Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Labview is Actually Not All That Bad

In stark contrast to the flurry of epithets I hurl at Labview on a daily basis at work I will now say good things about it - because it deserves it!

The blocks are actually pretty old school. If you get stuck trying to decode a string in Labview your tools look surprisingly like what you'd expect from the C standard library. Granted - you don't need to worry about NULL termination or anything, but most of the basic building blocks (like string subset, search and replace, etc) promote code that acts (in form) like old-style C code. It's not like writing the routines yourself (iterating through each character, comparing, discarding, buffering, etc.) but the solution you come up with to manipulate strings will probably feel like an old-style C solution does. I also like the way the control structures work - you get nice features like shift registers (that teach you about instantiating a variable before the loop) or straight-through tunnels that just take the last value from the loop and pass it out. You can make complicated while or for loops with conditional terminations or conditional continuances. These are very welcome forms to have present. There's a lot of nice tools and abilities in Labview that don't feel new and gimmicky, but instead old and tried.

Second, while most Labview VIs are just a mess plain and simple what I've found is that a messy VI usually means messy badly-organized code. A clean, well-organized VI means you've created sub-VIs in the right places, organized the right data into clusters, used the right type of loop, etc. If your VI is clean and organized, chances are your code is too. Thus, by seeking to visually clean up your block diagram you can actually write good code. Of course, the opposite is not true: you can have great code that still looks like a mess. Because you just can't get around that in Labview sometimes. But chances are if the block diagram looks good the reason is because of a highly-organized coding mind behind it. It helps people learn how to organize code by presenting it as a visual problem instead of an esoteric abstract one - and many people are simply visual learners.

Third, I'm ecstatic as hell that whenever I Google anything related to Labview I come up with an answer - period. Someone has tried to do what I'm doing or for some insane reason National Instruments make a guide on how to manipulate TestStand sequences programmatically from Labview. Quite simply put I spent hours trying to figure out a problem on my own and when I get the bright idea to Google it the answers is invariably THERE. Done in five minutes. At this point in my career I'm a little more focused on results than banging my head against a wall to 'learn' so that feels really good. I have no idea why all of this support is out there but it is and it makes me happy.

Fourth, Labview is actually free of a lot of the object-oriented crap that plagues many trendy languages today. Yes, Labview is actually a bit trendy by itself, but (and this impresses me because the more I think about it the more I realize it's true) Labview is actually pretty old-school. Some old-school hard core stuff you can't do (like function pointers - but then only kinda) but I'm pleased that I haven't seen the term 'inheritance' once when dealing with Labview. True, all the things that make me hate C++ might be in there but I haven't been forced to deal with it and I haven't seen anyone else's work that deals with it either.

Don't get me wrong - I still find plenty to hate about it (and I may get to that later) but the more I consider it Labview feels like C but graphical. And that's not terrible.

1 comment:

GMoney said...

Great post! I'm glad you think LabVIEW is useful. Since I'm a product manager for LabVIEW, that makes me happy :) We have a community of over 250,000 active users online so Googling LabVIEW questions is a great way to find information that you are looking for. If you have any questions or feedback, please don't hesitate to contact me directly. Thanks again for the write up!

P.S. Give me some time and I'll convert you to using LabVIEW for most tasks :)

Grant Heimbach
LabVIEW Product Manager