Nick Mudge Ignition Software Consulting & Development

Ignition is a set of tools written in Java that makes it easy and fast to build applications. What kind of applications? The Inductive Automation website says it is software for creating Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. However I think it is more general purpose. It is certainly great for and geared for SCADA systems, but all kinds of applications can be built using Ignition.

If you are not familiar with SCADA, here's a definition from Wikipedia:

Computer systems that monitor and control industrial, infrastructure, or facility-based processes.

I have used Ignition to implement or improve inventory systems, plant data logging systems, process tracking systems, plant monitoring systems, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and Human Machine Interface (HMI) systems. HMIs are GUIs that are used to control machinery on the plant floor.

I think a lot of web applications could instead be Ignition applications. Project management, time tracking, email, CRMs, ERP -- data rich applications that you want users to log in to.

A huge benefit to web applications is that they employ a client-server model. There's one server that deploys an application to many clients, the web browsers. This allows changes to the software to be very easy. Just change the code on the server and the clients are automatically updated. And since a web server deploys its application over a network the users can access the application from many physical locations. Of course the Internet enables users to access applications from many places in the world.

Ignition employs this same model. But instead of deploying a client over the network to a web browser Ignition deploys a client over the network to a Java Runtime Environment (JRE) using Java Web Start.

Here's a great description of Java Web Start from www.java.com:

The Java Web Start software allows you to download and run Java applications from the web. The Java Web Start software:
  • Provides an easy, one-click activation of applications
  • Guarantees that you are always running the latest version of the application
  • Eliminates complicated installation or upgrade procedures

So a user goes to an Ignition webpage and clicks on a launch button which causes Java Web Start to download a Java application from the Ignition server. When the application is downloaded the application starts automatically and the user is in business. The Java application running on the user's desktop will communicate to the Ignition server on the network as needed to get data from databases, to update itself when changes are made on the server, etc. After developing applications with Ignition for the last three years I can tell you that this works very well.

The control and interactivity in web applications is getting better and better but it still isn't as good as the control and interactivity in desktop applications. When developing with Ignition you are making a desktop application but you get network benefits of web applications.

Another big benefit that web applications have is that web browsers are ubiquitous on computers and devices and different operating systems. I don't think Java is as ubiquitous but it is still pretty common. Ignition includes support for running Ignition applications on cell phones and tablets. The Ignition server and applications run on Windows and Linux well. For the last couple of years I did all of my Ignition development on Linux, using Ubuntu. That made me happy.

For a long time a problem in web development has been browser consistency, and it still is a problem particularly with Internet Explorer 8 and below not supporting much of CSS3 and HTML5. When developing Ignition applications I didn't have to worry about what might be supported or not. I just focused on developing my applications. If users are using Sun/Oracle's Java 6 or 7, which the large majority of people are, then everything is supported. I have used OpenJDK before with Ignition and it has worked but the Sun/Oracle JRE worked better.

The Designer: the Ignition development environment

Ignition includes in it a web-launchable application called the Designer. This is the development environment used to create Ignition applications. It is launched just like a client Ignition application, from the built-in website that comes with Ignition.

In Ignition applications are called projects. Once a user creates a project in the Designer a user can easily create new windows and access pallets of available GUI components that can be dragged and dropped into windows. Database queries can be written for components and components can easily be connected together so data flows through them.

The drag and drop nature of Ignition, the array of built-in components and functionality and the configuration windows for these things take a lot of programming out of building Java applications. If that disappoints you or makes you think Ignition is limited, then read on. If that excites you, read on.

Many, if not all of Ignition's GUI built-in components were built using Swing, Java's primary GUI widget toolkit.

Ignition provides the usual standard components needed to make GUIs like windows and labels and buttons. It also includes many kinds of components that are used to display data from a database like tables and charts and the dropdown component. It also includes components that are used to display real-time data from Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) or a database or other source, such as the Thermometer, the LED Display, the Level Indicator, the Cylindrical Tank and others. It includes components for controlling equipment on the plant floor. It includes other interesting components like the IP Camera Viewer, Barcode component, Paintable Canvas, PDF Viewer and others. Ignition also includes an image component that allows users to add images to their application. Ignition also includes a library of graphics that users can use. A list of components can be found in the Ignition Manual in Appendix A.

Once a user has components on a window they need to be made to do something. They can be made to do a lot of things. A user can use a configuration window to directly connect a property of one component to the property of another component. Ignition has a simple expression language that can be used to connect the properties of components together but also manipulate the data at the same time through a set of available functions. But the real power and flexibility of the system comes from what can be done through scripting with Jython.

Jython Programming

One of my favorite things about Ignition is that it provides its users with Jython 2.5 for event handling and server-side scripting. Jython is an implementation of Python that runs on the JVM.

