Octave: A Free, High-Level Language for Mathematics

A quick look at a language designed to manipulate matrices and provide other numerical functions.

For numerical computing, high level languages offer advantages over more traditional languages, such as FORTRAN or C. Built-in graphics capabilities, automatic variable typing and flexible data structures combine to provide an environment in which it is easy to develop your ideas without having to fight with the language. That's not to say that FORTRAN and C are of no use, just that sometimes you want to make life a bit easier.

Matlab is a one such language. It is available on many platforms (including Linux) and provides powerful facilities for manipulating matrices, as well as other numerical functions. Unfortunately, Matlab is commercial software and wasn't available for Linux until recently (in the last twelve months or so). However, there are other, freely-available alternatives, and Octave is one such alternative.

Superficially, Octave looks very much like Matlab, and the description in its LSM entry reads “GNU Matlab—A numerical matrix mathematics program.” To begin, type octave at the shell prompt, and Octave greets you with its own prompt. Now we can start doing math.

Matrix Operations

As you might expect, entering and manipulating matrices is one of Octave's strengths. (In order to differentiate Octave commands from the output, the prompt octave:number of the command precedes the commands in the examples below.) We can enter a matrix with the command:

octave:1 a=[1 2 ; 3 4]

Octave then reports the result of the command, namely:

a =
        1  2
        3  4
To suppress output, simply place a semicolon after the command. Note that we didn't have to worry about declaring the size or type of the matrix a, we just type it in and start working with it. For example, we can get the transpose of a by typing:
octave:2 a'
      ans =
        1  3
        2  4
Arithmetic operators such as +, - and * act as matrix operators unless they are preceded by a period, in which case they act in an element by element sense. Octave also provides the forward and backward slash operators that perform matrix right and left division. Again, these can be used in an element-wise fashion. So, given another matrix:
octave:3 b=[1 0; 3 2]
b =
  1  0
  3  2
we can find the matrix product of a and b with the command:
octave:4 a*b
ans =
   7   4
  15   8
Or define the (i,j)th entry of the product is the product of the (i,j) entries in a and b with the command:
octave:5 a.*b
ans =
  1  0
  9  8
Matrix elements can easily be selected by index, so to get the (1,1) entry of a, type:
octave:6 a(1,1)
We can select a row or column using the colon operator, exactly as in Matlab. Thus, to select the first column of a type the command:
octave:7 a(:,1)
ans =
And to select the first row of a type:
octave:8 a(1,:)
ans =
  1  2
As well as these elementary operations, Octave provides functions that perform higher-level operations, such as finding the eigenvalues of a matrix, by using a command like the following:
octave:9 eig(a)
ans =
Alternatively, you can find the eigenvalues and eigenvectors by giving the following command:
octave:10 [v,d]=eig(a)
v =
   0.41597  -0.82456
   0.90938   0.56577
d =
   5.37228   0.00000
   0.00000  -0.37228
This is a demonstration of one of the main advantages of using a high level language like Octave. Writing a FORTRAN or C program to find the eigenvalues of a matrix would take a lot more time and effort than it does in Octave. Moreover, Octave routines are usually based on well-known, high quality algorithms, so you can have faith in the results.

Octave provides many other matrix routines, which are detailed in the manual and in the on-line help system.

User-Defined Functions

Octave also lets the user define his own functions via the function keyword. A function definition looks like this:

function [output values] = name (input values)
   sequence of commands

The input and output values are optional, so it is possible to write a function that takes no arguments and returns no values, such as

octave:11 function hello
The printf statement prints the quoted string to the screen, and the \n is interpreted as a newline. Invoke the function by typing its name:
octave:12 hello
Obviously, functions that don't take arguments or return values aren't all that useful. To accept arguments, list them after the function name in the following manner:
octave:13 function add(x,y)
octave:14 add(1,2)
   ans = 3
The output came from the statement x+y--if we had ended the line with a semicolon, there wouldn't have been any output from the add command. To assign the output to a variable, define the function in this way:
octave:15 function sum=add(x,y)
Now, if we type add(1,2), we get exactly the same result as before. However, by defining an output variable, we can assign the result of the add function to a variable in this way:
octave:16 fred=add(1,2)
A very powerful feature of Octave is the ability to return multiple values from a function. This feature exists in Matlab, but not in FORTRAN. For example, the following function:
octave:17 function [sum,diff]=sumdiff(x,y)
returns multiple values when invoked as:
octave:18 ns,d]=sumdiff(1,2)
   s = 3
   d = -1
Functions can be defined at the keyboard, as we did in these examples, or stored in a file and used again. This lets you build a suite of routines for whatever tasks you want. All you have to do is put the files (identified with a .m suffix) somewhere where Octave can find them. The built-in variable LOADPATH specifies where Octave should look for the .m files. Many of Octave's standard functions are defined in .m files. You can also access user-supplied C++ routines within Octave, although this feature is not yet fully developed.

Octave also provides a full programming language, with flow control and looping constructs, as well as extensive input-output facilities. It is possible to write quite sophisticated programs in Octave, and development time is considerably shorter than you would expect using FORTRAN or C.



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For those of you who had a

Mathews's picture

For those of you who had a problem with finding good software for your mathematical problems, here is your answer in a platter! The Octave is designed to solve your problems and give you the solutions to any questions you may have! I have used it for my facebook analytics and it just worked fine. Unlike the Matlab which is a commercial software and was unavailable till recently, Octave is readily available and has built-in graphics so it will allow you to give you flexibility in your data structures to help you with your ideas without having to be confused with the language!

Re: Octave: A Free, High-Level Language for Mathematics

Anonymous's picture

Hi: I

Re: Octave: A Free, High-Level Language for Mathematics

Anonymous's picture

Why yes you can. m files work just fine with octave.

I think you've made some

sipu1234's picture

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Re: Octave: A Free, High-Level Language for Mathematics

Anonymous's picture

If Matlab compatiability is your aim you should definitely also install the octave-forge package available at http://octave.sourceforge.net. This contains

many additional functions for compatiability to Matlab (eg signal processing, sparse matrix, comms, etc).



Re: Octave: A Free, High-Level Language for Mathematics

Anonymous's picture

Hi... I tried to mail this straight to the address given, but Mr Murphy seems to have moved on... so I'll just post here instead...

Hello Mr Murphy,

You don't know me and I live way too far away... but my name is Peter. I'm doing an undergrad I.T. degree and this semester I'm doing a subject on Pattern Recognition (eventually using Neural Networks). The subject demands use of Matlab and for some reason, our I.T. faculty seems to be fairly poor at supporting anything Linux (except for network admin and programming based subjects).

Thanks to your article, I'm up and running with Octave about five minutes after downloading and installing. Basically, I just wanted to thank you for a well-written, explanatory article with useful beginner's examples in it. This has saved me some time that could be far better used getting up and running with the subject content instead.

Just wanted to let you know that your work has NOT gone unappreciated. Again, thank you.