do we know we need more?

Given that the whole point of the exercise is to manage a queue, the current state of that queue will give us all the information that we need to answer this question. Specifically, we can know when more processing bandwidth is needed by monitoring how many items are currently in the queue waiting processing. When the code starts to see the depth going steadily up, it can launch additional processes to handle the data backlog. Of course, this functionality assumes that there is a process that is constantly monitoring the queue and managing that aspect of its operation — which we actually have already in the test code from last week (Data Processing Queue All we have to do is repurpose this VI to be a permanent part of the final application.

2. How do we know a clone is no longer needed?

The one part of the system that knows whether a clone is being under-utilized is, in fact, the clone itself. As a part of its normal operation, it knows and can keep track of how often is it being used. Having said that, there are (at least) a couple of ways to quantify how much a clone is being utilized. We could, for instance, consider how much time the clone is spending processing data versus how much time it spends waiting to receive data to process. If the utilization percentage drops below a given limit, the clone could then shut itself down. However, for this demonstration, I’m going to use a much simpler criteria that, quite frankly, works pretty well. The code will simply keep track of how many times in a row it goes to the queue and doesn’t find any data.

Code Modifications

Before I start describing the changes that will we will need to make in order to fashion this new ability, I want to consider for a moment the thing that won’t have to change: Queue You might be tempted to say, “Well big deal. All it does is stuff some data into the queue every so often. Who cares if it doesn’t have to change? It’s not even deliverable code”

While that is undoubtedly true, the fact of the matter is that this test routine is important, but not because of what it is or what it does. Rather we care about Queue because in our little test environment, it represents the rest of our application — or at least that part of it that is generating data. Consequently, the fact that it doesn’t need modification means that your main application, likewise, won’t need modification if you decide to upgrade from a data processing environment that uses a fixed number of data processors to one that dynamically manages itself.

Data Processing Queue

First, note that previously this routine’s primary job was to simply report how deep the data queue was — a bit of functionality that would likely have not been needed in a real application. Now however, this routine is going to be taking an active part in the process, so I started the modifications by adding the error reporting VI that will transfer errors it generates to the exception handler.

New Queue Handler Timeout Case

In addition, because the software will initially only start a single data processing clone, I also modified the timeout event handler that performs the VI’s initialization, by removing the loop around the clone launching subVI.

The remainder of the modifications to this routine occurs in the event handler for the Check Queue Size UDE. Previously this event only reported how deep the queue was getting. While it still performs that function, that queue depth information in addition now drives the logic that determines whether we have enough processing bandwidth online.

New Queue Handler Queue Size Check Case

Note that the queue depth is compared to a new configuration value called Max Queue Size that defines how large the queue can grow before a new data processing clone is launched. Regardless of whether it launches a new clone, event handler calls another new subVI that returns the number clones that are currently running. As you will see in a moment, one of the modifications to the data processing VI is the addition of logic that keeps track of the names of the clones that are running. The subVI that we are calling here returns a count of the number of names that have been recorded so far.


Turning now the data processing code itself, the first stop is in the state-machine’s Initialize state. Here we have all the same logic that existed before, but with a couple minor additions

New Data Processor Initialize

First, there is a new subVI that registers a clone is starting up. This subVI writes the clone’s name to the FGV that is maintaining the clone count. Second, there is also a new shift register carrying a cluster of internal data that clone will need to do its work. All that is needed during initialization is to set a timestamp value. The Check for Data state is next and it has likewise seen some tweaks — the most significant of which is moving the logic for responding to the dequeue operation into a subVI.

New Data Processor Check for Data

The justification for this move lies in the fact that this logic is now also responsible for determining whether or not the clone is being adequately utilized. As I stated before, each time the clone goes to the queue and comes up empty, the logic will increment a counter that is being carried in the new shift register’s data. If this count exceeds a new configuration value Clone Idle Count, the code will branch to a new state that will shutdown the clone. Likewise, anytime the clone does get data to process, it will reset the count to 0. The changes to the Process Data state, which comes next, are pretty trivial.

New Data Processor Process Data

All that happens here is that the timestamp extracted from the data to be “analyzed” updates the new cluster data — as well as the indicator on the front panel. Finally, there is the new state: Self Shutdown

New Data Processor Self Shutdown

…which simply calls a subVI that removes the clone’s name from FGV maintaining a list of all running clones, and stops the event loop.

Let’s talk about “Race Conditions”

All we have left to do now is test this work and see the differences that it makes, but before we can do that, we need to have a short conversation about race conditions. Very often developers and instructors (myself included) will talk about the necessity of avoiding race conditions. The dirty little secret is that as long as you have multiple things happening in parallel, race conditions will always be present. The real point that these admonitions attempt to make is that you should avoid the race conditions that are unrecognized and potentially problematic.

