Why Plan For Keeping Measurement Systems Up To Date

By James McNally | Software Engineering

system configuration management

Making sure your systems are correctly configured is part of running the latest software in an optimal way (The assumption being the latest software is the most useful to you!).

For a software package to run, we need:

  • A supported operating system.
  • Other software your system is dependent on (and it’s configuration)
  • The measurement software itself, installed and ready to run.

Controlling this is called configuration management, and this can be very simple on a single desktop or much more complicated with multiple embedded systems.

There are few questions you can ask yourself (or your developer) which will tell you whether you have a good design and process for configuration management:

  • How long does it take to push an update or install a new system? (or how much effort)
  • How confident am I that each system will run in the same way after that installation?
  • If it works today, will it still work tomorrow?

Let’s unpack each one.

How long does it take to push an update or install a new system?

Let’s say your hard drive dies tomorrow? What is involved in getting the system running again?

A better process will make this as simple as possible. 

The ideal case is a single button press, and the system is running again.

For complex setups, that may be hard (a.k.a expensive) for you to put in place. In many cases, though, just putting some thought into this upfront can make it very easy.

If you are making multiple replicas (such as a product) or the cost of downtime is high, it is worth investing in tools to help.

How confident am I that each system will work in the same way?

This confidence is closely related to the first question but subtly different.

A good process will have consistency between systems, and you can typically achieve this by removing the potential for human error through automation.

The field of configuration management exploded from cloud computing where there were issues with “snowflake” servers. When each server was set up by hand, they were each unique. Being unique makes servers harder to manage and slower to recover in case of a fault.

Snowflakes – Pretty – But not good measurement systems

If your system in test cell 1 requires a slightly different setup procedure to the system in test cell 2, then you know have two unique systems to maintain and consider.

However, if both tests cells are setup in the same way you have a single setup to consider when debugging or replicating them. This probably means less manual tweaking.

The other benefit is you have some redundancy. If you have critical testing going on test cell 1 and the PC dies – move the PC from test cell 2 and you are running again.

If it works today, will it work tomorrow?

The dreaded “it worked yesterday” problem and it is mainly about control over system changes.

I’ll give you a real-world example I’ve faced.

I had a piece of software that uses Excel to generate a report. One day – the report generation just started crashing.

It turns out, an excel update in the background had broken the interface. Control is the keyword here. The problem was the Excel updates are controlled by IT (well me as well in my case, but that is a bit unique) and engineering manages the system.

Generally, you have three routes for being able to answer yes to this question:

  1. Having direct control over the full system. Sometimes this is a reason to leave Windows behind for a real-time system.
  2. Knowing who has control and having excellent communication and change control procedures to test changes before they happen.
  3. Understanding what is outside of your control and building your system to be robust against these changes. For example, in the same situation again, I will look to avoid a dependency on Excel.

Your Needs May Vary

Of course, the effort you need to put into this depends on the costs and risks associated with downtime of your systems and the staff required to recover them.

Hopefully, those questions help you to identify the risk that you may have in your system though, and I plan to follow this up with some more technical examples of how to make your system more robust to configuration changes. Make sure to sign up/follow Wiresmith Technology to be notified when they are released.

Other Articles In The Series

Part 1: Why Plan For Keeping Measurement Systems Up To Date

Part 2: How Do I Keep My Windows Systems Up To Date

Part 3: How Do I Keep My Real-Time Systems Up To Date

Part 4: Writing Software to Support Easier Configuration Management

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About the Author

I founded Wiresmith Technology to help engineers improve their systems and products with quality measurement systems. I'm a Certified LabVIEW Architect, Certified LabVIEW Embedded Developer and LabVIEW Champion.

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