Make your Git repository interactive with Binder

Have you ever tried to demo a piece of software you wrote only to have the majority of participants get stuck when trying to configure their computational environment? Difficulty replicating computational environments can prevent effective demonstration or distribution of even simple codes. Luckily, new tools are emerging that automate this process for us. This post will focus on Binder, a tool for creating custom computing environments that can be distributed and used by many remote users simultaneously. Binder is language agnostic tool, and can be used to create custom environments for R, Python and Julia. Binder is powered by BinderHub, an open source service in the cloud. At the bottom of this post, I’ll provide an example of an interactive Python Jupyter Notebook that I created using BinderHub.


BinderHub combines two useful libraries: repo2docker and JupyterHub. repo2docker is a tool to build, run and push Docker images from source code repositories. This allows you to create copies of custom environments that users can replicate on any machine. These copies are can be stored and distributed along with the remote repository. JuptyerHub is a scalable system that can be used to spawn multiple Jupyter Notebook servers. JuptyerHub takes the Docker image created by repo2docker and uses it to spawn a Jupyter Notebook server on the cloud. This server can be accessed and run by multiple users at once. By combining repo2docker and JupyterHub, BinderHub allows users to both replicate complex environments and easily distribute code to large numbers of users.

Creating your own BinderHub deployment

Creating your own BinderHub deployment is incredibly easy. To start, you need a remote repository containing two things: (1) a Jupyter notebook with supporting code and (2) configuration files for your environment. Configuration files can either be an environment.yml file (a standard configuration file that can be generated with conda, see example here) or a requirements.txt file (a simple text file that lists dependencies, see example here).

To create an interactive BinderHub deployment:

  1. Push your code to a remote repository (for example Github)
  2. Go to and paste the repository’s URL into the dialoge box (make sure to select the proper hosting service)
  3. Specify the branch if you are not on the Master
  4. Click “Launch”

The website will generate a URL that you can copy and share with users. I’ve created an example for our Rhodium tutorial, which you can find here:

To run the interactive Jupyter Notebook, click on the file titled “Rhodium_Demo.ipynb”. Happy sharing!

From MATLAB to Julia: Insights from Translating an Opensource Kirsch-Nowak Streamflow Generator to Julia

A quick look into translating code: speed comparisons, practicality, and comments

As I am becoming more and more familiar with Julia—an open-source programming language—I’ve been attracted to translate code to not only run it on an opensource and free language but also to test its performance. Since Julia was made to be an open source language made to handle matrix operations efficiently (when compared to other high-level opensource languages), finding a problem to utilize these performance advantages only makes sense.

As with any new language, understanding how well it performs relative to the other potential tools in your toolbox is vital. As such, I decided to use a problem that is easily scalable and can be directly compare the performances of MATLAB and Julia—the Kirsch-Nowak synthetic stationary streamflow generator.

So, in an effort to sharpen my understanding of the Kirsch-Nowak synthetic stationary streamflow generator created by Matteo GiulianiJon Herman and Julianne Quinn, I decided to take on this project of converting from this generator from MATLAB. This specific generator takes in historical streamflow data from multiple sites (while assuming stationarity) and returns a synthetically generated daily timeseries of streamflow. For a great background on synthetic streamflow generation, please refer to this post by Jon Lamontagne.

Model Description

The example is borrowed from Julie’s code utilizes data from the Susquehanna River flows (cfs) at both Marietta (USGS station 01576000) and Muddy Run along with lateral inflows (cfs) between Marietta and Conowingo Damn (1932-2001). Additionally, evaporation rates (in/day) over the Conowingo and Muddy Run Dams (from an OASIS model simulation) utilized. The generator developed by Kirsch et al. (2013) utilizes a Cholesky decomposition to create a monthly synthetic record which preserves the autocorrelation structure of the historical data. The method proposed by Nowak et al. (2010) is then used to disaggregate to daily flows (using a historical month +/- 7 days). A full description of the methods can be found at this link.