I bring this point up because as you do the following testing, you may get the chance to see this concept in action. The way it will appear is that the system will launch a new clone immediately after one kills itself off for being underutilized. The reason for this apparent logical lapse is that a race condition exists between the part of the code that is checking to see if another clone is needed and the several places where the clones are deciding whether or not they are being used. There are two causes for this race condition, one we can ameliorate a bit and one over which we have no possible control.

Starting with the cause we can’t control, a simple immutable law of nature is that no matter how sophisticated our logic or algorithms might be, they can not see so much as a nanosecond into the future. Consequently, the first source of a race condition is that when the queue checking logic sees that there are three elements enqueued, it has no way of knowing that a currently active clone will be available in a few milliseconds. While it is true that under certain circumstances it might be possible to provide this logic with a bit of “foresight”, there is no generalized solution to this aspect of the problem. Consequently, this is an issue that we may just have to live with.

The news, however, is better for the second cause. Here the problem is that with all the clones having the same timeout between data checks, it is probable that sooner or later one of the clones is going to become “synchronized” with the others such that it is always checking the queue just after it was emptied by one of the others. However the solution to this problem lies in its very definition. The cure is to see to it that the clones do not have constant timeouts from one check to the next. To implement this concept in our test code I modified the routine that returns the delay to add a small random difference that changes each time it’s called.

The bottom line is that while completely removing all race conditions is not possible, they can be managed such that their impacts are minimized.

New Tests for New Code

The testing of the modified code starts the same as it did before: open and launch Data Processing Queue and Queue The first difference that you will notice is that only 1 clone is initially launched, but at the default data rate, 1 clone is more than adequate.

Now decrease the delay between data packets to 2 seconds. Here the queue depth will bounce around a bit but the clone count will stabilize at 3 or 4.

Finally, take the delay all the way down to 1 second. Initially the clone count may shoot up to 8 or 9, but on my system the clone count eventually settled down to 6 or 7.

At this point, you can begin increasing the delay again and the slowly the clones will start dropping out from disuse. Before you shutdown the test, however, you might want to set the delay back to 2 seconds and leave the code running while you go about whatever else you have to do today. It could be instructive to notice how other things you are doing on the same computer effect the queue operation. You might also want to rerun the test but start Queue first and let it run for a minute or so before you startData Processing Queue — just to see what happens.

Further Enhancements?

So we have our basic scalable system completed, but are there things we could still do to improve its operation? Of course. For example, we know that due to timing issues which we can only partially control, the number of clones that is running at one time can vary a bit, even if the data rate is constant. One thing that could be done to improve efficiency would be to change the way clones are handled. For example, right now a data processor is either in memory and running or it is closed. One thing you could do is create a new state that a clone could be in — like loaded into memory, but inactive. You could implement this zombie state by setting the timeout to 0, thus effectively turning off the state machine.

It might also be helpful to change to queue depth limit at which a new clone is created by making it softer. Instead of launching a new clone anytime the queue depth exceeds 3, it might be useful in some situations to maintain a running average and only create a new clone if the average queue depth over the last N checks is greater than 3.

Who knows? Some of you might think of still other modifications and enhancements. The point is to experiment and see what works best for your specific application.

Parallel Data Processing — Release 2

The Big Tease

So what is in store for next time? Well in the past we have discussed how to dynamically launch and use VIs that run as separate processes. But what if the code you want to access dynamically like this happens to exist in a process that you have already compiled into a standalone application? If this application is working you don’t want to risk breaking something by modifying it. As it turns out there are ways to manage and reuse that code as well, even if it was created in an older version of LabVIEW. Next time we’ll start exploring how to do it.

Until Next Time…


Expandable Data Processing

When creating an application a common approach to managing application computer bandwidth is to structurally isolate the portions of the application that are doing the data processing from those implementing the data acquisition. The goal of this segmentation is to prevent the operation of the one from impacting the speed of the other. But if we think about what we learned from the posts preceding this one, we can see that this use case is just a specialized case of a general principle. Namely, that allowing processes to run in parallel reduces the likelihood that their execution will impede the operation of their peers by improving the overall utilization of the computer’s resources. Consequently, it behooves us to consider how we can allow data processing to run in parallel with the rest of the application’s code — and so garner a few of the many advantages that this approach offers.

Parallel Data Processing

It first should be noted that we already have most of the tools and concepts that we will need to build this parallel data processing capability. In fact, one possible implementation is not so different from our general approach to building state machines. So with that idea in mind, let’s consider our perspective data processor’s high-level functional requirements.

Just the One?

First, since the idea is to improve efficiency by allowing more things to happen in parallel, we need to ask ourselves the obvious question, “Why stop at just one data processor?” This question is particularly urgent if you already know that your data processing takes longer than the time required to acquire another dataset. It is an appealing idea to have 2 or more data processors that can share the processing load. However, if you are going to be running multiple instances simultaneously, the process has to be reentrant. But that’s not a problem, we’ve done reentrant processes before and know how to make that work.

State-ly Expandability

Second, we need to consider the data processor’s internal structure. I have given this point away already by talking about state-machines, so let’s consider why this choice is a good one. At first glance it might seem like using a state-machine might be overkill for this application, after all you might figure that there is at most 2 states: Wait for Data and Process Data. This line of reasoning is valid, but it assumes that the data processing is a one-step process, so are there circumstances where this assumption isn’t valid?

If your processing is going to involve the complex analysis of potentially large datasets, you might not want to spend a lot of time processing flawed or invalid data. Hence before jumping right into the full-blown analysis it would be reasonable to have a state that does a quick sanity check on the data — and then another to handle the error that results if the data is bad. Next, consider what you are doing with the data when you are done with the analysis. There could be added limit checking of the results, and perhaps transfer of the results to a database or automated report generator — all tasks that could (and probably should) be expressed as separate states. Looking back now, by my count we are now up to 6 states — and we are still assuming that the analysis process itself is a single atomic operation that you will not want or need to breakup.

My point is that if you start with the basic outline of a state-machine and end up never having more than the two states, there’s no harm done because that basic structure is pretty lean. However if, as your project progresses, you discover that more states are needed, having that infrastructure already be in place can save a lot of time.

By the way, as a quick aside, I have often had the experience of having a customer request a significant change and then have them be amazed in how little time it takes to implement the modification. I have even had customers comment on how “lucky” I was that the code was structured in such a way that the change was even possible. Well let me tell you in the strongest terms possible that if luck was involved, it was luck of my own making. The better you design your code up front, the more “lucky” you will be when the time comes to make modifications.

The Right Kind of Communications

Third, we have to look at how we are going to communicate with these cloned state-machines. In past work on our testbed application, we have used UDEs and FGVs for communications between processes, and they might work here as well, but there would be problems. If you have one UDE or FGV feeding data to all the cloned data processors, you would have the problem of deciding which clone handles the each new update. While you don’t want to miss any updates, you certainly don’t want to process the same dataset twice either. The whole process would be fraught with opportunities for errors and race conditions. Of course you could solve that problem by creating a separate UDE or FGV for each clone, but then scalability goes down the tubes as the process(es) generating the data must keep track of how many clones there are any which one will get the next dataset.

Our way out of this conundrum is to properly apply a structure that people so often misuse: The Queue. This is the use case for which queues were born. The key feature that makes them so good in this sort of situation, is that if you have multiple receivers waiting to dequeue data from the same queue, LabVIEW guarantees that each new item inserted will only be seen by one of the receivers, and that enqueued data will be distributed to all the receivers on a first come, first served, basis. Moreover, because queues can be named, different processes running in the same instance of LabVIEW don’t need the queue reference to be sent to them. All they need to know is the name of the queue and they can get their own reference.

Yes, queues do still require polling, but at least there’s only one part of your code involved, and not the whole application. Moreover, there are two other mitigating factors present. First, in this sort of application the poll rate can often be much slower, on the order of once every few seconds. Second, because the state machine resides inside an event structure, it would take but a moment to implement logic that would allow the polling to be turned off altogether.

Let’s Look at the Test Code

As we start considering the code to implement this functionality, let’s first look at the test routines that we will use to evaluate the queue functionality. The VI Data Processing Queue has the responsibility of starting everything off by initializing the data processing queue and launching a predetermined number of data processing clones. This logic takes place in the VI’s Timeout event handler.

Queue Handler Timeout Case

You will notice that to simplify the process of obtaining a queue reference, I have encapsulated that logic in a set of subVIs for interacting with the queue. The other event of significance is the handler for the Check Queue Size UDE. While a test is running, we want to be able to monitor the number of items in the queue, but rather than simply polling the queue status, I created a UDE that flags the handler every time a new item is enqueued.

Queue Handler Queue Size Check Case

When the event fires, the handler calls the built-in queue function that returns, in addition to some other stuff that we don’t need, the number of items that are currently in the queue. Next, to feed data to the queue, I created a second test VI called Queue It’s whole job is to wait a delay period specified on the front panel, and then enqueue an item into the data processing queue.

Queue Test

You can see that at this point, the only value in the queue data is a timestamp, but the data is defined as a typedef. Remember! Any time you are creating a datatype that will be accessed by reference, whether it be a UDE, a queue, a notifier or an event, always make the data structure a typedef.

