OCaml Scientific Computing Tutorials

Table of Contents


Every software system has its own rules and conventions which require the developers to comply with. Owl is not an exception, for example the rules on broadcasting operation and the conventions on slice definition. In this chapter, I will cover the function naming and various conventions in Owl.

Pure vs. Impure

Ndarray module contains many functions to manipulate and perform mathematical operations over multi-dimensional arrays. The pure functions (a.k.a immutable functions) refer to those which do not modify the passed in variables but always return a new one as result. In contrast, impure functions (a.k.a mutable functions) refer to those which modifies the passed-in variables in place.

The arguments between pure and impure functions will never end. Functional programming in general promotes the use of immutable data structures. Using impure functions makes it difficult to reason the correctness of the code, therefore you need to think carefully when you decide to use them. On the other hand, generating a fresh 1000 x 1000 matrix every time simply because you modify one element does not seem very practical either.

The introduction of impure functions into Owl is under many careful and practical considerations. One primary motivation of using in-place modification is to avoid expensive memory allocation and deallocation operations, this can significantly improve the runtime performance of a numerical application especially when large ndarrays and matrices involved.

Can we have the best parts of both world, i.e. writing functional code and being memory efficient at the same time? As you learn more about Owl, you will realise that this can be achieved by lazily evaluating a mathematical expression using computation graph. The programmer focusses on the functional code, Owl’s computation graph module takes care of the “dangerous task” – allocating and managing the memory efficiently.

Many pure functions in Ndarray module have their corresponding impure version, the difference is that impure version has an extra underscore “_” at the end of function names. For example, the following functions are the pure functions in Arr module.


Their corresponding impure functions are as follows.


For unary operators such as Arr.sin x, the situation is rather straightforward, x will be modified in place. However, for binary operates such as Arr.add_scalar_ x a and Arr.add_ x y, the situation needs some clarifications. For Arr.add_scalar x a, x will be modified in place and stores the final result, this is trivial because a is a scalar.

For Arr.add_ x y, the question is where to store the final result when both inputs are ndarray. Let’s look at the type of Arr.add_ function.

val Arr.add_ : ?out:Arr.arr -> Arr.arr -> Arr.arr -> unit

As we can see from the function type, the output can be specified by an optional out parameter. If out is missing in the inputs, then Owl will try to use first operand (i.e. x) to store the final result. Because the binary operators in Owl support broadcasting operations by default, this further indicates when using impure functions every dimension of the first argument x must not be smaller than that of the second argument y. In other words, impure function only allows broadcasting smaller y onto x which is big enough to accommodate the result.

Most binary math functions in Owl are associated with a shorthand operator, such as +, -, *, and /. The impure versions also have their own operators. For example, corresponding to Arr.(x + y) which returns the result in a new ndarray, you can write Arr.(x += y) which adds up x and y and saves the result into x.

Alias of pure and impure binary math functions {#tbl:convention:pure}
Function Name Pure Impure
add + +=
sub - -=
mul * *=
div / /=
add_scalar +$ +$=
sub_scalar -$ -$=
mul_scalar *$ *$=
div_scalar /$ /$=

Ndarray vs. Scalar

There are three types of ndarray operations: map, scan, and reduce. Many functions can be categorised as reduction operations, such as Arr.sum, Arr.prod, Arr.min, Arr.mean, Arr.std, etc. All the reduction functions in Owl has a name parameter called axis. When you apply these reduction operations on a multi-dimensional array, there are two possible cases:

  • if axis is explicitly specified, then Owl reduces along the specified axis;
  • if axis is not specified, then Owl flattens the ndarray into a vector first and reduce all the elements along the axis 0.

