Tag Archives: ni

How We Do Cloud and DevOps: The Motion Picture

Our good friend Damon Edwards from dev2ops came by our Austin office and recorded a video of Peco and I explaining how we do what we do! Peco never blogs, so this is a rare opportunity to hear him talk about these topics, and he’s full of great sound bytes. 🙂

I apologize in advance for how much I say “right.”

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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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Our Cloud Products And How We Did It

Hey, I’m not a sales guy, and none of us spend a lot of time on this blog pimping our company’s products, but we’re pretty proud of our work on them and I figured I’d toss them out there as use cases of what an enterprise can do in terms of cloud products if they get their act together!

Some background.  Currently all the agile admins (myself, Peco, and James) work together in R&D at National Instruments.  It’s funny, we used to work together on the Web Systems team that ran the ni.com Web site, but then people went their own ways to different teams or even different companies. Then we decided to put the dream team back together to run our new SaaS products.

About NI

Some background.  National Instruments (hereafter, NI) is a 5000+ person global company that makes hardware and software for test & measurement, industrial control, and graphical system design. Real Poindextery engineering stuff. Wireless sensors and data acquisition, embedded and real-time, simulation and modeling. Our stuff is used to program the Lego Mindstorms NXT robots as well as control CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. When a crazed highlander whacks a test dummy on Deadliest Warrior and Max the techie looks at readouts of the forces generated, we are there.

About LabVIEW

Our main software product is LabVIEW.  Despite being an electrical engineer by degree, we never used LabVIEW in school (this was a very long time ago, I’ll note, most programs use it nowadays), so it wasn’t till I joined NI I saw it in action. It’s a graphical dataflow programming language. I assumed that was BS when I heard it. I had so many companies try to sell be “graphical” programming over the years, like all those crappy 4GLs back in the ‘9o’s, that I figured that was just an unachieved myth. But no, it’s a real visual programming language that’s worked like a champ for more than 20 years. In certain ways it’s very bad ass, it does parallelism for you and can be compiled and dropped onto a FPGA. It’s remained niche-ey and hasn’t been widely adopted outside the engineering world, however, due to company focus more than anything else.

Anyway, we decided it was high time we started leveraging cloud technologies in our products, so we created a DevOps team here in NI’s LabVIEW R&D department with a bunch of people that know what they’re doing, and started cranking on some SaaS products for our customers! We’ve delivered two and have announced a third that’s in progress.

Cloud Product #1: LabVIEW Web UI Builder

First out of the gate – LabVIEW Web UI Builder. It went 1.0 late last year. Go try it for free! It’s a Silverlight-based RIA “light” version of LabVIEW – you can visually program, interface with hardware and/or Web services. As internal demos we even had people write things like “Duck Hunt” and “Frogger” in it – it’s like Flash programming but way less of a pain in the ass. You can run in browser or out of browser and save your apps to the cloud or to your local box. It’s a “freemium” model – totally free to code and run your apps, but you have to pay for a license to compile your apps for deployment somewhere else – and that somewhere else can be a Web server like Apache or IIS, or it can be an embedded hardware target like a sensor node. The RIA approach means the UI can be placed on a very low footprint target because it runs in the browser, it just has to get data/interface with the control API of whatever it’s on.

It’s pretty snazzy. If you are curious about “graphical programming” and think it is probably BS, give it a spin for a couple minutes and see what you can do without all that “typing.”

A different R&D team wrote the Silverlight code, we wrote the back end Web services, did the cloud infrastructure, ops support structure, authentication, security, etc. It runs on Amazon Web Services.

Cloud Product #2: LabVIEW FPGA Compile Cloud

This one’s still in beta, but it’s basically ready to roll. For non-engineers, a FPGA (field programmable gate array) is essentially a rewritable chip. You get the speed benefits of being on hardware – not as fast as an ASIC but way faster than running code on a general purpose computer – as well as being able to change the software later.

We have a version of LabVIEW, LabVIEW FPGA, used to target LabVIEW programs to an FPGA chip. Compilation of these programs can take a long time, usually a number of hours for complex designs. Furthermore the software required for the compilation is large and getting more diverse as there’s more and more chips out there (each pretty much has its own dedicated compiler).

