In the subfield of numerical analysis, a sparse matrix is a matrix populated primarily with zeros .
Conceptually, sparsity corresponds to systems which are loosely coupled. Consider a line of balls connected by springs from one to the next; this is a sparse system. By contrast, if the same line of balls had springs connecting each ball to all other balls, the system would be represented by a dense matrix. The concept of sparsity is useful in combinatorics and application areas such as network theory, which have a low density of significant data or connections.
Huge sparse matrices often appear in science or engineering when solving partial differential equations.
When storing and manipulating sparse matrices on a computer, it is beneficial and often necessary to use specialized algorithms and data structures that take advantage of the sparse structure of the matrix. Operations using standard dense matrix structures and algorithms are slow and consume large amounts of memory when applied to large sparse matrices. Sparse data is by nature easily compressed, and this compression almost always results in significantly less computer data storage usage. Indeed, some very large sparse matrices are infeasible to manipulate with the standard dense algorithms.
The native data structure for a matrix is a two-dimensional array. Each entry in the array represents an element ai,j of the matrix and can be accessed by the two indices i and j. For an m×n matrix, enough memory to store at least (m×n) entries to represent the matrix is needed.
Substantial memory requirement reductions can be realized by storing only the non-zero entries. Depending on the number and distribution of the non-zero entries, different data structures can be used and yield huge savings in memory when compared to a native approach.
Formats can be divided into two groups: (1) those that support efficient modification, and (2) those that support efficient matrix operations. The efficient modification group includes DOK, LIL, and COO and is typically used to construct the matrix. Once the matrix is constructed, it is typically converted to a format, such as CSR or CSC, which is more efficient for matrix operations.
A sparse matrix is a matrix that allows special techniques to take advantage of the large number of zero elements. This definition helps to define "how many" zeros a matrix needs in order to be "sparse." The answer is that it depends on what the structure of the matrix is, and what you want to do with it. For example, a randomly generated sparse matrix with entries scattered randomly throughout the matrix is not sparse in the sense of Wilkinson (for direct methods) since it takes time to factorize (with high probability and for large enough ; Gilbert et al. 1992).
If a matrix A is stored in ordinary (dense) format, then the command S = sparse(A) creates a copy of the matrix stored in sparse format. For example:
>> A = [0 0 1;1 0 2;0 -3 0]
0 0 1
1 0 2
0 -3 0
>> S = sparse(A)
Name Size Bytes Class
A 3x3 72 double array
S 3x3 64 sparse array
Grand total is 13 elements using 136 bytes
Unfortunately, this form of the sparse command is not particularly useful, since if A is large, it can be very time-consuming to first create it in dense format. The command S = sparse(m,n) creates an zero matrix in sparse format. Entries can then be added one-by-one: