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.
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.
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.