GNU Octave

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GNU Octave
GNU Octave 4.0.0 RC1 running on Linux
Developer(s) John W. Eaton
Initial release 1988; 27 years ago (1988)
Stable release 3.8.2 (August 14, 2014; 7 months ago (2014-08-14)) [±]
Preview release 4.0.0 rc2 (March 20, 2015; 10 days ago (2015-03-20)) [±][1]
Written in C++
Platform Cross-platform
Available in 19 languages
Type Scientific computing
License GPL

GNU Octave is a high-level programming language, primarily intended for numerical computations. It provides a command-line interface for solving linear and nonlinear problems numerically, and for performing other numerical experiments using a language that is mostly compatible with MATLAB. It may also be used as a batch-oriented language. As part of the GNU Project, it is free software under the terms of the GNU General Public License.

Octave is one of the two major open-source alternatives to MATLAB, the other one being Scilab.[2][3][4][5] Scilab however puts less emphasis on (bidirectional) syntactic compatibility with MATLAB than Octave does.[2][6][7]


The project was conceived around 1988. At first it was intended to be a companion to a chemical reactor design course. Real development was started by John W. Eaton in 1992. The first alpha release dates back to January 4, 1993 and on February 17, 1994 version 1.0 was released. Version 3.0 was released on December 21, 2007.

The program is named after Octave Levenspiel, a former professor of the principal author. Levenspiel is known for his ability to perform quick back-of-the-envelope calculations.[8]


In addition to use on desktops for personal scientific computing, Octave is used in academia and industry. For example, Octave was used on a massive parallel computer at Pittsburgh supercomputing center to find vulnerabilities related to guessing social security numbers.[9]

Technical details[edit]

Octave, the language[edit]

The Octave language is an interpreted programming language. It is a structured programming language (similar to C) and supports many common C standard library functions, and also certain UNIX system calls and functions.[10] However, it does not support passing arguments by reference.[11]

Octave programs consist of a list of function calls or a script. The syntax is matrix-based and provides various functions for matrix operations. It supports various data structures and allows object-oriented programming.[12]

Its syntax is very similar to MATLAB, and careful programming of a script will allow it to run on both Octave and MATLAB.[13]

Because Octave is made available under the GNU General Public License, it may be freely changed, copied and used.[8] The program runs on Microsoft Windows and most Unix and Unix-like operating systems, including Mac OS X.[14]

Notable features[edit]

Command and variable name completion[edit]

Typing a TAB character on the command line causes Octave to attempt to complete variable, function, and file names (similar to Bash's tab completion). Octave uses the text before the cursor as the initial portion of the name to complete.

Command history[edit]

When running interactively, Octave saves the commands typed in an internal buffer so that they can be recalled and edited.

Data structures[edit]

Octave includes a limited amount of support for organizing data in structures. In this example, we see a structure "x" with elements "a", "b", and "c", (an integer, an array, and a string, respectively):

octave:1> x.a = 1; x.b = [1, 2; 3, 4]; x.c = "string";
octave:2> x.a
ans =  1
octave:3> x.b
ans =
   1   2
   3   4
octave:4> x.c
ans = string
octave:5> x
x =
  a =  1
  b =
     1   2
     3   4
  c = string

Short-circuit boolean operators[edit]

Octave's '&&' and '||' logical operators are evaluated in a short-circuit fashion (like the corresponding operators in the C language), in contrast to the element-by-element operators '&' and '|'.

Increment and decrement operators[edit]

Octave includes the C-like increment and decrement operators '++' and '--' in both their prefix and postfix forms. Also augmented assignment.


Octave supports a limited form of exception handling modelled after the 'unwind_protect' of Lisp. The general form of an unwind_protect block looks like this:


As a general rule, GNU Octave recognizes as termination of a given 'block' either the keyword 'end' (which is compatible with the MATLAB language) or a more specific keyword 'end_block'. As a consequence, an 'unwind_protect' block can be terminated either with the keyword 'end_unwind_protect' as in the example, or with the more portable keyword 'end'.

The cleanup part of the block is always executed. In case an exception is raised by the body part, cleanup is executed immediately before propagating the exception outside the block 'unwind_protect'.

GNU Octave also supports another form of exception handling (compatible with the MATLAB language):


This latter form differs from an 'unwind_protect' block in two ways. First, exception_handling is only executed when an exception is raised by body. Second, after the execution of exception_handling the exception is not propagated outside the block (unless a 'rethrow( lasterror )' statement is purposely inserted within the exception_handling code).

Variable-length argument lists[edit]

Octave has a mechanism for handling functions that take an unspecified number of arguments without explicit upper limit. To specify a list of zero or more arguments, use the special argument varargin as the last (or only) argument in the list.

function s = plus (varargin)
   if (nargin==0)
      s = 0;
      s = varargin{1} + plus (varargin{2:nargin});

Variable-length return lists[edit]

A function can be set up to return any number of values by using the special return value varargout. For example:

function varargout = multiassign (data)
   for k=1:nargout
      varargout{k} = data(:,k);

C++ integration[edit]

It is also possible to execute Octave code directly in a C++ program. For example, here is a code snippet for calling rand([10,1]):

#include <octave/oct.h>
ColumnVector NumRands(2);
NumRands(0) = 10;
NumRands(1) = 1;
octave_value_list f_arg, f_ret;
f_arg(0) = octave_value(NumRands);
f_ret = feval("rand", f_arg, 1);
Matrix unis(f_ret(0).matrix_value());

C and C++ code can be integrated into GNU Octave by creating oct files, or using the Matlab compatible MEX files.

MATLAB compatibility [edit]

Octave has been built with MATLAB compatibility in mind, and shares many features with MATLAB:

  1. Matrices as fundamental data type.
  2. Built-in support for complex numbers.
  3. Powerful built-in math functions and extensive function libraries.
  4. Extensibility in the form of user-defined functions.

In fact, Octave treats incompatibility with MATLAB as a bug,[15] therefore it can be considered a software clone, which doesn't infringe software copyright as per Lotus v. Borland court case.

There are a few purposeful, albeit minor, syntax additions:

  1. Comment lines can be prefixed with the # character as well as the % character;
  2. Various C-based operators ++, --, +=, *=, /= are supported;
  3. Elements can be referenced without creating a new variable by cascaded indexing, e.g. [1:10](3);
  4. Strings can be defined with the " character as well as the ' character;
  5. When the variable type is single, Octave calculates the "mean" in the single-domain (Matlab in double-domain) which is faster but gives less accurate results;
  6. Blocks can also be terminated with more specific Control structure keywords, i.e., endif, endfor, endwhile, etc.;
  7. Functions can be defined within scripts and at the Octave prompt;
  8. All operators perform automatic broadcasting or singleton expansion.
  9. Presence of a do-until loop (similar to do-while in C).

User interfaces[edit]

