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How cpplab binds code

This document describes how cpplab binds C++ code to MATLAB objects. xolotl is based on cpplab, and the xolotl class inherits from the cpplab class. Thus, all xolotl objects are also cpplab objects.

The problem with existing approaches

MATLAB already has tools (codegen, mex which link C++ code to MATLAB. However, these approaches have limitations that prevent us from using C++ code to its full potential.

The limitations of codegen

The MATLAB codegen function automatically translates MATLAB code to C/C++. This translated code can be much faster.

However, codegen has several limitations:

  • it can only translate functions in MATLAB, and offers no support for object-oriented programming source
  • codegen respects the primacy of MATLAB code, and therefore means that generated C++ code cannot use features in C++ that do not exist in MATLAB like pointers.
  • codegen is also awfully slow, and generates a lot of junk files that clutter your disk

xolotl is a component-oriented neuron and network simulator. As such, these "components" (i.e., compartments, synapses, conductances and mechanisms) are objects with a distinct type that inherit from abstract classes that define them. If we were to use codegen, we would have to throw away the rich structure of the xolotl model tree and translate everything into a function, which would be very cumbersome.


Xolotl solves the problem of ease-of-use vs. computational efficiency by designing the integration environment "under-the-hood" in C++ and adding a robust simulation environment in MATLAB on top. This isn't just a pretty interface -- adding a compartment in xolotl actually changes C++ code. When the code is compiled, and when the integrate function is called in MATLAB, parameters are passed to the C++ function which is then run and the results returned in MATLAB.

In principle, the C++ code can be compiled and run by itself. However, xolotl offers a very rich suite of tools to make working with the model much easier, without ever having to leave MATLAB. A model can be written and inspected in the command window and integrated, with top-tier C++ speed, without the user having to touch any C++ code. All the transpiling and compiling happens silently behind the scene.

The main limitation of this approach is that only model components which have been pre-specified can be used. This means someone has to write out all the C++ code "beforehand", so that models can be constructed from these building blocks. A lot of work has already been done to provide hundreds of network components, and several functions and templates exist to auto-generate, or at least, vastly simplify, the process of creating new components.

We hope that as our user-base grows, users will contribute their custom network components, especially ones from published papers, which will be added to the growing database of components available for any xolotl model.

How cpplab works

A cpplab object is a MATLAB object that serves as a link between the MATLAB interface and the C++ backend. xolotl can run entirely without the cpplab system, simply by compiling and running a C++ binary, but this sacrifices most of the functionality of xolotl.

cpplab keeps a cache of the C++ header files that can be linked via cpplab to MATLAB objects. The object contains properties which keep track of the C++ class name, class path, constructor signature, and so on. In addition, each object and the C++ header file are hashed.

For example, here is a cpplab object created from the voltage-gated sodium channel from Liu et al. 1998:

>> obj = cpplab('liu/NaV')

obj =

 NaV object (34f0352) with:

             E : 30
          gbar : NaN
             m : NaN
             h : NaN

cpplab objects can be added to form a hierarchical or relational structure. All xolotl objects are of the MATLAB class, "cpplab".

The power of this system lies in your ability to tweak parameters interactively, without having to change any underlying C++ code. As long as the model structure is unchanged (i.e. no components are added/removed), parameters can be tuned freely in the MATLAB command prompt or in scripts.

How cpplab reads a C++ header file

cpplab reads C++ header files by reading the function signature of the class constructor. It looks for where public properties of the class are defined, and adds them as dynamic properties to the cpplab object in MATLAB.

Following the example above, here is the constructor for the liu/NaV.hpp header file:

NaV(double gbar_, double E_, double m_, double h_)
    gbar = gbar_;
    E = E_;
    m = m_;
    h = h_;

    // defaults
    if (isnan(gbar)) { gbar = 0; }
    if (isnan (E)) { E = 30; }

    p = 3;
    q = 1;


The cpplab parser finds the four properties it needs to add to the MATLAB object, and does so. Since a constructor is a function, cpplab can grab the properties and create a representation in MATLAB without having to actually decide on parameter values, compile, or run any C++ code.