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Mastering Solving Iterative Methods for Linear System of Equations In MATLAB

October 07, 2023
Dr. Benjamin Mathison
Dr. Benjamin Mathison
United States of America
Iterative Methods
Dr. Benjamin Mathison is a distinguished expert in the field of computational mathematics with a specialization in utilizing MATLAB for solving complex mathematical problems.

Linear systems of equations are ubiquitous in scientific and engineering disciplines. Whether you're studying physics, engineering, or data analysis, you'll encounter these systems in various forms. MATLAB, a versatile numerical computing environment, offers powerful tools for tackling these systems. In this blog post, we will explore the theoretical foundations of iterative methods for solving linear systems in MATLAB, equipping you with the necessary skills to complete your Linear Systems assignment. Specifically, we'll dive into the Gauss-Seidel method and the Conjugate Gradient method, providing you with the knowledge you need to excel in your university assignments.

Understanding Linear Systems of Equations

Linear systems of equations are fundamental mathematical constructs used to represent relationships between variables. At their core, these systems consist of equations involving linear combinations of variables. The standard form of a linear system is often written as:


Here's what these components represent:

  • A: This is a matrix containing coefficients. Each row of the matrix represents one equation, and each column corresponds to a different variable. The matrix A defines how each variable contributes to each equation.
  • x: This is a vector of unknowns. Each element of x represents the value we want to find for a specific variable.
  • b: This is a vector of constants. It contains the values on the right-hand side of each equation, representing the known information or constraints.
Iterative Methods for Linear System of Equations In MATLAB

The main objective in solving linear systems of equations is to determine the values of x that satisfy all the equations simultaneously. These systems are incredibly versatile and find applications in various fields, including physics, engineering, economics, and many others. They serve as a fundamental tool for modeling and solving real-world problems.

Direct vs. Iterative Methods for Solving Linear Systems

When faced with the task of solving linear systems of equations, mathematicians, engineers, and scientists have two main categories of methods at their disposal: direct methods and iterative methods. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, making them suited for different problem scenarios.

Direct Methods

  1. Precise Solutions: Direct methods, such as Gaussian Elimination or LU Decomposition, are renowned for their ability to provide precise and exact solutions for the vector x in Ax=b. These methods employ systematic mathematical manipulations to isolate and determine the values of each variable in the linear system.
  2. Algorithmic Approach: In the realm of direct methods, algorithms are devised to eliminate variables step by step until a unique solution is obtained. These algorithms guarantee the accuracy of the solution, making them valuable for applications where precision is of utmost importance.
  3. Computational Cost: However, direct methods can be computationally expensive, especially when dealing with large systems. The process of eliminating variables and performing matrix factorizations becomes more time-consuming as the system's size increases. This computational cost can make direct methods less practical for extensive calculations.
  4. MATLAB Functions: MATLAB, a widely-used numerical computing environment, offers built-in functions like inv() and linsolve() that implement direct methods. These functions provide a convenient way to obtain exact solutions to linear systems but may not be efficient for massive or ill-conditioned systems.

Iterative Methods

  1. Approximate Solutions: Iterative methods, in contrast, provide approximate solutions that progressively improve with each iteration. These methods are particularly advantageous in scenarios where the linear system exhibits specific characteristics.
  2. Large, Sparse, or Ill-Conditioned Systems: Iterative methods shine when dealing with large systems, where the direct approach becomes computationally impractical. They are also well-suited for sparse systems, which have mostly zero coefficients, and for ill-conditioned systems, which are numerically unstable with small changes leading to significant errors.
  3. Iteration Process: Iterative methods begin with an initial guess for the vector x and then iteratively refine this guess to approach the true solution. During each iteration, they employ various strategies to update the estimate of x until it converges to a satisfactory solution.
  4. MATLAB's Iterative Solvers: In MATLAB, users can take advantage of a range of iterative solvers specifically designed to handle different types of problem scenarios. These solvers are optimized for efficiency and convergence, making them suitable for a broad array of applications.

In summary, the choice between direct and iterative methods for solving linear systems depends on the specific characteristics of the problem at hand. Direct methods offer precise solutions and are ideal when accuracy is paramount. However, they can be computationally expensive for large or ill-conditioned systems. In contrast, iterative methods provide approximate solutions that are often sufficient for practical purposes, and they excel in scenarios where the linear system is large, sparse, or ill-conditioned. MATLAB's versatile set of iterative solvers empowers users to choose the method that best suits their computational needs, ensuring that linear systems can be effectively addressed in diverse fields of study and application.

The Gauss-Seidel Method: An Iterative Approach to Solving Linear Systems

The Gauss-Seidel method stands as one of the oldest and simplest iterative techniques used to solve linear systems of equations. Its distinctive feature is its iterative nature, which sets it apart from direct methods that provide exact solutions. Let's explore the Gauss-Seidel method, its fundamental principles, and why it is celebrated for its utility in solving linear systems.

  1. Initial Guess:
  2. The Gauss-Seidel method initiates with an initial guess for the vector x. This guess represents an estimate of the solution to the linear system Ax=b. The initial guess can be informed by prior knowledge of the problem or simply set to arbitrary values.

  3. Component Updates:
  4. The essence of the Gauss-Seidel method lies in how it updates the components of the vector x. Instead of attempting to compute all the components simultaneously, it updates each component using the current estimates of the other components. This means that the solution for one variable is immediately used to improve the estimate of the next variable.

    For example, when updating the value of x1, it utilizes the most recent estimates for x2, x3, and so on. This sequential approach ensures that each component's estimate is improved continuously as the iterations progress.

  5. Iteration:

    The Gauss-Seidel method repeats the component update process until convergence is achieved. Convergence occurs when the vector x approaches a solution that satisfies the original linear equations Ax=b to a satisfactory degree.

The convergence behavior of the Gauss-Seidel method is a key consideration. It can successfully converge for many linear systems, especially those with certain characteristics. However, it's important to note that convergence is not guaranteed for all systems. The method's effectiveness hinges on the properties of the coefficient matrix A.

Ease of Implementation in MATLAB:

One of the notable advantages of the Gauss-Seidel method is its simplicity and ease of implementation in MATLAB. The sequential nature of the updates aligns well with the programming structure of MATLAB, making it straightforward for users to write code that implements the method. Despite its simplicity, the Gauss-Seidel method can be a powerful tool for solving linear systems, especially when dealing with moderately sized systems where the computational cost of direct methods may be prohibitive.

The Gauss-Seidel method is a valuable addition to the toolkit of numerical techniques for solving linear systems. Its iterative approach, starting from an initial guess and progressively improving each component, makes it a practical choice for a wide range of problems. While it may not guarantee convergence for all linear systems, it often proves effective and efficient, particularly when implemented using the MATLAB environment. Understanding the principles of the Gauss-Seidel method equips students and professionals alike with a versatile method for tackling real-world problems in various fields of study and application.

The Conjugate Gradient Method

The Conjugate Gradient method represents a more advanced iterative approach, primarily tailored for linear systems with symmetric and positive-definite coefficient matrices. This method departs from the Gauss-Seidel's individual component updates and instead aims to minimize the residual error across the entire solution space:

  1. Initial Guess: Begin with an initial guess for the vector x.
  2. Residual and Search Direction: Compute the residual (r) and set the search direction (p) to be the same as the residual.
  3. Update: Update the vector x along the direction of p to minimize the residual.
  4. Iteration: Repeat steps 2 and 3 until convergence is achieved.

The Conjugate Gradient method excels when dealing with large and sparse systems and is widely applied in fields like image processing and machine learning due to its efficiency.

Understanding linear systems of equations and the methods for solving them, whether through direct or iterative approaches, is essential for various academic and practical endeavors. MATLAB's iterative solvers, including Gauss-Seidel and Conjugate Gradient, provide valuable tools for addressing complex problems in diverse fields. Armed with this knowledge, you can confidently approach assignments and real-world challenges that involve linear systems with a deep theoretical understanding of the methods at your disposal.

Comparing Gauss-Seidel and Conjugate Gradient


Gauss-Seidel may converge slowly or not at all for certain matrices, while Conjugate Gradient often converges faster, especially for well-behaved systems.


Gauss-Seidel is applicable to a broader range of matrices, including non-symmetric ones, although it may require more iterations. Conjugate Gradient shines when dealing with symmetric and positive-definite matrices.

Implementation Complexity

In MATLAB, both methods are relatively straightforward to implement. Gauss-Seidel is simpler as it updates components independently, whereas Conjugate Gradient demands additional calculations to maintain orthogonality.

Practical Considerations in Using Iterative Methods with MATLAB

When applying iterative methods for solving linear systems of equations in MATLAB, it's crucial to take into account several practical considerations. These considerations can significantly impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the solution process. Let's delve into these practical aspects:

  1. Preconditioning:
  2. Preconditioning is a technique used to enhance the convergence of iterative methods. It involves transforming the original linear system into an equivalent one with improved conditioning properties. In other words, preconditioning seeks to modify the problem in a way that makes it easier for the iterative method to find a solution.

    • Why is Preconditioning Important: Linear systems often exhibit varying degrees of ill-conditioning, where small changes in the input data can result in significant errors. Preconditioning helps mitigate these issues by rescaling and reordering the equations, effectively reducing the condition number of the system matrix. A lower condition number implies better-conditioned equations, making it easier for the iterative method to converge.
    • Common Preconditioning Techniques: MATLAB provides various preconditioners that can be applied to linear systems. These preconditioners aim to approximate the inverse of the system matrix A in a way that improves convergence. Some commonly used preconditioners include Jacobi, incomplete LU (ILU), and diagonal scaling.
  3. Stopping Criteria:
  4. Determining when to stop the iterative process is a critical aspect of using iterative methods effectively. Stopping too early may yield an inaccurate solution, while continuing iterations unnecessarily can be computationally expensive.

    Common Stopping Criteria: Two common stopping criteria are often employed:

    • Maximum Iterations: Specify a maximum number of iterations that the iterative method should perform. If convergence is not achieved within this limit, the process terminates.
    • Residual Tolerance: Define a tolerance level for the residual (the difference between the left-hand side Ax and the right-hand side b of the linear system). When the residual falls below this tolerance, the iterations stop. A smaller tolerance corresponds to a more accurate solution but may require more iterations.

    Choosing Appropriate Criteria: The choice of stopping criteria depends on the specific problem and the desired level of accuracy. It's essential to strike a balance between computational resources and solution accuracy.

  5. Initialization:
  6. The initial guess for the vector x can significantly impact the convergence of iterative methods. A poorly chosen initial guess may lead to slow convergence or even convergence failure.

    • Informed Initial Guess: It's often beneficial to provide an initial guess that is informed by problem knowledge or heuristics. For example, if you have prior information about the range or magnitude of the solution, you can use this information to initialize x.
    • Zero Vector Initialization: In some cases, initializing x with a zero vector or a vector of small random values can serve as a reasonable starting point. However, such guesses may require more iterations to converge.


In this blog post, we've delved into the theoretical foundations of iterative methods for solving linear systems in MATLAB, with a focus on the Gauss-Seidel and Conjugate Gradient methods. While direct methods guarantee precision, iterative methods provide efficient solutions for large, sparse, or ill-conditioned systems. Armed with this theoretical understanding, you're well-equipped to tackle your university assignments and real-world problems using MATLAB's versatile tools. Understanding when and how to employ these methods will not only boost your academic performance but also prepare you for success in your future endeavors. Happy problem-solving!

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