One of the limitations of Matlab already recognized by the community, is that it does not provide the users direct access to threads without the PCT (Parallel Computing Toolbox). For example, letting some expensive computations or I/O to be run in the background without freezing the main application. Instead, in Matlab there is either *implicit multiprocessing* which relies on built-in threading support in some MATLAB functions, or *explicit multiprocessing* using PCT (note: PCT workers use heavyweight processes, not lightweight threads). So the only way to achieve truly multi-threading in Matlab is via MEX, Java or .Net, or by spawning external standalone processes (yes, there are a few other esoteric variants – don’t nit-pick).

Note that we do not save any CPU cycles by running tasks in parallel. In the overall balance, we actually increase the amount of CPU processing, due to the multi-threading overhead. However, in the vast majority of cases we are more interested in the responsivity of Matlab’s main processing thread (known as the *Main Thread*, *Matlab Thread*, or simply *MT*) than in reducing the computer’s total energy consumption. In such cases, offloading work to asynchronous C++, Java or .Net threads could remove bottlenecks from Matlab’s main thread, achieving significant speedup.

Today’s article is a derivative of a much larger section on explicit multi-threading in Matlab, that will be included in my upcoming book *MATLAB Performance Tuning*, which will be published later this year. It is the first in a series of articles that will be devoted to various alternatives.

### Sample problem

In the following example, we compute some data, save it to file on a relatively slow USB/network disk, and then proceed with another calculation. We start with a simple synchronous implementation in plain Matlab:

tic data = rand(5e6,1); % pre-processing, 5M elements, ~40MB fid = fopen('F:\test.data','w'); fwrite(fid,data,'double'); fclose(fid); data = fft(data); % post-processing toc Elapsed time is 9.922366 seconds.

~10 seconds happens to be too slow for our specific needs. We could perhaps improve it a bit with some fancy tricks for * save* or

*. But let’s take a different approach today, using multi-threading:*

**fwrite**### Using Java threads

Matlab uses Java for numerous tasks, including networking, data-processing algorithms and graphical user-interface (GUI). In fact, under the hood, even Matlab timers employ Java threads for their internal triggering mechanism. In order to use Java, Matlab launches its own dedicated JVM (Java Virtual Machine) when it starts (unless it’s started with the *-nojvm* startup option). Once started, Java can be directly used within Matlab as a natural extension of the Matlab language. Today I will only discuss Java multithreading and its potential benefits for Matlab users: Readers are assumed to know how to program Java code and how to compile Java classes.

To use Java threads in Matlab, first create a class that implements the `Runnable`

interface or extends java.lang.Thread. In either case we need to implement at least the *run()* method, which runs the thread’s processing core.

Now let us replace the serial I/O with a very simple dedicated Java thread. Our second calculation (* fft*) will not need to wait for the I/O to complete, enabling much faster responsiveness on Matlab’s MT. In this case, we get a 58x (!) speedup:

tic data = rand(5e6,1); % pre-processing (5M elements, ~40MB) javaaddpath 'C:\Yair\Code\' % path to MyJavaThread.class start(MyJavaThread('F:\test.data',data)); % start running in parallel data = fft(data); % post-processing (Java I/O runs in parallel) toc Elapsed time is 0.170722 seconds. % 58x speedup !!!

Note that the call to * javaaddpath* only needs to be done once in the entire Matlab session, not repeatedly. The definition of our Java thread class is very simple (real-life classes would not be as simplistic, but the purpose here is to show the basic concept, not to teach Java threading):

import java.io.DataOutputStream; import java.io.FileOutputStream; public class MyJavaThread extends Thread { String filename; double[] doubleData; public MyJavaThread(String filename, double[] data) { this.filename = filename; this.doubleData = data; } @Override public void run() { try { DataOutputStream out = new DataOutputStream( new FileOutputStream(filename)); for (int i=0; i < doubleData.length; i++) { out.writeDouble(doubleData[i]); } out.close(); } catch (Exception ex) { System.out.println(ex.toString()); } } }

Note: when compiling a Java class that should be used within Matlab, as above, ensure that you are compiling for a JVM version that is equal to, or lower than Matlab’s JVM, as reported by Matlab’s version function:

% Matlab R2013b uses JVM 1.7, so we can use JVMs up to 7, but not 8 >> version –java ans = Java 1.7.0_11-b21 ...

### Matlab synchronization

Java (and C++/.Net) threads are very effective when they can run entirely independently from Matlab’s main thread. But what if we need to synchronize the other thread with Matlab's MT? For example, what if the Java code needs to run some Matlab function, or access some Matlab data? In MEX this could be done using the dedicated and documented MEX functions; in Java this can be done using the undocumented/unsupported JMI (Java-Matlab Interface) package. Note that using standard Java Threads without Matlab synchronization is fully supported; it is only the JMI package that is undocumented and unsupported.

Here is the relevant code snippet for evaluating Matlab code within a Java thread:

import com.mathworks.jmi.Matlab; //in %matlabroot%/java/jar/jmi.jar ... Matlab matlabEngine = new Matlab(); ... Matlab.whenMatlabReady(runnableClass);

Where `runnableClass`

is a class whose *run()* method includes calls to `com.mathworks.jmi.Matlab`

methods such as:

matlabEngine.mtEval("plot(data)"); Double value = matlabEngine.mtFeval("min",{a,b},1); //2 inputs 1 output

Unfortunately, we cannot directly call `matlabEngine`

's methods in our Java thread, since this is blocked in order to ensure synchronization Matlab only enables calling these methods from the MT, which is the reason for the `runnableClass`

. Indeed, synchronizing Java code with MATLAB could be quite tricky, and can easily deadlock MATLAB. To alleviate some of the risk, I advise not to use the JMI class directly: use Joshua Kaplan's `MatlabControl`

class, a user-friendly JMI wrapper.

