The Graphical Tax
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tooling. I’ve been getting my CI system running smoothly (ish, more on that later) as well as exploring another new language and working on open source projects on GitHub.
I’ve realised that there are specific penalties that we have to face as LabVIEW developers that are largely down to the graphical nature of LabVIEW.
In my head, I think of this as the graphical tax and thought it would be interesting to put these out there, see if there are solutions I’m missing or at least let’s have a discussion.
Software Engineering Tools
This one is an easy place to start.
Most software engineering tools assume a text-based system. Git works incredibly well on text. Github can merge requests in the browser on text-based files. CI tools use a text-based interface (the command line) to automate tasks like building, testing and linting your code.
As LabVIEW developers, we miss out on a lot here:
- I’ve tried to plug the gap to CI tools with G CLI ( https://github.com/JamesMc86/G-CLI) but it is far from seamless as LabVIEW still has many cases where it pops dialogues.
- Git etc. do work but don’t understand the files so manual merge and diffs all round
- Any tooling for the language has to start from scratch. We can’t leverage what already exists.
This one is frustrating as software engineering marches on – we have to be careful not to get left behind. NXG promises to help a little with a human-readable VI format but I’m not yet convinced it will solve many problems (though some I’m sure).
This is one that I think is really fundamental and just something we have to accept.
Compared to LabVIEW, text-based style seems simple! spaces vs tabs, newlines or not, camel-case or snake-case. There are certainly huge debates but it is essentially a 1D problem. It’s also easier to manage with linters and code analysis tools.
With LabVIEW, we take that problem and add new dimensions. Style is literally 2D. There is so much room for variation. So many mitigating circumstances for given diagrams that having a common set of skills is hard.
With text, you can add your own visual style on top with your editor while keeping the code “pure”. With LabVIEW, if you want different colours for your background it saves into the code.
A great example was a pull request I got on GitHub. After downloading the code to my machine many of the comments were too small. When I requested they were made larger to fit the text, they sent back a screenshot showing it fits on their screen.
This is an area that interests me in understanding more. I’m not sure if it is hopeless or we just need to be stricter. It certainly feels like a barrier to more collaboration and so something that should be considered.
Web Tools for Review
I think this is going to get harder and harder over time.
Increasingly the web is the centre of our working world. Text translates to that world well.
Review is also getting bigger. The place this really hurts for me is in pull requests on GitHub. When I receive a pull request for the C# part of G CLI it can be a 5-minute process. I can review the diffs in GitHub and understand what is going on.
With LabVIEW, you are forced to pull the project down to the desktop to open the IDE and view it. So when, like as I write this, I’m not on my main dev machine I may not be able to provide any comment on what is happening.
This could be improved by having sites with plugins for LabVIEW that can generate code images and diffs. I know some work has been done on this in Jenkins so it can be improved. But it will never be as straightforward as commenting on text code (line by line comments are handly).
So why pay the graphical tax? Or:
If your just going to moan about it James then use text based languages
Well, there are still some hugely compelling reasons:
- I believe it is easier to understand program structure graphically which greatly speeds up development and debugging. At least I’m a very graphical thinker.
- There are no other tools that allow you to target desktop, real-time and FPGA systems with very little difference in syntax and concepts.
- Even on a single target – there are not many other languages that combine a fairly high level of abstraction and the level of performance that LabVIEW provides.
So I still think I’m a net gain for using LabVIEW. I have no plans to jump ship any time soon. But maybe, by sharing my concerns, I might trigger some thoughts on how we can tackle these issues.