The Evolution of LabVIEW: Decades of Development

Publish Date: Dec 17, 2014 | 7 Ratings | 4.14 out of 5 | Print | 1 Customer Review | Submit your review

Table of Contents

  1. Development Driven by the User Community
  2. Millions of I/O Channels
  3. Innate Parallel Performance
  4. Taking Graphical to Gates
  5. Innovation in Multiple Directions
  6. Large-Scale Development Tools
  7. The LabVIEW Outlook

In 1986, National Instruments introduced LabVIEW on the Macintosh platform and introduced virtual instrumentation as a core principle of the software.

The company combined the interactive graphical user interface with intuitive graphical programming to create this software. As National Instruments president and CEO Dr. James Truchard has said, “LabVIEW was developed to do for engineers what the spreadsheet did for financial analysts,” so Version 1.0 featured core technologies that are still fundamental today: parallel data flow, hierarchy, and integrated I/O and analysis libraries. After millions of development hours, tremendous PC technology change, and diffusion into thousands of application areas by the users, LabVIEW has become a full-blown system design platform. This article explores some of the origins and influences that have guided LabVIEW development and offers a glimpse of where LabVIEW is headed.

1. Development Driven by the User Community

From day one, the passionate and vocal LabVIEW user community has provided the strongest guiding force for development. NI engineers are constantly surprised and inspired by the different application areas in which users are applying LabVIEW. LabVIEW has recently set records in adoption with a growing number of companies and users standardizing on the platform daily. In the last decade alone, LabVIEW has reached millions of users, and, in turn, thousands of applications and industries.

Figure 1. Training programs, such as LEGO Education WeDo, LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT, and FIRST Robotics Competition teach programming skills to the next generation of high school and university students.

The growth in number of future LabVIEW users also remains strong, as more universities and educational institutions continue to adopt LabVIEW for their curriculum and research efforts. A focus on student programs – including collaboration with LEGO® on products like LEGO Education WeDo™ and LEGO MINDSTORMS® – has contributed to the addition of new design and simulation capabilities and helped simplify the environment and language constructs.

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2. Millions of I/O Channels

LabVIEW originally targeted data acquisition and instrument control applications, and the incredible change in I/O bus technologies has been a driving force in the development of the platform. With more built-in choices for I/O integration and instrument control than any other programming environment, LabVIEW helps users continually acquire and analyze data from millions of I/O channels and instruments.

Originally compatible with GPIB and RS232 instrument control tools, LabVIEW now encompasses USB, Bluetooth, PCI and PCI Express, PXI and PXI Express, wireless, and Ethernet-based I/O for hundreds of different form factors, performance levels, and environmental options. While the number of buses, instruments, and I/O technologies in the market has driven LabVIEW development focus, NI engineers have not forgotten that multivendor hardware support is a key factor in simplifying integration challenges. Today, LabVIEW features a comprehensive library of more than 6,000 instrument drivers from more than 225 vendors – a list that only continues to grow.

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3. Innate Parallel Performance

Because strong I/O capabilities have been inherent to LabVIEW since its inception, users often overlook its complete programming capabilities. NI engineers have often stated that parallelism was built into LabVIEW from the first release. However, from that initial baseline, these engineers have continued to evolve and improve the internal programming capability for many years. With the advent of multicore processors, they have worked closely with Intel designers to optimize how LabVIEW uses threads, memory, and cache to deliver maximum performance on the latest PC platforms. NI engineers have also extended the built-in symmetric multiprocessing capabilities of the LabVIEW Scheduler into the LabVIEW Real-Time environment, opening new doors to large physics and advanced high-performance computing research efforts.

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4. Taking Graphical to Gates

With the incredible evolution of silicon technologies – driving huge performance into smaller, more affordable chips – LabVIEW pioneered the use of graphical programming in the embedded application space. LabVIEW is leading thousands of engineers and scientists toward custom embedded development by applying the graphical programming approach to field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Custom hardware design is now directly accessible to domain experts without requiring delegation to dedicated hardware designers, creating faster iterations of design prototypes and moving products to market more quickly.

