SICS: SINQ Instrument Control Software
SICS: SINQ Instrument Control Software
Labor für Neutronenstreuung
Paul Scherrer Institut
CH-5232 Villigen PSI
2 The SINQ Hardware Setup
3 SICS Overall Design
4 SICS Clients
5 The SICS Server
5.1 The SICS Server Kernel
5.2 The SICS Interpreter
5.3 SICS Objects
6 SICS Working Example
7 Current Status
At the new spallation source SINQ at PSI a whole set of new neutron
scattering instruments are being installed. All these new instruments need a
instrument control control system. After a review of similar systems
out in the market it was found that none fully met the requirements defined
for SINQ or could easily be extended to do so. Therefore it was decided to
design a new system. This new system SICS, the SINQ Instrument Control
System, had to meet the following specifications:
A suitable new system was implemented using an object oriented design which
matches the above criteria.
- Control the instrument reliably.
- Good remote access to the instrument via the internet.
- Portability across operating system platforms.
- Enhanced portability across instrument hardware. This means that it
should be easy to add other types of motors, counters or other hardware to
- Support authorization on the command and variable level. This means
that certain instrument settings can be protected against harmful changes by
less knowledgable users.
- Good maintainability and extendability.
- Be capable to acomodate graphical user interfaces (GUI).
- Single code base for all instruments.
- Powerful macro language.
2. The SINQ Hardware Setup
SICS had to take in account the SINQ hardware setup which had been decided
upon earlier on. Most hardware such as motors and counters is controlled via
RS-232 interfaces. These devices connect to a Macintosh PC which has a
terminal server program running on it. This terminal server program collects
request to the hardware from a TCP/IP port and forwards them to the serial
device. The instrument control program runs on a workstation running
DigitalUnix. Communication with the hardware happens via TCP/IP through the
terminal server. Some hardware devices, such as the histogram memory, can handle
TCP/IP themselves. With such devices the instrument control program
communicates directly through TCP/IP, without a terminal server. All
hardware devices take care of their real time needs themselves. Thus the
only task of the instrument control program is to orchestrate the hardware
devices. SICS is designed with this setup up in mind, but is not restricted
to it. A schematic view of the SINQ hardware setup is given in
3. SICS Overall Design
In order to achieve the design goals stated above it was decided to divide
the system into a client server system. This means that there are at least
two programs necessary to run an instrument: a client program and a server
program. The server program, the SICS server, does all the work and
implements the actual instrument control. The SICS server usually runs on
the DAQ computer. The client program may run on any computer on the world
and implements the user interface to the instrument. Any numbers of clients
can communicate with one SICS server. The SICS server and the clients
communicate via a simple ASCII command protocol through TCP/IP sockets.
With this design good remote control through the network is easily achieved.
SICS clients can be implemented in any language or system capable of handling
TCP/IP. Thus the user interface and the functional aspect are well separated. This
allows for easy exchange of user interfaces by writing new clients.
4. SICS Clients
SICS Clients implement the SICS user interface. Current client programs have
been written in Tcl/TK1, but work is under way to recode clients in Java for
maximum platform portability. This is a real concern at SINQ where VMS,
Intel-PC, Macintosh and Unix users have to be satisfied. As many instrument scientists still prefer
the command line for interacting with instruments, the most used client is a
visual command line client. Status displays are another sort of specialized
client programs. Graphical user interfaces are under consideration for some
instruments. As an example for a client a screen shot of the command line
client is given in picture 2.
5. The SICS Server
The SICS server is the core component of the SICS system. The SICS server is
responsible for doing all the work in instrument control. Additionally the
server has to answer the requests of possibly multiple clients.
The SICS server can be subdivided into three subsystems: The kernel, a database
of SICS objects and an interpreter. The SICS server kernel takes care of
client multitasking and the preservation of the proper I/O and error context
for each client command executing.
SICS objects are software modules which represent all aspects
of an instrument: hardware devices, commands, measurement strategies
and data storage. The SICS server's database of objects is initialized at server startup
time from an initialization script. The third SICS server component is an
interpreter which allows to issue commands to the objects in the objects database.