If the passed in ndarray is already one-dimensional, then two cases are equivalent. In the following code snippet, a has shape [|3;1;3|] whereas b has shape [|1|] since it only contains one element.

  let x = Arr.sequential [|3;3;3|];;
  let a = Arr.sum ~axis:1 x;;
  let b = Arr.sum x;;

If you want to add the result in b with another float number, you need to retrieve the value by calling get function.

  let c = Arr.get b [|0|] in
  c +. 10.;;

This does not look very convenient if we always need to extract a scalar value from the return of reduction operations. This is not a problem for the languages like Python and Julia since the return type is dynamically determined. However, for OCaml, this turns out to be challenging: we either use a unified type; or we implement another set of functions. In the end, we picked the latter in Owl’s design. Every reduction operation has two versions:

  • one allows you to reduce along the specified axis, or reduce all the elements, but always returns an ndarray;
  • one only reduces all the elements and always returns a scalar value.

The difference between the two is that the functions returning a scalar ends up with an extra prime “'” character in their names. For example, for the first type of functions that return an ndarray, their function names look like these.


For the second type of functions that return a scalar, their name looks like these.


Technically, Arr.sum' is equivalent to the following code.

  let sum' x =
    let y = Arr.sum x in
    Arr.get y [|0|]

Let’s extend the previous code snippet, and test it in OCaml’s toplevel. Then you will understand the difference immediately.

  let x = Arr.sequential [|3;3;3|];;
  let a = Arr.sum ~axis:1 x;;
  let b = Arr.sum x;;
  let c = Arr.sum' x;;

Rules and conventions often reveals the tradeoffs in a design. By clarifying the restrictions, we hope the programmers can choose the right functions to use in a specific scenario.

Infix Operators

The operators in Owl are implemented in the functors defined in the Owl_operator module. These operators are categorised into Basic, Extend, Matrix, and Ndarray four module type signatures, because some operations are only meaningful for certain data structures. E.g., matrix multiplication *@ is only defined in Matrix signature.

As long as a module implements all the functions defined in the module signature, you can use these functors to generate corresponding operators. In most cases, you do not need to work with these functors directly in Owl since I have done the generation part for you already.

The operators have been included in each Ndarray and Matrix module. The following table summarises the operators currently implemented. In the table, both x and y represent either a matrix or an ndarray while a represents a scalar value.

Infix operators in ndarray and matrix modules {#tbl:convention:infix}
Operator Example Operation Dense/Sparse Ndarray/Matrix
+ x + y element-wise add both both
- x - y element-wise sub both both
* x * y element-wise mul both both
/ x / y element-wise div both both
+$ x +$ a add scalar both both
-$ x -$ a sub scalar both both
*$ x *$ a mul scalar both both
/$ x /$ a div scalar both both
$+ a $+ x scalar add both both
$- a $- x scalar sub both both
$* a $* x scalar mul both both
$/ a $/ x scalar div both both
= x = y comparison both both
!= x != y comparison both both
<> x <> y same as != both both
> x > y comparison both both
< x < y comparison both both
>= x >= y comparison both both
<= x <= y comparison both both
=. x =. y element-wise cmp Dense both
!=. x !=. y element-wise cmp Dense both
<>. x <>. y same as !=. Dense both
>. x >. y element-wise cmp Dense both
<. x <. y element-wise cmp Dense both
>=. x >=. y element-wise cmp Dense both
<=. x <=. y element-wise cmp Dense both
=$ x =$ y comp to scalar Dense both
!=$ x !=$ y comp to scalar Dense both
<>$ x <>$ y same as != Dense both
>$ x >$ y compare to scalar Dense both
<$ x <$ y compare to scalar Dense both
>=$ x >=$ y compare to scalar Dense both
<=$ x <=$ y compare to scalar Dense both
=.$ x =.$ y element-wise cmp Dense both
!=.$ x !=.$ y element-wise cmp Dense both
<>.$ x <>.$ y same as !=.$ Dense both
>.$ x >.$ y element-wise cmp Dense both
<.$ x <.$ y element-wise cmp Dense both
>=.$ x >=.$ y element-wise cmp Dense both
<=.$ x <=.$ y element-wise cmp Dense both
=~ x =~ y approx = Dense both
=~$ x =~$ y approx =$ Dense both
=~. x =~. y approx =. Dense both
=~.$ x =~.$ y approx =.$ Dense both
% x % y mod divide Dense both
%$ x %$ a mod divide scalar Dense both
** x ** y power function Dense both
*@ x *@ y matrix multiply both Matrix
/@ x /@ y solve linear system both Matrix
**@ x **@ a matrix power both Matrix
min2 min2 x y element-wise min both both
max2 max2 x y element-wise max both both
@= x @= y concatenate vertically Dense both
@|| x @|| y concatenate horizontally Dense both

There is a list of things worth your attention as below.

  • * is for element-wise multiplication; *@ is for matrix multiplication. You can easily understand the reason if you read the source code of Algodiff module. Using * for element-wise multiplication (for matrices) leads to the consistent implementation of algorithmic differentiation.

  • +$ has its corresponding operator $+ if we flip the order of parameters. However, be very careful about the operator precedence since OCaml determines the precedence based on the first character of an infix. +$ preserves the precedence whereas $+ does not. Therefore, I recommend using $+ with great care. Please always use parentheses to explicitly specify the precedence. The same also applies to $-, $*, and $/.

  • For comparison operators, e.g. both = and =. compare all the elements in two variables x and y. The difference is that = returns a boolean value whereas =. returns a matrix or ndarray of the same shape and same type as x and y. In the returned result, the value in a given position is 1 if the values of the corresponding position in x and y satisfy the predicate, otherwise it is 0.

  • For the comparison operators ended with $, they are used to compare a matrix/ndarray to a scalar value.

Operators are easy to use, here are some examples.

let x = Mat.uniform 5 5;;
let y = Mat.uniform 5 5;;

Mat.(x + y);;
Mat.(x * y);;
Mat.(x ** y);;
Mat.(x *@ y);;

(* compare the returns of the following two *)

Mat.(x > y);;
Mat.(x >. y);;

Here is the return of the first example.

Mat.(x > y);;
>- : bool = false

Here is the return of the second example.

Mat.(x >. y);;
>- : (float, float64_elt) Owl_dense_matrix_generic.t =
>   C0 C1 C2 C3 C4
>R0  0  1  1  0  1
>R1  0  1  1  0  1
>R2  0  0  0  0  0
>R3  1  0  0  0  1
>R4  0  1  0  0  1

Now I am sure you can understand the difference between > and >., and the same applies to other binary comparison operators.

Note that the extending indexing and slicing operators are not included in the table above, but you can find the detailed explanation in Indexing and Slicing Chapter.

Operator Extension

As you can see, the operators above do not allow interoperation on different number types (which may not be bad thing in my opinion actually). E.g., you cannot add a float32 matrix to float64 matrix unless you explicitly call the cast functions in Generic module.

Some people just like Pythonic way of working, Owl.Ext module is specifically designed for this purpose, to make prototyping faster and easier. Once you open the module, Ext immediately provides a set of operators to allow you to interoperate on different number types, as below. It automatically casts types for you if necessary.

Operator extensions {#tbl:convention:ext}
Operator Example Operation
+ x + y add
- x - y sub
* x * y mul
/ x / y div
= x = y comparison, return bool
!= x != y comparison, return bool
<> x <> y same as !=
> x > y comparison, return bool
< x < y comparison, return bool
>= x >= y comparison, return bool
<= x <= y comparison, return bool
=. x =. y element_wise comparison
!=. x !=. y element_wise comparison
<>. x <>. y same as !=.
>. x >. y element_wise comparison
<. x <. y element_wise comparison
>=. x >=. y element_wise comparison
<=. x <=. y element_wise comparison
% x % y element_wise mod divide
** x ** y power function
*@ x *@ y matrix multiply
min2 min2 x y element-wise min
max2 max2 x y element-wise max

You may have noticed, the operators ended with $ (e.g., +$, -$ …) disappeared from the table, which is simply because we can add/sub/mul/div a scalar with a matrix directly and we do not need these operators any more. Similar for comparison operators, because we can use the same > operator to compare a matrix to another matrix, or compare a matrix to a scalar, we do not need >$ any longer. Allowing interoperation makes the operator table much shorter.