Ignition provides many built-in tools and windows to configure things. Many users could probably get away with little scripting because Ignition is setup to help users build applications without much programming if they don't want to program. But the configuration windows and built-in functionality limit what can be done and how they can be done. In my opinion Jython scripting (and Ignition's module system) are really what makes Ignition flexible and powerful. When you need more than what is built in, Jython is there to give you flexibility.

So Swing events like mouseClicked, actionPerformed, propertyChange and others are handled by Jython scripting in the Designer. Ignition provides some simple configuration windows for implementing events. These generate equivalent Jython scripts which are then used by Ignition. These configuration windows are useful to learn how scripting is done in Ignition. You can skip the configuration windows and write your event handlers in Jython directly, which is what I do.

Ignition includes a Script Module Editor which allows users to write their own libraries of Jython functions which can be used in event handlers. This is where to put reusable code.

Jython in Ignition is good for people just learning to program, it is good for intermediate programmers, it is good for advanced programmers. It is simple but it doesn't constrain or limit. You can dig into the Ignition software and grab the Swing objects and change them or add new functionality to them. You can do anything that you can do in Jython, Swing and Java. It might not be recommended to mess with the underlying software too much, but you can do it. I once had a customer that needed some functionality on a table component that it didn't have. There was no way to add the functionality other than writing Jython code that dug into the Ignition objects, pulled out the underlying Swing object and added a new event listener that I wrote. Then it worked like a charm. I enjoyed that and it was awesome.

I wrote a lot of Jython code for all kinds of things: manipulating bits of data, processing lots of data, input form handling, database queries, security, safety, coordination of components on windows, navigation, etc. etc.

Ignition includes a built-in library of Jython functions for doing common things like database queries, reading files, navigation, GUI popups, exporting data to CSV or Excel, email, printing etc.

Ignition also provides Jython for server-side programming which runs on the Ignition server instead of in client applications. This is very useful.

Database Support

Ignition has a lot of built-in functionality and support for using SQL databases such as MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQL Server and Oracle. Database queries can be connected to components like tables and graphs to display data. Databases can be accesses and manipulated in Jython scripting easily. Ignition has functionality to easily log data to databases. Ignition has a built-in database browser which is pretty useful. It does a lot of other things with databases.

Ignition Modules

Probably my two favorite things about Ignition are Jython and being able to write new modules for Ignition.

Ignition is made up of a number of separate modules that work together. For example the Vision Module is what provides Ignition with its GUI capabilities. The SQL Bridge Module provides data logging capabilities. The Reporting Module provides the ability to create reports.

The cool thing is that you can write your own modules in Java, adding your own capabilities, GUI components, configuration, whole systems, and whatever to the Ignition platform.

Inductive Automation provides a ModuleSDK for developing Ignition modules.

I wrote an Ignition module that integrates an Ignition application with QuickBooks. The module includes a SOAP server that is used to communicate with the QuickBooks Web Connector.

I wrote another Ignition module that allows users to select many components in a window and change the values of their properties in bulk. I also added the capability to add event scripts to many components at the same time. This way users could make large changes to their applications very quickly. However this module is less useful now because Inductive Automation added new functionality which allows users to base their components off of templates. Changing a template changes all components based on that template. Ignition is in continual development with new features and improvements.

Getting Help

There's lots of ways to get help and learn about Ignition. Here's resources I used when implementing Ignition applications:

  • Inductive Automation Forum - When I needed help with something or I didn't know how to do something the Inductive Automation forum was often the first place I went. I would search the forum to see if my question had been asked before or if the answer already exists. I found a lot of useful information this way. The forum is a great place to ask questions. The technical support staff, other users, and the developers of Ignition answer a lot of questions here. This is also a good place to discuss various things about Igniton and share ideas, make feature requests, etc.
  • Inductive Automation phone technical support - For questions and help, particularly when I wanted to know or solve something very quickly.
  • The Ignition User Manual. This is obviously useful for learning about Ignition. I used Appendix C. Scripting Functions as a reference for scripting in Ignition. It shows how to use the built-in Ignition functions in Jython.
  • Google - For when I had a Java or Jython/Python related issue.
  • Java documentation - For when I wanted to understand Java objects or classes in my Jython scripting or Ignition module programming.

The Inductive Automation website includes lots of resources for learning about Ignition. Videos, quick start guides, manuals, articles, example projects, free tools, etc.

Conclusion

I have only given brief descriptions of some of the architecture and functionality in Ignition. It has much more than what I have written about in this post. I didn't write about transaction groups, which is a system for logging data to databases, I didn't write about SQLTags which is a great abstraction for handling data in Ignition. I didn't write about the Jython code editing support, I didn't write about how to develop mobile applications in Ignition and I didn't write about many other things that exist in Ignition modules.

If you want to learn more about Ignition then I recommend reading Steve Hechtman's blog and checking out the Inductive Automation website. You can also download and install the free trial of Ignition.

Edit on 13 July 2014

I recently started a new business providing Ignition consulting and project development. Contact me to find out more. Here is my business website: www.perfectabstractions.com.

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