Note that Java's native *invokeAndWait()* method cannot be used to synchronize with Matlab. M-code executes as a single uninterrupted thread (MT). Events are simply queued by Matlab's interpreter and processed when we relinquish control by requesting * drawnow*,

*,*

**pause***,*

**wait***etc. Matlab synchronization is robust and predictable, yet forces us to use the*

**waitfor**`whenMatlabReady(runnableClass)`

mechanism to add to the event queue. The next time *etc. is called in M-code, the event queue is purged and our submitted code will be processed by Matlab's interpreter.*

**drawnow**Java threading can be quite tricky even without the Matlab synchronization complexity. Deadlock, starvation and race conditions are frequent problems with Java threads. Basic Java synchronization is relatively easy, using the `synchronized`

keyword. But getting the synchronization to work *correctly* is much more difficult and requires Java programming expertise that is beyond most Java programmers. In fact, many Java programmers who use threads are not even aware that their threads synchronization is buggy and that their code is not thread-safe.

My general advise is to use Java threads just for simple independent tasks that require minimal interactions with other threads, Matlab engine, and/or shared resources.

### Additional alternatives and musings

In addition to Java threads, we can use other technologies for multi-threading in Matlab: Next week's article will explore Dot-Net (C#) threads and timers, and that will be followed by a variety of options for C++ threads and spawned-processes IPC. So don't let anyone complain any longer about not having explicit multi-threading in Matlab. It's not trivial, but it's also not rocket science, and there are plenty of alternatives out there.

Still, admittedly MT's current single-threaded implementation is a pain-in-the-so-and-so, relic of a decades-old design. A likely future improvement to the Matlab M-code interpreter would be to make it thread-safe. This would enable automatic conversion of * for* loops into multiple threads running on multiple local CPUs/cores, significantly improving Matlab's standard performance and essentially eliminating the need for a separate

*in PCT (imagine me drooling here). Then again, this might reduce PCT sales...*

**parfor**### Advanced Matlab Programming course – London 10-11 March, 2014

If Matlab performance interests you, consider joining my Advanced Matlab Programming course in London on 10-11 March, 2014. In this course/seminar I will explore numerous other ways by which we can improve Matlab's performance and create professional code. This is a unique opportunity to take your Matlab skills to a higher level within a couple of days. ** Registration closes this Friday**, so don't wait too long.

Related posts:

- Explicit multi-threading in Matlab part 2 Matlab performance can be improved by employing .Net (C#, VB, F# or C++) threads. ...
- Explicit multi-threading in Matlab part 3 Matlab performance can be improved by employing POSIX threads in C/C++ code. ...
- Explicit multi-threading in Matlab part 4 Matlab performance can be improved by employing timer objects and spawning external processes. ...
- Multi-line uitable column headers Matlab uitables can present long column headers in multiple lines, for improved readability. ...
- JMI wrapper – local MatlabControl part 2 An example using matlabcontrol for calling Matlab from within a Java class is explained and discussed...
- Multi-line tooltips Multi-line tooltips are very easy to set up, once you know your way around a few undocumented hiccups....

Hi Yair

Nice post!

Another possibility you haven’t mentioned for multi-threading is also to run a new Matlab instance from Matlab.

@Thierry – I did mention “

spawning external standalone processes” in my opening paragraph. Just note that it is not multi-threading but rather multi-processing. There’s a wide variety of things that you can do by spawning external processes, but it will always be less efficient to spawn an external heavyweight process than an in-process thread, not to mention the fact that it is harder to synchronize the data and coordinate execution. Perhaps I’ll dedicate a special post about spawning external processes, but this is a wide topic that opens the way to Matlab parallelization alternatives, and this could take me a full year of posts, so I guess I need to stop somewhere…I guess it is different but what about the Matlab Parallel Toolbox ? Can it be compared to the Java thread you explain in your article ?

@Oro77 – PCT is different in many respects:

It is not that one is generally better than the other – both are good, for different use-cases. Depending on your specific needs you can select either one or the other (or both).

Thank you for your complete comment on PCT

Very intriguing Yair… Have you tried writing .MAT files in a background Java thread? If so what .MAT library did you use. This could be very handy functionality in certain circumstances!

@Eric – you can use JMATIO for MAT-file I/O in Java

I did use this library. I had some issues with big MAT files. Except this problem, it is quite easy to use.

You briefly mentioned doing multithreading in MEX-functions. I just wanted to clarify that the MEX API is *not* thread-safe. So while it is possible to spawn threads in your MEX-files and perform independent computations, you should never call any mx*/mex* functions from those threads, and should be restricted to the main running thread of the MEX-function.

Here is an example of multithreaded C/C++ using simple OpenMP compiler directives: http://www.walkingrandomly.com/?p=1795 .

@Amro – thanks for the clarification, but you are providing a spoiler… My MEX C++ multithreading article will appear on March 5, as part 3 of this series.

@Yair: sorry for giving it away Interesting articles as always, keep up the good work!