Tuesday, February 24, 2015

RCall: Running an embedded R in Julia

I have used R (and S before it) for a couple of decades. In the last few years most of my coding has been in Julia, a language for technical computing that can provide remarkable performance for a dynamically typed language via Just-In-Time (JIT) compilation of functions and via multiple dispatch.

Nonetheless there are facilities in R that I would like to have access to from Julia. I created the RCall package for Julia to do exactly that. This IJulia notebook provides an introduction to RCall.

This is not a novel idea by any means. Julia already has PyCall and JavaCall packages that provide access to Python and to Java. These packages are used extensively and are much more sophisticated than RCall, at present. Many other languages have facilities to run an embedded instance of R. In fact, Python has several such interfaces.

The things I plan to do using RCall is to access datasets from R and R packages, to fit models that are not currently implemented in Julia and to use R graphics, especially the ggplot2 and lattice packages. Unfortunately I am not currently able to start a graphics device from the embedded R but I expect that to be fixed soon.

I can tell you the most remarkable aspect of RCall although it may not mean much if you haven't tried to do this kind of thing. It is written entirely in Julia. There is absolutely no "glue" code written in a compiled language like C or C++. As I said, this may not mean much to you unless you have tried to do something like this, in which case it is astonishing.