GNU Octave

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GNU Octave
GNU Octave 4.0.0 RC1 running on Linux
Developer(s) John W. Eaton and many others[1]
Initial release 1988; 29 years ago (1988)
Stable release
4.2.1 / Feb 24, 2017[2]
Preview release 4.2.0 rc4 (November 9, 2016; 6 months ago (2016-11-09)) [±][3]
Written in C, C++, Fortran[citation needed]
Available in 19 languages[citation needed]
Type Scientific computing
License GPL

GNU Octave is software featuring a high-level programming language, primarily intended for numerical computations. Octave helps in 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. Since it is part of the GNU Project, it is free software under the terms of the GNU General Public License.

Octave is one of the major free alternatives to Matlab, others being FreeMat and Scilab.[4][5][6][7] Scilab, however, puts less emphasis on (bidirectional) syntactic compatibility with Matlab than Octave does.[4][8][9]


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 4.0.0 was released on May 29, 2015.

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.[10]


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.[11]

Dramatic Acceleration with OpenCL or CUDA is also possible with use of GPUs. [12]

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.[13] However, it does not support passing arguments by reference.[14]

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.[15]

Its syntax is very similar to Matlab, and careful programming of a script will allow it to run on both Octave and Matlab.[16]

Because Octave is made available under the GNU General Public License, it may be freely changed, copied and used.[10] The program runs on Microsoft Windows and most Unix and Unix-like operating systems, including macOS.[17]

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.[18]

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. Octave also does augmented assignment, e.g. 'x += 5'.


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 explicitly 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.

Octave supposedly treats incompatibility with Matlab as a bug; therefore, it could be considered a software clone, which does not infringe software copyright as per Lotus v. Borland court case.

Matlab scripts from the MathWorks' FileExchange repository are compatible with Octave, but can't be used legally due the Terms of use.[19] While often provided and uploaded by users under an Octave compatible and proper Open source BSD license, the fileexchange's Terms of use prohibit any usage beside MathWorks proprietary Matlab.[20][21]

Syntax compatibility[edit]

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).

Function compatibility[edit]

Many of the numerous Matlab functions are available in GNU Octave, some of them are accessible through packages via Octave-forge, but not all Matlab functions are available in GNU Octave. List of unavailable functions exists in Octave, and developers are seeking for help to implement them. Looking for function __unimplemented.m__, leads to the list of unimplemented functions.

Unimplemented functions are also categorized in Image, Mapping, Optimization, Signal, and Statistics packages.

When an unimplemented function is called the following error message is shown:

  octave:1> quad2d
  warning: quad2d is not implemented. Consider using dblquad.

  Please read <> to learn how you can
  contribute missing functionality.
  warning: called from
      __unimplemented__ at line 523 column 5
  error: 'quad2d' undefined near line 1 column 1

User interfaces[edit]

Octave comes with an official graphical user interface (GUI) and a integrated development environment (IDE) based on Qt. It is available since Octave 3.8,[22] and has become the default interface (over the command line interface) with the release of Octave 4.0.[23] Several 3rd-party graphical front-ends have been developed. It was well received: "[Octave] now has a very workable GUI."[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rik (10 June 2015). "". Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  2. ^ "release date". 21 February 2017. Retrieved 14 May 2017. 
  3. ^ "Octave Alpha FTP directory". 
  4. ^ a b Trappenberg, Thomas (2010). Fundamentals of Computational Neuroscience. Oxford University Press. p. 361. ISBN 978-0-19-956841-3. 
  5. ^ Muhammad, A; Zalizniak, V (2011). Practical Scientific Computing. Woodhead Publishing. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-85709-226-7. 
  6. ^ Megrey, Bernard A.; Moksness, Erlend (2008). Computers in Fisheries Research. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 345. ISBN 978-1-4020-8636-6. 
  7. ^ Kapuno, Raul Raymond (2008). Programming for Chemical Engineers Using C, C++, and Matlab. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. p. 365. ISBN 978-1-934015-09-4. 
  8. ^ Herman, Russell L. (2013). A Course in Mathematical Methods for Physicists. CRC Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-1-4665-8467-9. 
  9. ^ Wouwer, Alain Vande; Saucez, Philippe; Vilas, Carlos (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. 
  10. ^ a b Eaton, John W. "About Octave". Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  11. ^ "Social Security Number Vulnerability Findings Relied on Supercomputing". 8 July 2009. Archived from the original on 29 February 2012. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ "GNU Octave - Controlling subprocesses". 14 November 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-28. 
  14. ^ "GNU Octave". Retrieved 2009-01-28. 
  15. ^ "Summary of important user-visible changes for version 3.2". Retrieved 2012-01-05. 
  16. ^ "FAQ: Matlab compatibility". Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  17. ^ "FAQ: Getting Octave". Retrieved 2009-04-04. 
  18. ^ Eaton, John W. "Letting Readline Type For You". GNU Octave Reference Manual. 
  19. ^ Why can't I use code from File Exchange in Octave? It's released under a BSD license! on
  20. ^ terms of use on "Content that you submit must not directly compete with products offered by MathWorks. Content submitted to File Exchange may only be used with MathWorks products."
  21. ^ File Exchange Licensing Transition FAQ on
  22. ^ "Summary of important user-visible changes for version 3.8". 
  23. ^ "Summary of important user-visible changes for version 4.0". 
  24. ^ GNU Octave hits a high note, Steve Hageman - February 07, 2014

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Numerical packages and libraries interfacing with GNU Octave

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
  • 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
  • FEATool Multiphysics – A fully integrated multiphysics finite element simulation toolbox with both GUI, command line, and m-scripting support (with built-in geometry and grid generation, solvers, and postprocessing tools).
  • FeatFlow - High performance CFD solver which can be used with the FEATool Gui and CLI integrations.
Plotting tools
  • 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
  • Xoctave (Windows, Linux and MAC; non-free) allows plugin and multi-language support.
  • QtOctave (Windows, Linux; free under GPLv2+) Official development ceased June 2011.
  • DomainMath IDE (Windows, Linux, Mac OS; GPLv3+), Last Update: Nov 30, 2013
  • Octclipse (Linux; Eclipse Public LicenseGPLv3+) Eclipse based octave IDE. Last Update: 2012-12-11
  • Octave UPM (in Spanish) Personalized version with integrated GUI
Other GUIs
  • 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, macOS; 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
  • FEATool's Matlab cross compatible GUI framework is also available from github [1]
Web-based user interfaces (WUI)