Users were looking for a way to interface to unique or unusual custom digital timing and triggering interfaces, and LabVIEW FPGA offered a way without requiring low-level hardware description languages or board-level design. From that initial effort, FPGA platform development has continued for ultrahigh-speed control, interfacing to digital protocols, digital signal processing (DSP), and many other applications requiring high-speed hardware reliability and tight determinism. Users can expect to see LabVIEW target more hardware and run on next-generation silicon in the coming years.

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5. Innovation in Multiple Directions

LabVIEW has opened up exciting new possibilities for harnessing computing power such as multicore processors and FPGAs. National Instruments has developed higher-level approaches to meet many new application challenges. Even though the software continues to provide the core engine for delivering performance and programming ease of use, NI engineers have been driven by input from LabVIEW users and have recognized that there are more intuitive ways to solve certain elements of user applications. With this in mind, the company introduced a number of high-level development frameworks, commonly referred to as “models of computation,” into the platform. These models describe software behavior that matches the way designers view their systems to help minimize the complexity of translating system requirements into a software design. Examples of new computation models for the LabVIEW platform include text-based math (LabVIEW MathScript and formula nodes), statecharts (LabVIEW Statechart Module), dynamic system simulation (LabVIEW Control Design and Simulation Module), and event-driven user interfaces (Event structure).

 

Figure 2. Using the evolving models of computation within LabVIEW, users can mix several different programming syntaxes in a single diagram to develop a simpler, yet more powerful, application.

Each model of computation has strengths that apply to particular domains, applications, and skill sets. Users can integrate multiple models of computation within a single, graphical programming framework. This characteristic drives scalability, efficiency, performance, and new applications for the LabVIEW user base using graphical system design.

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6. Large-Scale Development Tools

As National Instruments continues to add more capabilities to the LabVIEW platform, whether it be with new hardware targets or higher-level design tools, the company remains committed to users’ main concerns: open integration, performance, and ease of use. Based on recent user feedback, NI has focused on adding software engineering tools and practices. In a recent survey of LabVIEW users, nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated that multiple-developer teams work on their LabVIEW projects, with an average of four developers per team. Some also reported choosing LabVIEW as a system design tool for large-scale projects and complex applications requiring 50 developers or more.

Figure 3. Typical software engineering process activities for a large-scale project are well-supported by LabVIEW development tools.

An increasing number of companies finds that success in developing large applications depends on the use of formal software development processes and tools. As software rapidly becomes more complex and plays a growing role in large-scale and mission-critical projects, LabVIEW developers are continuing to take advantage of the platform’s new software engineering tools. National Instruments is introducing the LabVIEW Desktop Execution Trace and LabVIEW Unit Test Framework toolkits to the platform (see page 10), adding to tools such as the LabVIEW Project, libraries, and object-oriented programming structures. Additionally, NI engineers have analyzed user feedback and targeted the upgrade and deployment processes as areas for improvement.

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7. The LabVIEW Outlook

After 22 years, NI engineers know that LabVIEW platform improvement is never complete. National Instruments recognizes its commitment to LabVIEW users and understands the demand for more performance, more intuitive tools, and better integration. Based on user feedback, long-term projects currently under way include adding an enhanced graphical interface; taking better advantage of the Web in LabVIEW; providing a higher-level system design and visualization capability; and creating a simpler, more configurable development environment. Improvements “under the hood” are also in the works, such as upgrading the compiler, complex timing and triggering capabilities, and documenting APIs throughout the platform for better user access.

Armando Valim 

Armando Valim is a senior group manager for LabVIEW at National Instruments. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul; he also holds an MBA from Brigham Young University. 

Express your opinion on the future of LabVIEW and the features you want to see in the next versions.

This article first appeared in the Q1 2009 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.

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Customer Reviews
1 Review | Submit your review

The Future is now  - Mar 10, 2009

In the near future, the sensors signal will be conected to the NI devices and it, will determine what kind of signal is, it wil adapt itself to the magnitude, dimension and characteristic of the probe.

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