So, cloud to the rescue. The FPGA Compile Cloud is a simple concept – when you hit ‘compile’ it just outsources the compile to a bunch of servers in the cloud instead of locking up your workstation for hours (assuming you’ve bought a subscription).  FPGA compilations have everything they need with them, there’s not unique compile environments to set up or anything, so it’s very commoditizable.

The back end for this isn’t as simple as the one for UI Builder, which is just cloud storage and load balanced compile servers – we had to implement custom scaling for the large and expensive compile workers, and it required more extensive monitoring, performance, and security work. It’s running on Amazon too. We got to reuse a large amount of the infrastructure we put in place for systems management and authentication for UI Builder.

Cloud Product #3: Technical Data Cloud

It’s still in development, but we’ve announced it so I get to talk about it! The idea behind the Technical Data Cloud is that more and more people need to collect sensor data, but they don’t want to fool with the management of it. They want to plop some sensors down and have the acquired data “go to the cloud!” for storage, visualization, and later analysis. There are other folks doing this already, like the very cool Pachube (pronounced “patch-bay”, there’s a LabVIEW library for talking to it), and it seems everyone wants to take their sensors to the cloud, so we’re looking at making one that’s industrial strength.

For this one we are pulling our our big guns, our data specialist team in Aachen, Germany. We are also being careful to develop it in an open way – the primary interface will be RESTful HTTP Web services, though LabVIEW APIs and hardware links will of course be a priority.

This one had a big technical twist for us – we’re implementing it on Microsoft Windows Azure, the MS guys’ cloud offering. Our org is doing a lot of .NET development and finding a lot of strategic alignment with Microsoft, so we thought we’d kick the tires on their cloud. I’m an old Linux/open source bigot and to be honest I didn’t expect it to make the grade, but once we got up to speed on it I found it was a pretty good bit of implementation. It did mean we had to do significant expansion of our underlying platform we are reusing for all these products – just supporting Linux and Windows instance in Amazon already made us toss a lot of insufficiently open solutions in the garbage bin, and these two cloud worlds are very different as well.

How We Did It

I find nothing more instructive than finding out the details – organizational, technical, etc. – of how people really implement solutions in their own shops.  So in the interests of openness and helping out others, I’m going to do a series on how we did it!  I figure it’ll be in about three parts, most likely:

  • How We Did It: People
  • How We Did It: Process
  • How We Did It: Tools and Technologies

If there’s something you want to hear about when I cover these areas, just ask in the comments!  I can’t share everything, especially for unreleased products, but promise to be as open as I can without someone from Legal coming down here and Tasering me.

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Our First Cloud Product Released!

Hey all, I just wanted to take a moment to share with you that our first cloud-based product just went live!  LabVIEW Web UI Builder is National Instruments’ first SaaS application.  It’s actually free to use, go to ni.com and “Try It Now”, all you have to do is make an account.  It’s a freemium model, so you can use it, save your code, run it, etc. all you want; we charge to get the “Build & Deploy” functionality that enables you to compile, download, and deploy the bundled app to an embedded device or whatnot.

Essentially it’s a Silverlight app (can be installed out of browser on your box or just launched off the site) that lets you graphically program test & measurement, control, and simulation type of programs.  You can save your programs to the cloud or locally to your own machine.  The programs can interact via Web services with anything, but in our case it’s especially interesting when they interact with data acquisition devices.  There’s some sample programs on that page that show what can be done, though those are definitely tuned to engineers…  We have apps internally that let you play frogger and duck hunt, or do the usual Web mashup kinds of things calling google maps apis.  So feel free and try out some graphical programming!

Cool technology we used to do this:

And it’s 100% DevOps powered.  Our implementation team consists of developers and sysadmins, and we built the whole thing using an agile development methodology.  All our systems are created by model-driven automation from assets and definitions in source control.  We’ll post more about the specifics now that we’ve gotten version 1 done!  (Of course, the next product is just about ready too…)

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