Don’t re-code when you can re-configure

A common problem that you see being discussed on the LabVIEW user forums comes from people who hard-code configuration data in their programs. Often they will be complaining about things like how long it takes to maintain all the different versions of their application, when in truth the only difference between “versions” is the contents of a few constants on a block diagram. Ultimately, these folks may realize that putting configuration data is constants is not good, but they may feel like they are skilled enough, or don’t have enough time, to do anything better.

i suppose that the fundamental trouble is that it is way too easy to drop down a constant and type in some configuration data. Unfortunately, you can end up in a situation where you are constantly having to go back and manipulate or manage this “easy” solution. The good news however, is that it is not hard to come up with a really good way of handling configuration data.

Data Abstraction

The first step to really fixing the problem is to draw a distinction between two things that we typically hold as being the same. Namely, what a particular parameter represents or means, and the parameter’s value. What we need to do is develop a mechanism for obtaining parameter’s value based on what that value represents. Or to say it differently, we need to replace the constant containing a set parameter value with a VI that can return a value based on the parameter’s logical identity. I want to be able to say, for example, “What is the name of the directory where I should store the data files?” and have this VI return the parameter’s current value. Assuming that the configured value is stored outside the code itself, you can change that value to anything you want, anytime you want, without modifying a bit of code.

In terms of where to store this configuration that is outside the code, there are several options:

  • A configuration file on disk
  • Local or networked database
  • The Windows registry

Each of these options has a place but at this point the important point is that you have it somewhere outside the code. Once you have accomplished that, changing the data’s location from say an INI file to a database is comparatively trivial. With that point in mind, here is the code that I use to read data from the application’s ini file. I will put this code is a VI named for the parameter it is reading and use it in place of the constants that I would otherwise use. To make it easy to reuse, you might want to put it in a VI template file. The remainder of this post will concentrate on how the code works.

ini-based parameter reader

The first thing you’ll notice is that it takes the basic structure of a self-initializing functional global variable, or FGV. Remember that the point of this VI is to replace a constant, but you don’t want to have the code re-reading the configuration file every time that it is called. Using a FGV structure allows the code to automatically load the required data the first time it’s needed, and thereafter use the buffered value. Note that if the file ini file operations fail for whatever reason, the logic will also attempt to reread the file each time it is called. Feel free to remove this logic if you desire, but it can be useful.

Next, consider how I derive the path to the ini file. This logic is based on (and simplified by) the conventions that I follow for naming things. All the files associated with a project like my “Ultimate Data Logger” will reside in the directory:

c:/workspace/projects/Ultimate Data Logger

Likewise, the name of the project file itself will be Ultimate Data Logger.lvproj, the name of the top-level VI will be Ultimate Data, the name of the executable that is eventually built will be Ultimate Data Logger.exe and it will be installed in the directory Ultimate Data Logger on the target machine. Moreover, due to the way that Windows works, the name of the ini file associated with that executable must be Ultimate Data Logger.ini. Consequently, simply knowing the name of the application directory will tell me the name of the ini file. All I need to do is add the “.ini” file extension.

When using this logic, you will need to define the desired data value’s logical identity. In the context of this VI, that identity is defined by the Section and Key values on the block diagram. In this definition, the Section value should be seen as a broad category that includes several Keys or individual values. For example, you might have a section “file paths” that includes all the paths that your application needs so in that section you would find keys like “data file destination” or “import directory”.

Obviously, you will also need to change the datatype of the data being obtained from the ini file. This job is easy because the low-level configuration file VIs are all polymorphic and so will adjust to the datatype you wire to them. A couple of recommendations I would offer is to not store paths as paths, but rather convert them to strings and then save the string. Either way will work, but saving paths as strings produces a result that is more human-readable in the ini file. Likewise, when you are working with strings, there is an optional input on the VI that tells the function to save and read the data as “raw” strings. Always wire a true Boolean constant to these inputs.

Finally, note that the code includes the logic to create the section and key in the ini file, if they do not already exist. This is something that I have found useful, but if you don’t feel free to remove it as you see fit.

This basic structure works well for parameters that have single values, but what about if you have a parameter that is associated with a several values, like a cluster? That’s a situation we will deal with — real soon.

Until next time…


Leave a Reply