Comparing Julia and MATLAB

Comparison of Performance between Julia and MATLAB

To compare the speeds of each language, I adapted the MATLAB code into Julia (shown here) on as nearly of equal basis as possible. I attempted to keep the loops, data structures, and function formulation as similar as possible, even calling similar libraries for any given function. julia_matlab_streamflow

When examining the performance between Julia (solid lines) and MATLAB (dashed lines), there is only one instance where MATLAB(x) outperformed Julia(+)—in the 10-realization, 1000-year simulation shown in the yellow dots in the upper left. Needless to say, Julia easily outperformed MATLAB in all other situations and required only 53% of the time on average (all simulations considered equal). However, Julia was much proportionally faster at lower dimensions of years (17-35% of the time required) than MATLAB. This is likely because I did not handle arrays optimally—the code could likely be sped up even more.

Considerations for Speeding Up Code

Row- Versus Column-Major Array Architecture

It is worth knowing how a specific language processes its arrays/matrices. MATLAB and Julia are both column-major languages, meaning the sequential indexes and memory paths are grouped by descending down row by row through a column then going through the next column. On the other hand, Numpy in Python specifically uses row-major architecture. The Wikipedia article on this is brief but well worthwhile for understanding these quirks.

This is especially notable because ensuring that proper indexing and looping methods are followed can substantially speed up code. In fact, it is likely that the reason Julia slowed down significantly on a 10-realization 1000-year simulation when compared to both its previous performances and MATLAB because of how the arrays were looped through. As a direct example shown below, when exponentiating through a [20000, 20000] array row-by-row took approximately 47.7 seconds while doing the same operation column-by-column only took 12.7 seconds.


Dealing with Arrays

Simply put, arrays and matrices in Julia are a pain compared to MATLAB. As an example of the bad and the ugly, unlike in MATLAB where you can directly declare any size array you wish to work with, you must first create an array and then fill the array with individual array in Julia. This is shown below where an array of arrays is initialized below.  However, once an array is established, Julia is extremely fast in loops, so dealing with filling a previously established array makes for a much faster experience.

# initialize output
qq = Array{Array}(undef, num_sites) #(4, 100, 1200)

for i = 1:num_sites
     qq[i] = Array{Float64}(undef, nR, nY * 12)

Once the plus side  when creating arrays, Julia is extremely powerful in its ability to assign variable types to the components of a given array. This can drastically speed up your code during the day. Shown below, it is easy to the range of declarations and assignments being made to populate the array. There’s an easy example of declaring an array with zeros, and another where we’re populating an array using slices of another. Note the indexing structure for Qd_cg in the second loop–it is not technically a 3-D array but rather a 2-D array nested within a 1-D array–showing the issues mentioned prior.

delta = zeros(n_totals)
for i = 1:n_totals
     for j = 1:n_sites
          delta[i] += (Qtotals[month][j][i] - Z[j]) ^ 2

q_ = Array{Float64, 2}(undef, num_realizations[k], 365 * num_years[k])
for i = 1: Nsites
     # put into array of [realizations, 365*num_yrs]
     for j = 1: num_realizations[k]
          q_[j, :] = Qd_cg[j][:, i]'

Code Profiling: Order of Experiments

An interesting observation I’ve noticed is that Julia’s first run on a given block of code is substantially slower than every other attempt. Thus, it is likely worthwhile to run a smaller-scale array through to initialize the code if there are plans to move on to substantially more expensive operations (i.e. scaling up).

In the example below, we can see that the second iteration of the same exact code was over 10% faster when calling it a second time. However, when running the code without the function wrapper (in the original timed runs), the code was 10% faster (177 seconds) than the second sequential run shown below. This points to the importance of profiling and experimenting with sections of your code.


Basic profiling tools are directly built into Julia, as shown in the Julia profiling documentation. This can be visualized easily using the ProfileView library. The Juno IDE (standard with Julia Pro) allegedly has a good built-in profile as well. However, it should be expected that most any IDE should do the trick (links to IDEs can be found here).

Syntax and Library Depreciation

While Julia is very similar in its structure and language to MATLAB, much of the similar language has depreciated as Julia has been rapidly upgraded. Notably, Julia released V1.0 in late 2018 and recently released V1.1, moving further away from similarities in function names. Thus, this stands as a lesson for individuals wishing to translate all of their code between these languages. I found a useful website that assists in translating general syntax, but many of the functions have depreciated. However, as someone who didn’t have any experience with MATLAB but was vaguely familiar with Julia, this was a godsend for learning differences in coding styles.