A schematic drawing of the SICS server's structure is given in
5.1 The SICS Server Kernel
Any server-program has the problem how to organize multiple
clients accessing the same server and how to stop one client reading data,
which another client is just writing. The approach used for the SICS server
is a combination of polling and cooperative multitasking. This scheme is
simple and can be implemented in an operating system independent manner. One
way to look at the SICS server is as a series of tasks in a circular queue
executing one after another. There are several system tasks and one
task for each living client connection. The servers main loop does nothing but
executing the tasks in this circular buffer in an endless loop.
Thus only one task executes at any
given time and data access is efficiently serialized.
One of the main system
tasks (and the one which will be always there) is the network reader. The
network reader has a list of open network connections and checks each of
them for pending requests. What happens when data is pending on an open
network port depends on the type of port: If it is the servers main
connection port, the network reader will try to accept and verify a new
client connection and create the associated data structures. If the port
belongs to an open client connection the network reader will read the
command pending and put it onto a command stack existing for each client
connection. When it is time for a client task to execute, it will fetch a
command from its very own command stack and execute it. When the net reader
finds an user interrupt pending, the interrupt is executed.
This is how the SICS server deals with client requests.
The scheme described above relies on the fact that most SICS command need
only very little time to execute. A command needing time extensive
calculations may effectively block the server. Implementations of such
commands have to take care that control passes back to the task switching
loop at regular intervalls in order to prevent the server from blocking.
Another problem in a server handling multiple client requests is how to
maintain the proper execution context for each client. This includes the
clients I/O-context (socket), the authorisation of the client and possible
error conditions pending for a
client connection. SICS does this via a connection object, a special
data structure holding all the above information plus a set of functions
operating on this data structure. This connection object is passed along
with many calls throughout the whole system.
Multiple clients issuing commands to the SICS server may mean that multiple
clients might try to move motors or access other hardware in conflicting
ways. As there is only one set of instrument hardware this needs to be
prevented. This is achieved by a convention. No SICS object drives hardware
directly but registers it's request with a special object, the device
executor. This device executor starts the requested operation and reserves
the hardware to the client for the length of the operation. During the execution of such
an hardware request all other clients requests to drive the hardware will
return an error. The device executor is also responsible for monitoring the
progress of an hardware operation. It does so by adding a special task into
the system which checks the status of the operation each time this tasks
executes. When the hardware operation is finished this
device executor task will end. A special system facility allows a client
task to wait for the device executor task to end while the rest of the task
queue is still executing. In this way time intensive hardware operations can
be performed by drive, count or scan commands without blocking the whole
system for other clients.
Most experiments do not happen at ambient room conditions but
require some special environment for the sample. Mostly this is temperature
but it can also be magnetic of electric fields etc. Most of such devices
can regulate themselves but the data acquisition program needs to monitor
such devices. Within SICS this is done via a special system object, the
environment monitor. A environment device, for example a temperature
controller, registers it's presence with this object. Then an special system
task will control this device when it is executing, check for possible out
of range errors and initiates the proper error handling if such a problem is
5.2 The SICS Interpreter
When a task belonging to a client connection executes a command it will pass
the command along with the connection object to the SICS interpreter. The
SICS interpreter will then analyze the command and forward it to the
appropriate SICS object in the object database for further action. The SICS
interpreter is very much modeled after the Tcl interpreter as devised by
John Ousterhout1. For each SICS object visible from the interpreter there is
a wrapper function. Using the first word of the command as a key, the
interpreter will locate the objects wrapper function. If such a function is
found it is passed the command parameters, the interpreter object and the
connection object for further processing. An interface exists to add and
remove commands to this interpreter very easily. Thus the actual command
list can be configured easily to match the instrument in question, sometimes
even at run time. Given the closeness of the design of the SICS interpreter
to the Tcl interpreter, the reader may not be surprised to learn that the
SICS server incorporates Tcl as its internal macro language. The internal
macro language may use Tcl commands as well as SICS commands.
