Getting Started

Julia installation is straightforward, whether using precompiled binaries or compiling from source. Download and install Julia by following the instructions at http://julialang.org/downloads/.

The easiest way to learn and experiment with Julia is by starting an interactive session (also known as a read-eval-print loop or “repl”):

$ julia
               _
   _       _ _(_)_     |
  (_)     | (_) (_)    |  A fresh approach to technical computing.
   _ _   _| |_  __ _   |
  | | | | | | |/ _` |  |  Version 0 (pre-release)
  | | |_| | | | (_| |  |  Commit 61847c5aa7 (2011-08-20 06:11:31)*
 _/ |\__'_|_|_|\__'_|  |
|__/                   |

julia> 1 + 2
3

julia> ans
3

To exit the interactive session, type ^D — the control key together with the d key or type quit(). When run in interactive mode, julia displays a banner and prompts the user for input. Once the user has entered a complete expression, such as 1 + 2, and hits enter, the interactive session evaluates the expression and shows its value. If an expression is entered into an interactive session with a trailing semicolon, its value is not shown. The variable ans is bound to the value of the last evaluated expression whether it is shown or not.

To evaluate expressions written in a source file file.jl, write include("file.jl").

To run code in a file non-interactively, you can give it as the first argument to the julia command:

$ julia script.jl arg1 arg2...

As the example implies, the following command-line arguments to julia are taken as command-line arguments to the program script.jl, passed in the global constant ARGS. ARGS is also set when script code is given using the -e option on the command line (see the julia help output below). For example, to just print the arguments given to a script, you could do this:

$ julia -e 'for x in ARGS; println(x); end' foo bar
foo
bar

Or you could put that code into a script and run it:

$ echo 'for x in ARGS; println(x); end' > script.jl
$ julia script.jl foo bar
foo
bar

If you have code that you want executed whenever julia is run, you can put it in ~\.juliarc.jl:

$ echo 'println("Greetings! 你好! 안녕하세요?")' > ~/.juliarc.jl
$ julia
Greetings! 你好! 안녕하세요?

...

There are various ways to run Julia code and provide options, similar to those available for the perl and ruby programs:

julia [options] [program] [args...]
 -v --version             Display version information
 -q --quiet               Quiet startup without banner
 -H --home=<dir>          Load files relative to <dir>
 -T --tab=<size>          Set REPL tab width to <size>

 -e --eval=<expr>         Evaluate <expr>
 -E --print=<expr>        Evaluate and show <expr>
 -P --post-boot=<expr>    Evaluate <expr> right after boot
 -L --load=file           Load <file> right after boot on all processors
 -J --sysimage=file       Start up with the given system image file

 -p n                     Run n local processes
 --machinefile file       Run processes on hosts listed in file

 --no-history             Don't load or save history
 -f --no-startup          Don't load ~/.juliarc.jl
 -F                       Load ~/.juliarc.jl, then handle remaining inputs

 -h --help                Print this message

Noteworthy differences from MATLAB

MATLAB users may find Julia’s syntax familiar. However, Julia is in no way a MATLAB clone: there are major syntactic and functional differences. The following are some noteworthy differences that may trip up Julia users accustomed to MATLAB:

  • Arrays are indexed with square brackets, A[i,j].
  • The imaginary unit sqrt(-1) is represented in julia with im.
  • Multiple values are returned and assigned with parentheses, return (a, b) and (a, b) = f(x).
  • Values are passed and assigned by reference. If a function modifies an array, the changes will be visible in the caller.
  • Julia has 1-dimensional arrays. Column vectors are of size N, not Nx1. For example, rand(N) makes a 1-dimensional array.
  • Concatenating scalars and arrays with the syntax [x,y,z] concatenates in the first dimension (“vertically”). For the second dimension (“horizontally”), use spaces as in [x y z]. To construct block matrices (concatenating in the first two dimensions), the syntax [a b; c d] is used to avoid confusion.
  • Colons a:b and a:b:c construct Range objects. To construct a full vector, use linspace, or “concatenate” the range by enclosing it in brackets, [a:b].
  • Functions return values using the return keyword, instead of by listing their names in the function definition (see The return Keyword for details).
  • A file may contain any number of functions, and all definitions will be externally visible when the file is loaded.
  • Reductions such as sum, prod, and max are performed over every element of an array when called with a single argument as in sum(A).
  • Functions such as sort that operate column-wise by default (sort(A) is equivalent to sort(A,1)) do not have special behavior for 1xN arrays; the argument is returned unmodified since it still performs sort(A,1). To sort a 1xN matrix like a vector, use sort(A,2).
  • Parentheses must be used to call a function with zero arguments, as in tic() and toc().
  • Do not use semicolons to end statements. The results of statements are not automatically printed (except at the interactive prompt), and lines of code do not need to end with semicolons. The function println can be used to print a value followed by a newline.
  • If A and B are arrays, A == B doesn’t return an array of booleans. Use A .== B instead. Likewise for the other boolean operators, <, >, !=, etc.
  • The elements of a collection can be passed as arguments to a function using ..., as in xs=[1,2]; f(xs...).
  • Julia’s svd returns singular values as a vector instead of as a full diagonal matrix.

