How to Rapidly Develop ThingWorx IIoT Extensions with the Eclipse Plugin
The term ‘Extension’ or ‘Plugin’ often has many different meanings. For example, from the point of view of a Product Manager it often means an ‘easy’ way to add additional functionality to an existing piece of software. In contrast, from the point of view of a Software Developer it often means new syntax to memorize, extensive amounts of API documentation to read and very often weeks or even months of trial and error to make this ‘easy’ addition of functionality. We at ThingWorx recognized that in order to be a true Platform we need to take action to make the creation of Extensions easier at all phases of the process. Our development team took on the challenge of understanding what it is that normally makes this such a difficult process, and try and find solutions.
We took to the open source community looking for a Platform that could offer our Extension developers a wide array of functionality that was easily accessible and familiar. This is where the Eclipse IDE comes in. We were able to create a Plugin of our own for the Eclipse IDE that makes it easy for an Extension Developer to create an Extension Project, generate ThingWorx specific code, manage all the project configuration and build files and also package the Extension. We can do all of this without having a developer read any API documentation or manually write any code, leaving the Extension Developer to focus on what they are best at, which is adding that additional functionality we mentioned earlier.
Extensibility and the true nature of a Platform
Extensibility is a core aspect of any true Platform as it allows users to add functionality at any time to meet new and changing requirements. The capabilities of extensions are almost endless but here are a few examples:
Adding new UI Widgets to be used to visualize data
Adding any custom third party Libraries to be used seamlessly in ThingWorx
Easily accessing REST APIs outside of ThingWorx
Creating helper Resources to be used across the entire platform
Add custom Entities easily to multiple ThingWorx instances
Provide custom Authenticators and Directory Services
As you can see, it is possible to do practically anything that you or our community might find useful for the Internet of Things. This is the nature of a true ‘Platform’.
How do I get started developing an extension?
There are three steps that will help you dive into Extension Development quickly. First, an instance of ThingWorx Foundation and the ability to navigate the UI, called Composer. Second, a basic understanding of the ThingWorx Model, or “Thing Model”, is necessary. Finally, you will need an installation of the Eclipse IDE with the ThingWorx Eclipse Plugin installed to get started developing your extension.
1) Getting familiar with ThingWorx Foundation
The easiest way to get started playing with the ThingWorx platform is to head over to the Developer Portal and spin up a hosted ThingWorx Foundation server. This is as easy as clicking the ‘Create Foundation Server’ button and a 30-day hosted instance will be created for you to start using as your own personal development playground. If you prefer to set up and work in your own environment, you can also download a Developer Trial Edition to host on your own machine.
In order to get familiar with ThingWorx Foundation, I recommend going through our ThingWorx Foundation Quickstart Guide that introduces you to the core building blocks of the platform as well as guide you through a typical scenario of creating a simple IoT application.
2) Understanding the Thing Model Basics
If you are already familiar with the Thing Model and know the basics of using the ThingWorx Platform, then you can probably skip over this section. If you aren’t, or just want a refresher, I’ll go over the basics here.
The Thing Model is a collection of Entities that define your solution or business model in ThingWorx. You need a Thing Model for a few reasons. For those in software development, the Thing Model and its benefits are very similar to those of the Object Oriented programming model. A good model allows you to maximize reusability, maintainability, and encapsulation. Having a sound Thing Model means that the future of your IIoT solution will be minimally affected by things like migration, iterative changes, permission changes and security vulnerabilities.
The three most commonly used and most important Entities within your model are Things, Thing Templates, and Thing Shapes. These entity types will be the main building blocks for your Thing Model.
These are only a few of the Entity Types provided by ThingWorx. It is not necessary but definitely recommended, to have a more comprehensive understanding of the Thing Model, and to work with the entire collection of Entity Types within the ThingWorx Platform by going through the ThingWorx Foundation Quickstart Guide on the Developer Portal.
3) Dive into the Eclipse Plugin and develop your own extension
Lastly, if you don’t have Eclipse IDE installed, head over to the eclipse.org download page and get one installed on your machine. Once you have that, you can find the Eclipse Plugin on our Marketplace here.
In a next step, you will want to create a new Extension Project. We added a ThingWorx Extension perspective that enables all of the custom functionality.
Once in the correct perspective, we tried to make our plugin as intuitive as possible. We did this by following as many of the Eclipse usability standards as we could, which means that if you are familiar with the Eclipse IDE you should be able to find most of the ThingWorx functionality on your own. For Example, a simple ‘File’ >> ‘New’ will show you all the options for creating a Project.
Creating a new ThingWorx Extension project requires a Name and a ThingWorx Extension SDK (found on the ThingWorx Marketplace) of the version of ThingWorx that you are building your extension for.
By utilizing the capabilities of the Eclipse IDE, we were able to automate the creation of many of the artifacts that had slowed extension developers down. The wizard allows the plugin to handle creating and managing a build file and a metadata.xml as well as manage all of the project dependencies.
Once you have an Extension Project, you can use the ThingWorx menus to create your Entities. These actions will create the necessary Java files and manage their applicable entry within the metadata.xml of your project.
After creating your Entity, you can right click the applicable java file which will show you the ‘ThingWorx Source’ menu. This houses the options to generate the code for additional characteristics (Services, Properties, etc.) making the need to learn all of the custom annotations and method signatures a much less daunting process.
Once you have generated some code with the Plugin, it is time to get started implementing your solution - This is the point where my expertise ends and yours begins!
If you are interested in getting some more in-depth information on this topic, check out these additional resources: