Online (web-based) Matlab

For many years I searched for a good solution for deploying Matlab applications in online web-pages. There used to be a solution over a decade ago but it was taken off the market. We could use the Java Builder to wrap our Matlab apps in a JAR that could be called by a Java-based application server, but we’d still need to develop the front-end web GUI as well as the middle-tier plumbing. A similar limitation exists if we wish to use the new Matlab Production Server (MSP). Developing this front-end and middle-tier is by no means a trivial exercise, as much as MathWorks presentations would like it to appear. Not to mention the fact that the Builder and the MSP are relatively costly (~$5-7K and ~$30K respectively).

I was thrilled to see the answer in the recent Matlab Computational Finance Conference, London. I presented at last year’s conference, so I was excited to review this year’s presentations when I came across a nugget in Kevin Shea’s keynote presentation on new Matlab developments. Note that there were two separate Matlab computational-finance events in 2014 – in London (June 24) and NY (April 9); the interesting piece is from London. Unlike the NY conference, the London conference proceedings do not include a video recording, only the slides (perhaps the video will be added to the proceedings page later, after all it takes some time to process). The last slide of Kevin’s presentation shows a screenshot of a Chrome browser displaying what appears to be a full-fledged Matlab desktop (Workspace, Editor, Command Window, figures) at https://matlab.mathworks.com:

Matlab Online (click to zoom)
Matlab Online (click to zoom)

The benefits of using Matlab Online are potentially tremendous: excluding some limitations (e.g., limited GUI, run time and supported toolboxes), we could deploy our Matlab programs online with minimal to no additional dev effort.

Information on Matlab Online can be found at http://mathworks.com/products/matlab/online. It even includes detailed dedicated documentation for all the supported functions and features.

For some reason, MathWorks has chosen not to link this new (and in my humble opinion, great) product in its official list of products. Perhaps the reason is that MathWorks do not wish for Matlab Online to cannibalize its main offerings. This might also explain the limitations placed on the online version (some limitations are technical, the rest are business-related). Matlab Online requires a dedicated login access, provided by MathWorks. Unfortunately, it is still not fully released to the public and is only available to users with up to date student licenses.

Still, if you are an important enough client of MathWorks, you might ask for access. Even with its current limitations, Matlab Online may well be useful for your needs. If you press strongly enough, and if your account is large enough, perhaps MathWorks might even enable a dedicated subdomain for you (as in intel.mathworks.com or matlab.apple.com).

Here’s another screenshot, in case you’re not convinced yet:

Matlab Online (click to zoom)
Matlab Online (click to zoom)

A post by MathWorks on the Answers forum earlier this year lists Matlab Online along with some additional online-computing alternatives for Matlab.

And now for some guesswork/speculation: MathWorks placed a major bet on Java technology in the early 2000′s (actually the late 90′s, since R12 took a few years to develop). Java was indeed hot at that time, but then so were some other technologies over the years. Fortunately for MathWorks, Java proved agile, mature and portable enough to enable mobile and online porting. This could explain the lack of Simulink GUI support, since Simulink GUI is still C++-based to a large extent. It might also explain the extra work done in HG2 in the graphic infrastructure (previously C++-based). After all, the basic MCOS graphic classes were available years ago, so if HG2 was only about a transition from double-value handles to MCOS, and some nice beautifications (anti-aliasing, CVD-aware colors etc.) then HG2 could be released long ago. Working on the underlying engine to make it portable could well explain HG2′s belated arrival.

So what does all this mean about Matlab’s future? Well, it appears to me that MathWorks’ apparent move towards SaaS (software as a service) and cloud-based computing is slightly belated, but quite evidently follows a general industry trend. In my eyes it heralds a move by MathWorks from desktop to online services, perhaps even to pay-per-use computing (as by Techila for example). The Matlab desktop will still be MathWorks’ bread and butter for many years to come. But the ability of Matlab programs to work either locally (on a Matlab client, either thin or thick) or online would be an enormous productivity benefit, in essence being a “killer feature” over Matlab’s competitors.

Technically, Matlab’s online integration could enable closer integration of online content in Matlab programs (esp. GUI). I’ve already shown how active web content can be displayed in Matlab GUI, but a closer integration could mean this might all become fully documented and integrated (recall Windows’ failed Active Desktop on one hand, but smart-phones’ enormously-successful active widgets on the other). It could also enable closer integration with online graphing services such as Plotly.

I for one, can’t wait to see this dream being realized. It’s not too far down the road, it would seem. I just hope that licensing and cost considerations won’t keep us from using it. MathWork’s recent Home License scheme seems to indicate that this is well understood by MathWorks, so I am highly optimistic :-)

Then again, all this might be pure baseless speculation. Time will tell.

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Categories: Desktop, Medium risk of breaking in future versions, Semi-documented feature

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2 Responses to Online (web-based) Matlab

  1. Amro says:

    Huge news! It seems everyone is building a cloud-based online version of their product (I’m thinking Wolfram Mathematica: http://www.wolfram.com/mathematica/online/)

    Looking around, I also found another service “Cody Coursework”: https://coursework.mathworks.com/

  2. Mickey says:

    I think that the online desktop is one issue, the lack of a web framework another issue.

    For the first, compare to rstudio, which is a great online desktop for R.

    R also has impressive web frameworks. Why is mathwork behind?

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<pre lang="matlab">
a = magic(3);
sum(a)
</pre>