Currently, the operators in Ext only support interoperation on dense structures. Besides binary operators, Ext also implements most of the common math functions which can be applied to float numbers, complex numbers, matrices, and ndarray. These functions are:

im; re; conj, abs, abs2, neg, reci, signum, sqr, sqrt, cbrt, exp, exp2, expm1, log, log10, log2, log1p, sin, cos, tan, asin, acos, atan, sinh, cosh, tanh, asinh, acosh, atanh, floor, ceil, round, trunc, erf, erfc, logistic, relu, softplus, softsign, softmax, sigmoid, log_sum_exp, l1norm, l2norm, l2norm_sqr, inv, trace, sum, prod, min, max, minmax, min_i, max_i, minmax_i.

Note that Ext contains its own Ext.Dense module which further contains the following submodules.

  • Ext.Dense.Ndarray.S
  • Ext.Dense.Ndarray.D
  • Ext.Dense.Ndarray.C
  • Ext.Dense.Ndarray.Z
  • Ext.Dense.Matrix.S
  • Ext.Dense.Matrix.D
  • Ext.Dense.Matrix.C
  • Ext.Dense.Matrix.Z

These modules are simply the wrappers of the original modules in Owl.Dense module so they provide most of the APIs already implemented. The extra thing these wrapper modules does is to pack and unpack the raw number types for you automatically. However, you can certainly use the raw data types then use the constructors defined in Owl_ext_types to wrap them up by yourself. The constructors are defined as below.

  type ext_typ =
    F   of float
    C   of Complex.t
    DMS of dms
    DMD of dmd
    DMC of dmc
    DMZ of dmz
    DAS of das
    DAD of dad
    DAC of dac
    DAZ of daz
    SMS of sms
    SMD of smd
    SMC of sms
    SMZ of smd
    SAS of sas
    SAD of sad
    SAC of sac
    SAZ of saz

There are also corresponding packing and unpacking functions you can use, please read owl_ext_types.ml <https://github.com/owlbarn/owl/blob/master/src/owl/ext/owl_ext_types.ml>_ for more details.

Let’s see some examples to understand how convenient it is to use Ext module.

open Owl.Ext;;

let x = Dense.Matrix.S.uniform 5 5;;
let y = Dense.Matrix.C.uniform 5 5;;
let z = Dense.Matrix.D.uniform 5 5;;

x + F 5.;;
x * C Complex.({re = 2.; im = 3.});;
x - y;;
x / y;;
x *@ y;;

(** ... *)

x > z;;
x >. z;;
(x >. z) * x;;
(x >. F 0.5) * x;;
(F 10. * x) + y *@ z;;

(** ... *)

round (F 10. * (x *@ z));;
sin (F 5.) * cos (x + z);;
tanh (x * F 10. - z);;

(** ... *)

Before we finish this chapter, I want to point out the caveat. Ext tries to mimic the dynamic languages like Python by with unified types. This prevents OCaml compiler from doing type checking in compilation phase and introduces extra overhead in calling functions. Therefore, besides fast experimenting in toplevel, I do not recommend to use Ext module in the production code.

Module Structures

In Owl, Dense module contains the modules of dense data structures. For example, Dense.Matrix supports the operations of dense matrices. Similarly, Sparse module contains the modules of sparse data structures.