For example, creating an identity matrix in MATLAB utilizes the function eye(size(R)) to create an nxn matrix the size of R. While this was initially the language used in Julia, this specific language was depreciated in V0.7. To get around this, either ‘I’ can be used to create a scalable identity matrix or Matrix{Float64}(I, size(R), size(R)) declare an identity matrix of size(R) by size(R) for a more foolproof and faster operation.

When declaring functions, I have found Julia to be relatively straightforward and Pythonic in its declarations. While I still look to insert colons at the ends of declarations while forgetting to add ‘end’ at the end of functions, loops, and more, the ease of creating, calling, and interacting with functions makes Julia very accessible.  Furthermore, its ability to interact with matrices in without special libraries (e.g. Numpy in Python) allows for more efficient coding without having to know specific library notation.

Debugging Drawbacks

One of the most significant drawbacks I run into when using Julia is the lack of clarity in generated error codes for common mistakes, such as adding extra brackets. For example, the following error code is generated in Python when adding an extra parenthesis at the end of an expression.3333

However, Julia produces the follow error for an identical mistake:


One simple solution to this is to simply upgrade my development environment from Jupyter Notebooks to a general IDE to more easily root out issues by running code line-by-line. However, I see the lack of clarity in showing where specific errors arise a significant drawback to development within Julia. However, as shown in the example below where an array has gone awry, an IDE (such as Atom shown below) can make troubleshooting and debugging a relative breeze.


Furthermore, when editing auxiliary functions in another file or module that was loaded as a library, Julia is not kind enough to simply reload and recompile the module; to get it to properly work in Atom, I had to shut down the Julia kernel then rerun the entirety of the code. Since Julia takes a bit to initially load and compile libraries and code, this slows down the debugging process substantially. There is a specific package (Revise) that exists to take care of this issue, but it is not standard and requires loading this specific library into your code.

GitHub Repositories: Streamflow Generators

PyMFGM: A parallelized Python version of the code, written by Bernardo Trindade

Kirsch-Nowak Stationary Generator in MATLAB: Developed by Matteo GiulianiJon Herman and Julianne Quinn

Kirsch-Nowak Stationary Generator in Julia: Please note that the results are not validated. However, you can easily access the Jupyter Notebook version to play around with the code in addition to running the code from your terminal using the main.jl script.

Full Kirsch-Nowak Streamflow Generator: Also developed by Matteo GiulianiJon Herman and Julianne Quinn and can handle rescaling flows for changes due to monsoons. I would highly suggest diving into this code alongside the relevant blog posts: Part 1 (explanation), Part 2 (validation).

Introducing Julia: A Fast and Modern Language

In this blog post, I am introducing Julia, a high-level open-source dynamic programming language. While it has taken root in finance, machine learning, life sciences, energy, optimization, and economic realms, it is certainly not common within the water programming realm. Through this post, I will give an overview of the features, pros, and cons of Julia before comparing its performance to Python. Following this, I give an overview of common Julia development environments as well as linking to additional resources.

Julia: What’s Going On?

Julia is a high-level open-source dynamic programming language built for scientific computing and data processing that is Pythonic in syntax to ensure accessibility while boosting computational efficiency.  It is parallelizable on high performance computing resources utilizing CPUs and GPUs, allowing for its use in large-scale experiments.

With Version 1.1.0 recently released, Julia now stands amongst the established and stable programming languages. As such, Julia can handle matrices with ease while performing at speeds nearly comparable to C and Fortran. It is comparable to Cython/Numba and faster than Numpy, Python, Matlab, and R. Note that further benchmarking is required on a project-specific basis due to the speed of individual packages/libraries, but a simple case is shown in the following section.

The biggest case for implementing Julia over C/C++/Fortran is its simplicity in writing and implementation. Its language is similar Python, allowing for not only list comprehension but also ‘sloppy’ dynamic variable type declarations and use. Julia has the ability to move between dynamic and static variable types. Furthermore, Julia allows users to create unique variable types, allowing for maximum flexibility while maintaining efficiency.