Until version 3.8, Octave did not come with a graphical user interface (GUI)/integrated development environment (IDE) by default. However, an official graphical interface based on Qt has now been migrated to the main source repository and is available with Octave 3.8, but not as the default interface.[16] It will become the default interface with the release of Octave 4.0.[17][18] Several 3rd-party graphical front-ends have been developed.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John W. Eaton. "Octave 4.0.0 release candidate 2 available for ftp". 
  2. ^ a b Thomas Trappenberg (2010). Fundamentals of Computational Neuroscience. Oxford University Press. p. 361. ISBN 978-0-19-956841-3. 
  3. ^ A Muhammad; V Zalizniak (2011). Practical Scientific Computing. Woodhead Publishing. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-85709-226-7. 
  4. ^ Bernard A. Megrey; Erlend Moksness (2008). Computers in Fisheries Research. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 345. ISBN 978-1-4020-8636-6. 
  5. ^ Raul Raymond Kapuno (2008). Programming for Chemical Engineers Using C, C++, and MATLAB. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. p. 365. ISBN 978-1-934015-09-4. 
  6. ^ Russell L. Herman (2013). A Course in Mathematical Methods for Physicists. CRC Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-1-4665-8467-9. 
  7. ^ Alain Vande Wouwer; Philippe Saucez; Carlos Vilas (2014). Simulation of ODE/PDE Models with MATLAB®, OCTAVE and SCILAB: Scientific and Engineering Applications. Springer. pp. 114–115. ISBN 978-3-319-06790-2. 
  8. ^ a b Eaton, John W. "About Octave". Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  9. ^ "Social Security Number Vulnerability Findings Relied on Supercomputing". 8 July 2009. Archived from the original on 29 February 2012. 
  10. ^ "GNU Octave - Controlling subprocesses". 14 November 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-28. 
  11. ^ "GNU Octave". Retrieved 2009-01-28. 
  12. ^ "Summary of important user-visible changes for version 3.2". Retrieved 2012-01-05. 
  13. ^ "FAQ: MATLAB compatibility". Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  14. ^ "FAQ: Getting Octave". Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  15. ^ [1]
  16. ^ "Summary of important user-visible changes for version 3.8". 
  17. ^ "Octave-Maintainers list". 
  18. ^ "Octave-Maintainers list". 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


Numerical packages and libraries interfacing with GNU Octave[edit]

GNU Octave is also powered by third-party tools and libraries, mostly providing general or domain-specific abstractions for scientific computing. Those tools may be categorized according whether their contributions are more oriented toward computational modelling or toward enhancing visual analysis.

Numerical tools[edit]

  • Octave-forge – Free software toolboxes for various problems from independent developers. Octave-forge packages provide functions designed to work with the Octave package system. A Windows installer for both GNU Octave and the toolboxes is also available.
  • Mastrave project – Cross-language library (GNU GPLv3+ covered) compatible with GNU Octave and MATLAB, to ease scientific computational modelling (e.g. environmental modelling) with general purpose semantic array programming utilities.
  • Neuroimaging Analysis Kit – Library (MIT License covered) to process neuroimaging data within GNU Octave or MATLAB, particularly functional magnetic resonance images. It also offers a Pipeline system to handle multi-stage processing (PSOM: pipeline system for Octave and Matlab).
  • Parallel MATLAB Toolbox – MATLAB language data structures and functions which implement distributed MATLAB arrays. It is released under MIT license.
  • MPI Toolbox for Octave (MPITB) – Parallel Computing for Octave

Plotting tools[edit]

  • PLPlot – A replacement of the traditional gnuplot in GNU Octave, licensed under the GNU LGPL.
  • Plotly – Interactive, browser-based, publication quality graphs. Can be shared and jointly edited.
  • OctPlot – High quality 2D graphics (PostScript and screen graphics). Released under GNU GPL.
  • Octave graphics add-on – 3D visualization system for Octave.
  • Octaviz – 3D visualization system for GNU Octave (wrapper that makes VTK classes accessible from within GNU Octave). It also provides high-level functions for 2D visualization. (Note: Their site says, "Unfortunately, Octaviz is no longer in development. The latest release (0.4.7) was quite usable and stable when built against vtk-5.0.").
MATLAB-like IDEs[edit]
Other GUIs[edit]
  • Cantor (Linux, Windows; GPLv2) A KDE mathematics application, with backends for R, Maxima, Octave, Scilab, Sage, KAlgebra, and Qalculate. Under active development as of 2011.
  • OctaveNB (Linux, Windows, OS X; GPLv2) NetBeans IDE integration for GNU Octave. Last updated Apr 2009.
  • Anoc Octave Editor (Android) A GUI for Android that uses a dedicated server to perform calculations and generate plots
  • GNU TeXmacs supports Octave as backend
Web-based user interfaces (WUI)[edit]
  1. ^