Python for Matlab Users

Matlab is a popular, proprietary programming language and tool suite with built in support for matrix operations and graphically plotting computation results. The purpose of this document is to introduce Python to those already familiar Matlab so it will be easier for them to develop tools and agents in VOLTTRON.

A Simple Function

Python and Matlab are similar in many respects, syntactically and semantically. With the addition of the NumPy library in Python, almost all numerical operations in Matlab can be emulated or directly translated. Here are functions in each language that perform the same operation:

% Matlab
function [result] = times_two(number)
    result = number * 2;
# Python
def times_two(number):
    result = number * 2
    return result

Some notes about the previous functions:

  1. Values are explicitly returned with the return statement. It is possible to return multiple values, as in Matlab, but doing this without a good reason can lead to overcomplicated functions.
  2. Semicolons are not used to end statements in python, and white space is significant. After a block is started (if, for, while, functions, classes) subsequent lines should be indented with four spaces. The block ends when the programmer stops adding the extra level of indentation.


The following may be helpful if you already have a Matlab file or function that will be translated into Python. Many of the syntactic differences between Matlab and Python can be rectified with your text editor’s find and replace feature.

Start by copying all of your Matlab code into a new file with a .py extension. I recommend commenting everything out and uncommenting the Matlab code in chunks. This way you can write valid Python and verify it as you translate, instead of waiting till the whole file is “translated”. Editors designed to work with Python should be able to highlight syntax errors for you as well.

  1. Comments are created with a %. Find and replace these with #.
  2. Change elseif blocks to elif blocks.
  3. Python indexes start at zero instead of one. Array slices and range operations, however, don’t include the upper bound, so only the lower bound should decrease by one.
  4. Semicolons in Matlab are used to suppress output at the end of lines and for organizing array literals. After arranging the arrays into nested lists, all semicolons can be removed.
  5. The end keyword in Matlab is used both to access the last element in an array and to close blocks. The array use case can be replaced with -1 and the others can be removed entirely.

A More Concrete Example

In the Building Economic Dispatch project, a sibling project to VOLTTRON, a number of components written in Matlab would create a matrix out of some collection of columns and perform least squares regression using the matrix division operator. This is straightforward and very similar in both languages so long as all of the columns are defined and are the same length.

% Matlab
XX = [U, xbp, xbp2, xbp3, xbp4, xbp5];
AA = XX \ ybp;
# Python
import numpy as np

XX = np.column_stack((U, xbp, xbp2, xbp3, xbp4, xbp5))
AA, resid, rank, s = np.linalg.lstsq(XX, ybp)

This pattern also included the creation of the U column, a column of ones used as the bias term in the linear equation. In order to make the Python version more readable and more robust, the pattern was removed from each component and replaced with a single function call to least_squares_regression.

This function does some validation on the input parameters, automatically creates the bias column, and returns the least squares solution to the system. Now if we want to change how the solution is calculated we only have to change the one function, instead of each instance where the pattern was written originally.

def least_squares_regression(inputs=None, output=None):
    if inputs is None:
        raise ValueError("At least one input column is required")
    if output is None:
        raise ValueError("Output column is required")

    if type(inputs) != tuple:
        inputs = (inputs,)

    ones = np.ones(len(inputs[0]))
    x_columns = np.column_stack((ones,) + inputs)

    solution, resid, rank, s = np.linalg.lstsq(x_columns, output)
    return solution

Lessons Learned (sometimes the hard way)

Variable Names

Use descriptive function and variable names whenever possible. The most important things to consider here are reader comprehension and searching. Consider a variable called hdr. Is it header without any vowels, or is it short for high-dynamic-range? Spelling out full words in variable names can save someone else a lot of guesswork.

Searching comes in when we’re looking for instances of a string or variable. Single letter variable names are impossible to search for. Variables with two or three characters are often not much better.

Matlab load/save

Matlab has built-in functions to automatically save and load variables from your programs to disk. Using these functions can lead to poor program design and should be avoided if possible. It would be best to refactor as you translate if they are being used. Few operations are so expensive that that cannot be redone every time the program is run. For part of the program that saves variables, consider making a function that simply returns them instead.

If your Matlab program is loading csv files then use the Pandas library when working in python. Pandas works well with NumPy and is the go-to library when using csv files that contain numeric data.

More Resources

NumPy for Matlab Users Has a nice list of common operations in Matlab and NumPy.

NumPy Homepage

Pandas Homepage