Noteworthy differences from R

One of Julia’s goals is to provide an effective language for data analysis and statistical programming. For users coming to Julia from R, these are some noteworthy differences:

  • Julia uses = for assignment. Julia does not provide any operator like <- or <<-.

  • Julia constructs vectors using brackets. Julia’s [1, 2, 3] is the equivalent of R’s c(1, 2, 3).

  • Julia’s matrix operations are more like traditional mathematical notation than R’s. If A and B are matrices, then A * B defines a matrix multiplication in Julia equivalent to R’s A %*% B. In R, this some notation would perform an elementwise Hadamard product. To get the elementwise multiplication operation, you need to write A .* B in Julia.

  • Julia performs matrix transposition using the ' operator. Julia’s A' is therefore equivalent to R’s t(A).

  • Julia does not require parentheses when writing if statements or for loops: use for i in [1, 2, 3] instead of for (i in c(1, 2, 3)) and if i == 1 instead of if (i == 1).

  • Julia does not treat the numbers 0 and 1 as Booleans. You cannot write if (1) in Julia, because if statements accept only booleans. Instead, you can write if true.

  • Julia does not provide nrow and ncol. Instead, use size(M, 1) for nrow(M) and size(M, 2) for ncol(M).

  • Julia’s SVD is not thinned by default, unlike R. To get results like R’s, you will often want to call svd(X, true) on a matrix X.

  • Julia is very careful to distinguish scalars, vectors and matrices. In R, 1 and c(1) are the same. In Julia, they can not be used interchangeably. One potentially confusing result of this is that x' * y for vectors x and y is a 1-element vector, not a scalar. To get a scalar, use dot(x, y).

  • Julia’s diag() and diagm() are not like R’s.

  • Julia cannot assign to the results of function calls on the left-hand of an assignment operation: you cannot write diag(M) = ones(n).

  • Julia discourages populating the main namespace with functions. Most statistical functionality for Julia is found in packages like the DataFrames and Distributions packages:
  • Julia provides tuples and real hash tables, but not R’s lists. When returning multiple items, you should typically use a tuple: instead of list(a = 1, b = 2), use (1, 2).

  • Julia encourages all users to write their own types. Julia’s types are much easier to use than S3 or S4 objects in R. Julia’s multiple dispatch system means that table(x::TypeA) and table(x::TypeB) act like R’s table.TypeA(x) and table.TypeB(x).

  • In Julia, values are passed and assigned by reference. If a function modifies an array, the changes will be visible in the caller. This is very different from R and allows new functions to operate on large data structures much more efficiently.

  • Concatenation of vectors and matrices is done using hcat and vcat, not c, rbind and cbind.

  • A Julia range object like a:b is not shorthand for a vector like in R, but is a specialized type of object that is used for iteration without high memory overhead. To convert a range into a vector, you need to wrap the range with brackets [a:b].

  • Julia has several functions that can mutate their arguments. For example, it has sort(v) and sort!(v).

  • colMeans() and rowMeans(), size(m, 1) and size(m, 2)

  • In R, performance requires vectorization. In Julia, almost the opposite is true: the best performing code is often achieved by using devectorized loops.

  • Unlike R, there is no delayed evaluation in Julia. For most users, this means that there are very few unquoted expressions or column names.

  • Julia does not support the NULL type.

  • There is no equivalent of R’s assign or get in Julia.