5.3 SICS Objects
As already said, SICS objects implement the true functionality of SICS
instrument control. All hardware, all commands and procedures, all data
handling strategies are implemented as SICS objects. Hardware objects, for
instance motors deserve some special attention. Such objects are divided
into two objects in the SICS system: A logical hardware object and a driver
object. The logical object is responsible for implementing all the nuts and
bolts of the hardware device, whereas the driver defines a set of primitive
operations on the device. The benefit of this scheme is twofold:
switching to new hardware, for instance a new type of motor, just requires
to incorporate a new driver into the system. Internally, independent from
the actual hardware, all hardware object of the same type (for example
motors) look the same and can be treated the same by higher level objects.
No need to rewrite a scan command because a motor changed.
In order to live happily within the SICS system SICS object have to adhere
to a system of protocols. There are protocols for:
- Input/Output to the client.
- Error handling.
- Interaction with the interpreter.
- For identification of the object to the system at run time.
- For interacting with hardware (see device executor above).
- For checking the authorisation of the client who wants to execute the
SICS uses NeXus2, the upcoming standard for data exchange for neutron
and X_ray scattering as its raw data format.
SICS objects have the ability to notify clients and other objects of
internal state changes. For example when a motor is driven, the motor object
can be configured to tell SICS clients or other SICS objects about his new
The SICS server has been implemented in ANSI-C for maximum portability.
ANSI-C proved powerful enough to support SICS's object oriented programming
6. SICS Working Example
In order to illustrate the inner working of the SICS server a command to
drive a motor will be traced through the system.
- The network reader finds data pending at one of the client ports.
- The network reader reads the command, splits it into single lines and
put those on the top of the client connections command stack. The network
reader passes control to the task switcher.
- In due time the client connection task executes, inspects its command
stack, pops the command pending and forwards it together with a pointer to
itself to the SICS interpreter.
- The SICS interpreter inspects the first word of the command. Using
this key the interpreter finds the drive command wrapper function and passes
control to that function.
- The drive command wrapper function will check further arguments,
clients authorisation if appropriate for the action requested. Depending on
the checks, the wrapper function will create an error message or do its
- Assuming everything is OK, the motor is located in the system.
- The drive command wrapper function asks the device executor to run the
- The device executor verifies that nobody else is driving, then starts
the motor and grabs hardware control. The device executor also starts a task
monitoring the activity of the motor.
- The drive command wrapper function now enters a wait state. This means
the task switcher will execute other tasks, except the connection task
requesting the wait state. The client connection and task executing the drive command
will not be able to process further commands.
- The device executor task will keep on monitoring the progress of the motor
driving whenever the task switcher allows it to execute.
- In due time the device executor task will find that the motor finished
driving. The task will then die. The clients grab of the hardware driving
permission will be released.
- At this stage the drive command wrapper function will awake and
continue execution. This means inspecting errors and reporting to the client
how things worked out.
- This done, control passes back through the interpreter and the connection
task to the task switcher. The client connection is free to execute
- The next task executes.
7. Current Status
Currently, SICS is in operation on the powder diffractometer DMC, the two circle
diffractometer TOPSI and the small angle scattering diffractometer SANS.
First clients have been
implemented in Tcl/TK1 and ANSI-C for a command line interface and status
displays. First experiences with the system were positive. SICS currently
supports the following hardware:
- SINQ EL734 motor controller.
- SINQ EL737 counter box.
- SINQ Histogram Memory.
- Dornier Velocity Selector.
- Oxford Instruments ITC4 temperature controller.
SICS is in
ongoing development. Support for the reactor time-of-flight instrument
reflectometer AMOR and the four circle diffractometer TRICS will be added in near
future. Support for chopper control and more sample environment devices
is on the way. More clients will be written in the Java programming language for
optimal portability. Parties interested in using SICS or wishing to
collaborate in its development are kindly asked to contact the authors.
- John K Ousterhout: Tcl and the Tk toolkit, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
File translated from TEX by TTH, version 0.9.