Report from NIWeek

Hey all, sorry it’s been quiet around here – Peco and I took our families on vacation to Bulgaria!  Plus, we’ve been busy in the run-up to our company convention, NIWeek. I imagine most of the Web type folks out there don’t know about NIWeek, but it’s where scientists and engineers who use our products come to learn. It’s always awesome to see the technology innovation going on out there, from the Stormchasers getting data on tornadoes and lightning that no one ever has before, to high school kids solving real problems.

There were a couple things that are really worth checking out.  The first is the demo David Fuller did of NI’s system designer prototype (you can skip ahead to 5:00 in if you want to) . Though the examples he is using is of engineering type systems, you can easily imagine using that same interface for designing Web systems – no ‘separate Visio diagram’ BS any more. Imagine every level from architectural diagram to physical system representation to the real running code all being part of one integrated drill-down. It looks SUPER SWEET. Seems like science fiction to those of us IT-types.

A quick guide to the demo – so first a Xilinx guy talks about their new ARM-based chip, and then David shows drill-up and down to the real hardware parts of a system.  NI now has the “traditional systems” problem in that people buy hardware, buy software, and are turning it into large distributed scalable architectures.  Not being hobbled by preconceptions of how that should be done, our system diagram team has come up with a sweet visualization where you can swap between architecture view (8:30 in), actual pictures and specs of hardware, then down (10:40 in) into the “implementation” box-and-line system and network diagram, and then down into the code (12:00 in for VHDL and 13:20 in for LabVIEW). LabVIEW code is natively graphical, so in the final drilldown he also shows programming using drawing/gestures.

Why have twenty years of “systems management” and design tools from IBM/HP/etc not given us anything near this awesome for other systems?  I don’t know, but it’s high time. We led a session at DevOpsDays about diagramming systems, and “I make a Visio on the side” is state of the art.  There was one guy who took the time to make awesome UML models, but real integration of design/diagram to real system doesn’t exist. And it needs to. And not in some labor intensive  “How about UML oh Lord I pooped myself” kind of way, but an easy and integral part of building the system.

I am really enjoying working in the joint engineering/IT world.  There’s some things IT technology has figured out that engineering technology is just starting to bumble into (security, for example, and Web services). But there are a lot of things that engineering does that IT efforts look like the work of a bumbling child next to. Like instrumentation and monitoring, the IT state of the art is vomitous when placed next to real engineering data metric gathering (and analysis, and visualization) techniques.  Will system design also be revolutionized from that quarter?

The other cool takeaway was how cloud is gaining some foothold in the engineering space.  I was impressed as hell with Maintainable Software, the only proper Web 3.0 company in attendance. Awesome SaaS product, and I talked with the guys for a long time and they are doing all the cool DevOps stuff – automated provisioning, continuous deployment, feature knobs, all that Etsy/Facebook kind of whizbang shit. They’re like what I want our team here to become, and it was great meeting someone in our space who is doing all that – I love goofy social media apps or whatever but it can sometimes be hard to convey the appropriateness of some of those practices to our sector. “If it’s good enough to sell hand knitted tea cozies or try to hook up with old high school sweethearts, then certainly it’s good enough to use in your attempt to cure cancer!” anyway, Mike and Derek were great guys and it was nice to see that new kind of thinking making inroads into our sometimes too-traditional space.

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