Dense.Ndarray;;   (* dense ndarray *)
Dense.Matrix;;    (* dense matrix *)

Sparse.Ndarray;;  (* sparse ndarray *)
Sparse.Matrix;;   (* sparse ndarray *)

All these four modules consists of five submodules to handle different types of numbers.

  • S module supports single precision float numbers float32;
  • D module supports double precision float numbers float64;
  • C module supports single precision complex numbers complex32;
  • Z module supports double precision complex numbers complex64;
  • Generic module supports all aforementioned number types via GADT.

With Dense.Ndarray, you can create a dense n-dimensional array of no more than 16 dimensions. This constraint originates from the underlying Bigarray.Genarray module. In practice, this constraint makes sense since the space requirement will explode as the dimension increases. If you need anything higher than 16 dimensions, you need to use Sparse.Ndarray to create a sparse data structure.

Number and Precision

After deciding the suitable data structure (either dense or sparse), you can create a ndarray/matrix using creation function in the modules, using e.g., empty, create, zeros, ones … The type of numbers (real or complex) and its precision (single or double) needs to be passed to the creations functions as the parameters.

Dense.Ndarray.Generic.zeros Float64 [|5;5|];;
>- : (float, float64_elt) Dense.Ndarray.Generic.t =
>   C0 C1 C2 C3 C4
>R0  0  0  0  0  0
>R1  0  0  0  0  0
>R2  0  0  0  0  0
>R3  0  0  0  0  0
>R4  0  0  0  0  0

With zeros function, all the elements in the created data structure will be initialised to zeros.

Technically, S, D, C, and Z are the wrappers of Generic module with explicit type information provided. Therefore you can save the type constructor which was passed into the Generic module if you use these submodules directly.

Dense.Ndarray.S.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* single precision real ndarray *)
Dense.Ndarray.D.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* double precision real ndarray *)
Dense.Ndarray.C.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* single precision complex ndarray *)
Dense.Ndarray.Z.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* double precision complex ndarray *)

The following examples are for dense matrices.

Dense.Matrix.S.zeros 5 5;;     (* single precision real matrix *)
Dense.Matrix.D.zeros 5 5;;     (* double precision real matrix *)
Dense.Matrix.C.zeros 5 5;;     (* single precision complex matrix *)
Dense.Matrix.Z.zeros 5 5;;     (* double precision complex matrix *)

The following examples are for sparse ndarrays.

Sparse.Ndarray.S.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* single precision real ndarray *)
Sparse.Ndarray.D.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* double precision real ndarray *)
Sparse.Ndarray.C.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* single precision complex ndarray *)
Sparse.Ndarray.Z.zeros [|5;5|];;    (* double precision complex ndarray *)

The following examples are for sparse matrices.

Sparse.Matrix.S.zeros 5 5;;     (* single precision real matrix *)
Sparse.Matrix.D.zeros 5 5;;     (* double precision real matrix *)
Sparse.Matrix.C.zeros 5 5;;     (* single precision complex matrix *)
Sparse.Matrix.Z.zeros 5 5;;     (* double precision complex matrix *)

In short, Generic module can do everything that submodules can, but for some functions (e.g. creation functions) you need to explicitly pass in the type information.

Polymorphic Functions

Polymorphism is achieved by pattern matching and GADT in Generic module. This means many functions in Generic module can handle aforementioned four different number types.

In the following, I use the sum function in Dense.Matrix.Generic module as an example. sum function returns the summation of all the elements in a matrix.

open Owl;;

let x = Dense.Matrix.S.eye 5 in
  Dense.Matrix.Generic.sum x;;

let x = Dense.Matrix.D.eye 5 in
  Dense.Matrix.Generic.sum x;;

let x = Dense.Matrix.C.eye 5 in
  Dense.Matrix.Generic.sum x;;

let x = Dense.Matrix.Z.eye 5 in
  Dense.Matrix.Generic.sum x;;

As we can see, no matter what kind of numbers are held in an identity matrix, we always pass it to Dense.Matrix.Generic.sum function. Similarly, we can do the same thing for other modules (Dense.Ndarray, Sparse.Matrix, etc.) and other functions (add, mul, neg, etc.).

