Speeding Up the Scientific Process

Learn how to optimize your Matlab project by converting parts to C.
Setting Up the C Environment for Matlab

A fair amount of documentation is available on the MathWorks web site (see Resources), and you should take a look at it after reading this article if you are serious about developing MEX functions. This article emphasizes optimization and some of the sticking points of getting things working.

To develop MEX functions in Linux, go to the source of all that is good, the command line, and type mex -start. When that doesn't work, search for the MEX script within the Matlab install directory. Your system administrator may have made a link in your path only to the Matlab binary. Running MEX, you are presented with a choice of compiler. To take advantage of some compiler optimizations that I will detail later, it is a good idea to use GCC rather than the Matlab built-in LCC. MEX will create the file ~/.matlab/R12/mexopts.sh, which is sourced when you compile external code for Matlab using the MEX utility. It is useful and instructive to take a look at the mexopts.sh file, under the appropriate section for your platform/compiler. In the case of x86 Linux/GCC, look at the glnx86 section of the main switch statement. Any changes made outside this section do not have any effect when compiling code. Place any compiler switches there with which you wish to compile your C functions. For the purpose of optimization, you might want to try:

COPTIMFLAGS='-O3 -funroll-loops

(this is aggressive—be careful) or whatever flags you desire. To use these flags in compilation, you later must run MEX with the -O option. As with some makefiles, include here any header directories you wish to include by appending:

to the end of CFLAGS. Indicate libraries you wish to link with by adding:

to the end of LDFLAGS.

Once this is done, set up a directory to hold your C files to be compiled with MEX. I suggest not working on C-based and Matlab-based code within the same directory. Now, add that directory, or a third build directory that you have created, to the path within the Matlab environment. Now you are ready to think about writing code.

How to Code in C for Matlab

First and foremost, think about what your goals are for optimization and what parts of your program will benefit the most by being rewritten in C. Since the prime area in which C is much faster than Matlab is the evaluation of loops, it makes sense to look for loops over a lot of data in your code. It is not worth it to code for something that loops three times, but if you are iterating over each voxel in a 500 × 500 × 500 volume, coding in C can shave off tons of time. Especially look for simple operations in nested loops, like the code fragment in Listing 1. Anything that performs a complex operation in a nested loop—anything that looks hard to implement yourself or that you cannot find a third-party library for—is probably not a good starting point for optimization. It is possible to call Matlab functions from within your C code, but this won't help your execution time, for obvious reasons.

Now, the general method of creating C MEX files is to functionize a block of code in your algorithm or to choose a function you have already written to optimize. Now, it is time to create the C version of the function. The general procedure is to create a generic Matlab interface function and then a meat function representing the actual procedure for which you are coding. See Listing 2 for an example of a MEX function. The meat function it calls corresponds to the Matlab file in Listing 1, and parts are available on the Linux Journal FTP site [ftp.linuxjournal.com/pub/lj/listings/issue110/6722.tgz].

mexFunction() is a sort of main() of the MEX-file programming world. It is the actual function called when you call your function in Matlab. The actual name of the function is defined by the name of your compiled .c files, usually the name of the first .c file that you pass to MEX for compilation. On the Linux x86 platform, MEX files have the extension .mexglx. When Matlab is run on the Linux x86 platform, Matlab looks for .mexglx files in the same path and in the same way as it looks for normal .m files, so .mexglx and .m files are interchangeable. A good way to switch between Matlab and optimized code is to change Matlab's search path. I compile c_mLAT.c to c_mLAT.mexglx, and then I can run the compiled code simply by calling c_mLAT() within the Matlab environment. It's a fairly slick system.

Listing 2. A MEX Function

Things get a little complicated when trying to pass data back and forth between Matlab and C. You will notice two double pointers in the argument list of the mexFunction. *plhs[] refers to the return values of the function (Matlab functions can have multiple return values), and *prhs[] refers to the input arguments. The number of input and return arguments also are passed to the function as nlhs and nrhs. The return matrices of the function must be allocated within the mexFuntion() using routines such as mxCreateDoubleMatrix() in order to be passed back correctly to the Matlab environment. The mx functions create memory in the Matlab environment and are handled by the Matlab memory manager, so there is no need to worry about freeing memory created by the mx functions.

Functions beginning with mex are called within the Matlab environment, and with mexCallMATLAB() it is possible to call arbitrary Matlab functions from within your code. From the mexFunction(), you then call your meat function after allocating the output, formatting the input and doing things like argument checking.

Something quite frustrating for C programmers is not dealt with well in the Matlab documentation, however, and that is the fact that Matlab stores its data in column-major format. This can be extremely annoying because you want to be able to use easy-to-understand pointer arithmetic to iterate over the multidimensional input matrices. But it is frustrating and bug-causing to figure out how far to step per iteration and so on. There are three solutions to this, as I see it.

1) Figure out the amount you need to step per iteration manually and think it out. This seems doable and is probably the best solution, but it leads to huge headaches with arrays of dimension equal to or greater than three.

2) Reformat the code before entering the MEX function so it is organized correctly for iterating through the way you want in C. This can be fairly expensive in Matlab, and many times you want to have a drop-in replacement for your original version.

3) Do what I do, and create macros or macro-type items to access memory in Matlab arrays. This is slower than stepping through the arrays and might seem to be an inelegant solution. In my experience, though, it ends up being easy to read and plenty fast. For instance, I created a file named pops.h that contains functions like:

extern inline double num3d(double *start, int rows,
                           int cols, int x, int y,
                           int z)
    return(*(start + rows * cols * z
                   + rows * y + x));

which returns the value in a 3-D Matlab array given the array, the number of rows and columns of the array and the xyz location of the data you want to retrieve. It's a little unwieldy, but not too bad. When the code is optimized, it is inserted into the code the same as a preprocessor macro. One could use macros just as well, but I find this method much easier to create and debug. In the end, the speed improvement for doing the loops in C far outweighs the relatively small loss from doing array access this way.

Other than that, the creation of MEX files is not difficult. When it comes time to compile, run the MEX program with the names of the C files you wish to compile. A list of MEX options also is available at the MathWorks web site. After running mex X.c Y.c Z.c, you will have a file called X.mexglx that, if it is in your path, you can call as X() on the Matlab command line.

From here, you can rewrite larger and larger portions of your code in C. When it is time to do the full C implementation, it often is beneficial to use the C export feature of Matlab to export the outer Matlab code, because the important parts also have been optimized by you. If things are still not fast enough, it might be a good idea to redo the outer function to deal with memory in a C-friendly fashion. Then you can speed up the loops in the inner-C code, using optimized pointer iteration to access the array values.

In general, the use of Matlab to prototype and develop code can speed things up greatly. However, when you find yourself waiting overnight for Matlab to produce results, only to find that you messed up a small input value, the process of hand-optimizing pieces of the code can be extremely beneficial to making your algorithms practical for use.


email: sclanton@oeic.net

Sam Clanton is currently an MD/PhD student at The University of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Mellon, maintaining an affiliation with NASA and QSS Corporation at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. He spends his time looking at problems in biological signal processing, computer vision and medical robotics, and is most interested in building information systems like nature does. Sam spends most of his time checking his e-mail (but never writing back) and drinking too much coffee.



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I found some interesting C/C+

Anonymous's picture

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Click on the "c-cpp.zip" link