Installing and implementing packages from the start is nearly seamless, simply requiring the name of the package and an internet connection. Most packages and libraries are hosted on GitHub and are relatively straightforward to install with just a couple lines of code. On the same hand, distributing and contributing to the opensource community is straightforward. Furthermore, Julia can access Python modules with wrappers and C/Fortran functions without, making it a very versatile language. Likewise, it can easily be called from Python (PyJulia) to speed up otherwise cumbersome operations.

Julia has relatively straightforward profiling modules built in. Beyond being able to utilize Jupyter Notebook commands, Julia has a range of code diagnostic tools, such as a @Time command to inform the user of wall time and memory allocation for a function.

One of the most obvious downsides to Julia when compared to Python is the relatively small community. There is not nearly the base of documentation that I am accustomed to; nearly every issue imaginable in the Python world has been explored on Stack Overflow, Julia is much more limited. However, because much of its functionality is based on MATLAB, similar issues and their corresponding solutions bleed over.

Additional transition issues that may be encountered is that unlike Python, Julia’s indexing begins with 1. Furthermore, Julia uses column-major ordering (like Matlab, Fortran, and R) unlike Python and C (row-major ordering), making iterating column-by-column substantially faster. Thus, special care must be taken when switching between languages in addition to ensuring consistent strategies for speeding up code. Another substantial transition that may be required is that Julia is not directly object-oriented since objects do not directly have embedded methods; instead, a given object must be passed to a function to be modified.

Overall, I see Julia as having the potential to improve computational efficiency for computationally-intensive models without the need to learn a more complex language (e.g. Fortran or C/C++). Between its ease of integration between other common languages/libraries to its ability to properly utilize HPC CPU/GPU resources, Julia may be a useful tool to utilize alongside Python to create more efficient large-scale models.

Julia Allows for Faster Matrix Operations

As a simple test to compare scalability of Julia and Python, I computed the dot product of increasingly large matrices using the base Julia language and Numpy in Python (both running in Jupyter Notebooks on a Windows desktop). You can find the code at the following link on Github.


As you can see in the generated figure, Julia outperforms Python for large matrix applications, indicating that Julia is more efficient and may be worth using for larger and larger operations. If you have any suggestions on improving this code for comparison, please let me know; I am absolutely game for improvement.

Development Environments for Julia

The first and most obvious variables on what development environment is best is you, the user. If you’re wanting all the bells and whistles versus a simple text-editing environment, the range of products to fulfill you desires exists.

Juno—an extension to Atom—is the default IDE that is incorporated with JuliaPro, a pre-packaged version of Julia that includes a range of standard packages—Anaconda is the parallel in the Python world.

Jupyter Notebooks  are my go-to development environment for experimenting with code in both Python and Julia, especially for testing small sections of code.  Between being able to easily create visuals and examples inline with your code and combining code with Markdown, it allows for clean and interactive approach to sharing code or teaching. Note that installation generally requires IJulia but can allow for easy integration into already existing Jupyter workflows.

JetBrains IDEs (e.g. CLion, PyCharm) support a Julia plugin that supports a wide range of the same features JetBrains is known for. However, it is still in beta and is working to improve its formatter and debugging capabilities.

JuliaBox is an online web interface using Jupyter Notebooks for code development on a remote server, requiring no local installation of Julia. Whether you are in a classroom setting, wanting to write code on your phone, or are just wanting to experiment with parallel computing (or don’t have access to HPC resources), JuliaBox allows for a nearly seamless setup experience. However, note that this development environment limits each session to 90 minutes (up to 8 hours on a paid subscription) and requires a subscription to access any resources beyond 3 CPU cores. Note that you can access GPU instances with a paid subscription.

Julia Studio is a default IDE used by a range of users. It is a no-frills IDE based on Qt Creator, resulting in a clean look.

For anyone looking to use Visual Studio, you can install a VS Code extension.

Vim is not surprisingly available for Julia.  And if you’re feeling up the challenge, Emacs also has an interface.

Of course, you can just use a texteditor of your choice (e.g. Sublime Text with an extension) and simply run Julia from the terminal.

Julia Resources


Thanks to Dave Gold for his assistance in giving guidance for benchmarking and reminding me of the KISS principle.