Meanwhile, each submodule also contains the same set of functions, e.g, as below,

Dense.Matrix.S.(eye 5 |> sum);;

Module Shortcuts

In reality, we often work with double precision numbers, therefore Owl provides some shortcuts to the data structures of double precision float numbers:

  • Arr is equivalent to double precision real Dense.Ndarray.D;
  • Mat is equivalent to double precision real Dense.Matrix.D;

With these shortcut modules, you are no longer required to pass in type information. Here are some examples.

Arr.zeros [|5|];;        (* same as Dense.Ndarray.D.zeros [|5|] *)
Mat.zeros 5 5;;          (* same as Dense.Matrix.D.zeros 5 5 *)

More examples besides creation functions are as follows.

Mat.load "data.mat";;    (* same as Dense.Matrix.D.load "data.mat" *)
Mat.of_array 5 5 x;;     (* same as Dense.Matrix.D.of_array 5 5 x *)
Mat.linspace 0. 9. 10;;  (* same as Dense.Matrix.D.linspace 0. 9. 10 *)

If you actually work more often with other number types like Complex, you can certainly make your own alias to corresponding S, D, C, and Z module if you like.

Type Casting

As I mentioned before, there are four basic number types. You can therefore cast one value from one type to another one by using the cast_* functions in Generic module.

  • Generic.cast_s2d: cast from float32 to float64;
  • Generic.cast_d2s: cast from float64 to float32;
  • Generic.cast_c2z: cast from complex32 to complex64;
  • Generic.cast_z2c: cast from complex64 to complex32;
  • Generic.cast_s2c: cast from float32 to complex32;
  • Generic.cast_d2z: cast from float64 to complex64;
  • Generic.cast_s2z: cast from float32 to complex64;
  • Generic.cast_d2c: cast from float64 to complex32;

In fact, all these function rely on the following cast function.

  val cast : ('a, 'b) kind -> ('c, 'd) t -> ('a, 'b) t

The first parameter specifies the cast type. If the source type and the cast type are the same, cast function simply makes a copy of the passed in value.

let x = Arr.uniform [|5;5|]                     (* created in float64 *);;
>val x : Arr.arr =
>         C0        C1        C2       C3       C4
>R0 0.648406  0.616945  0.828173 0.579604 0.212017
>R1 0.960002 0.0563993  0.219521 0.855164 0.414024
>R2 0.526179  0.532062 0.0640247 0.786426 0.956565
>R3 0.810557  0.476031  0.516506  0.11439 0.964041
>R4 0.981665  0.446936  0.276383 0.414747 0.174775

Now let’s cast x from float64 to complex32.

let y = Dense.Ndarray.Generic.cast Complex32 x  (* cast to complex32 *);;
>val y : (Complex.t, complex32_elt) Dense.Ndarray.Generic.t =
>               C0              C1              C2             C3             C4
>R0 (0.648406, 0i)  (0.616945, 0i)  (0.828173, 0i) (0.579604, 0i) (0.212017, 0i)
>R1 (0.960002, 0i) (0.0563993, 0i)  (0.219521, 0i) (0.855164, 0i) (0.414024, 0i)
>R2 (0.526179, 0i)  (0.532062, 0i) (0.0640247, 0i) (0.786426, 0i) (0.956565, 0i)
>R3 (0.810557, 0i)  (0.476031, 0i)  (0.516506, 0i)  (0.11439, 0i) (0.964041, 0i)
>R4 (0.981664, 0i)  (0.446936, 0i)  (0.276383, 0i) (0.414747, 0i) (0.174775, 0i)

To know more about the functions provided in each module, please read the corresponding interface file of Generic module. The Generic module contains the documentation.

Next: Chapter 03Visualisation