After the data value is enqueued, the code fires the event that tells the handler to check the queue size.

Introducing the Data Processor

Turning finally to the reentrant data processing state-machine (Data we see that in addition to an event for stopping, the VI’s Timeout event handler includes the logic for three states, the first of which is Initialize.

Data Processor Initialize

This state’s job is to get the clone ready to start processing data. Consequently, it initializes the shift register holding the queue reference, and a second shift-register carrying a boolean value that we will discuss in a moment. The state also sets the next state to be executed to Check for Data, and retains a timeout value of 0 ms so, assuming that there are no errors during initialization, the state machine will immediately start waiting for data to process. Note that the Initialize state also opens the VI’s front panel. You probably would not want this feature in deliverable code except as, perhaps, a debugging option. I have included it here to make it easier for you to see the code at work.

Data Processor Check for Data

The Check for Data state starts by calling the queue subVI that is responsible for dequeuing an item. Inside this subVI, the dequeuing function is given a timeout of 0 ms so if there is not any data immediately available, the call will terminate with the timeout flag asserted. This Boolean value is inverted and passed out of the subVI to indicate to the calling code whether there is any data that needs processing. If the Check for Data state logic finds this bit set, the code sets the next state for execution to Process Data and sets the timeout value of 0 ms. If the bit indicating that data is available is not set, the code retains Check for Data as the next state to execute but sets the timeout to a longer value (5 sec) read from the application’s INI file.

Before we go on to talk about the Process Data state, we need to have a quick conversation about the boolean shift register. Normally, when the standard Stop Application event fires, a VI wants to immediately stop what it’s doing and abort. However in one significant way, this is not a “normal” VI. In order to protect the data that has been acquired, this process should only stop if the queue driving it is empty. To create that functionality, the VI incorporates deferred shutdown logic in the form of this shift-register. Because the value is initialized to false the loop will, during normal operation, continue regardless of whether data is available or not. However, when a shutdown is requested, the event handler does not immediately stop the loop, but instead sets the shift-register value to true and branches to the Check for Data state with a 0 ms timeout. If the queue is empty, the process will end at that time. However, if the queue is not empty, the VI will continue toggling between the Check for Data and Process Data states until the queue contents are exhausted.

Data Processor Process Data

As you would expect, the Process Data state basically consists of processing the last data dequeued and branching back to the Check for Data state to look for more. However, given that the only data in our test queue is a timestamp, you have probably guessed that the actual data processing to be done isn’t very expansive — and you’re right. In fact, the “data processing” consists largely of a wait, the duration of which varies at random between 4 and 6 seconds.

Putting it to the Test

To test this code, open and run Data Processing Queue You will immediately see the front panels of three data processing clones open. Move them so they aren’t overlapping each other or anything else.

Now open and run Queue After a few seconds it will enqueue an item and then enqueue a new one every 6 seconds. Note that as each clone handles an item it will display that item’s timestamp on its front panel. Note also that the indicated queue depth never exceeds 1.

Now change the delay on Queue from 6 sec to 2 sec. You will notice that the queue depth chart is now updating faster. Likewise, the queue depth will begin to show momentary increases to a depth of two, but the chart will always drop back to 1. In other words, there might be slight delays now and again, but for the most part three clones can keep up with the flow of data.

Finally, drop the delay to 1.5 seconds. With data coming at this rate, the queue depth will continue to go up and down, but now it is always going up more than it is going down. This overall upward trend shows us that we have reached the point where three clones are getting overwhelmed by amount of data that is being enqueued.

Queue Overrun

Now if you increase the delay back to 2 seconds, the queue depth will gradually begin to decrease as the slower flow of new data allows the clones to begin catching up on the backlog. Alternatively, if you just click the stop button, the two test VIs will stop and close immediately, but the clones will continue running until the queue empties out.

Parallel Data Processing — Release 1

The Big Tease

So we have learned the basics behind creating an environment for an application that supports an expandable data processing capability. For many applications this simple structure will be more than adequate, but (as we have seen) if the data starts coming too fast the queue can grow without limit. Of course this isn’t necessarily a problem if the periods of high data generation are interspersed with periods of comparative idleness. However this sort of variability can be a bit of a two-edged sword. The periods of low data throughput can give the system time to recover from a large backlog of data, but this variability can also make it difficult to estimate how many copies of the data processing process will be needed. Pick a number that is too high, and you’re wasting computer resources. Pick a number that is too low and you could still end up with a situation where too much data is being queued — perhaps to the point of running out of memory.

Well, the next time we get together we’ll look at how to modify the basic structure we have created thus far to add the ability for the software to decide on the fly when more clones are needed, and when to kill off existing ones that aren’t being used.

Until Next Time…