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Why MLOps matters: bridging the gap between Machine Learning and Operations

MLOps and DevOps

This piece will delve into MLOps (Machine Learning Operations) and its relationship with DevOps (Development Operations). We will explore the motivation behind MLOps, the challenges it shares with DevOps, and the unique hurdles it encounters. Additionally, we will examine the key components that comprise an MLOps framework. So, let us dive in and discover the world of MLOps together!

In this article, we will cover:

  • The driving factors for MLOps
  • The overlapping issues between MLOps and DevOps
  • The unique challenges in MLOps compared to DevOps
  • The integral parts of an MLOps structure

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The driving factors for MLOps

In the process of deploying machine learning (ML) models in real-world business environments, the work done by data scientists is just a tiny part of the bigger picture. For ML models to be implemented effectively, data scientists must collaborate closely with various teams, including those from business, engineering, and operations. However, this collaboration can pose organizational challenges, specifically regarding communication, collaboration, and coordination.

A discipline called MLOps (Machine Learning Operations) has emerged to address these challenges. MLOps aims to streamline the deployment process by implementing proven practices. Doing so helps organizations overcome the obstacles when different teams need to work together. Additionally, MLOps brings agility and speed, crucial factors in today’s fast-paced digital landscape.

The actual ML code represents only a tiny part of the entire system in real-world ML systems. It is like a small box in the middle of a much larger and more complex infrastructure needed to support it.

The overlapping issues between MLOps and DevOps

The challenges in operationalizing ML models share many similarities with software production, where DevOps has demonstrated its effectiveness. Therefore, it is wise for data scientists to adopt the best practices from DevOps to address the common challenges faced in software production. One such method is embracing the agile methodology promoted by DevOps, which offers significant efficiency advantages compared to the traditional waterfall methodology. This approach promotes iterative and collaborative development, allowing faster and more adaptable progress.

In addition to agile methodology, various DevOps practices benefit MLOps. These practices are outlined in Table 1, which provides a comprehensive list of techniques to streamline the operationalization of ML models.

Challenges in operationalizing ML models DevOps-driven solution
Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD): Implementing a CI/CD pipeline enables the seamless and secure integration of updates into production. It ensures that the ML models are built, tested, and ready for deployment accurately and efficiently. Implementing a CI/CD framework allows us to build, test, and deploy software seamlessly. This approach brings many benefits, such as ensuring reproducibility, bolstering security measures, and controlling code versions tightly.
The process of taking models and algorithms developed by Data Scientists and deploying them into production is often lengthy. One of the main reasons for this is the lack of coordination and proper handoff between the Data Science and operations teams. When there isn't effective communication and collaboration between these two parties, it can result in delays and mistakes during the deployment phase. These delays and errors can cause frustration and consume valuable time and resources. The agile methodology comes to the rescue when coordinating complex projects. It does so by breaking them down into manageable sprints. During each sprint, developers deliver incremental features that are ready for deployment. The best part? The entire team gets visibility into the output from each sprint thanks to well-defined pipelines. This early and continuous feedback loop significantly reduces the risk of last-minute surprises and encourages a collaborative environment. In simple terms, it helps us tackle coordination challenges head-on and ensures smooth sailing throughout the project.
Another challenge is the ineffective communication between different teams involved in the ML project. Typically, development teams work in isolated silos without much interaction with other stakeholders. This means the final ML solution often remains a mysterious black box to those not directly involved in its development. This lack of transparency and limited feedback throughout the process can cause significant delays in reaching a final solution. It becomes difficult to address issues and make necessary adjustments without timely input from all relevant parties. As a result, the project can suffer from wasted time, effort, and resources, which could have been avoided with better communication and team collaboration.

The unique challenges in MLOps compared to DevOps

MLOps, often called the DevOps of machine learning, aims to address the unique challenges faced in ML. While MLOps shares some similarities with traditional software engineering practices, distinct aspects of ML require specialized solutions. One of these challenges revolves around the role of data. In standard software, developers write code that follows fixed logic and rules. However, data scientists craft code in machine learning that utilizes parameters to solve specific business problems. These parameter values are derived from data, often using techniques like gradient descent. What makes it interesting is that these parameter values can change with different versions of the data, subsequently altering the code’s behavior. In other words, the data is as important as the code in shaping the output.

Moreover, the data and the code can change independently, adding complexity. This creates a layered complexity around data, which needs to be carefully defined and tracked alongside the model code as an intrinsic part of the ML software. MLOps platforms play a crucial role in managing these intricacies and ensuring that the code and the data are properly handled throughout the ML lifecycle.

The MLOps platform addresses several challenges that require attention, summarized in Table 2.
Challenges specific to machine learning (ML) Description
1-Managing data and hyperparameters versions In traditional software applications, version control tools are widely used to keep track of code changes. This practice ensures reproducibility and supports automated processes like continuous integration (CI), where modifications in the code trigger tasks such as building, testing, and delivering production-ready software. However, in Machine Learning (ML), the output model can be influenced by changes in algorithm code or hyper-parameters and variations in the underlying data. While developers have control over the code and hyper-parameters, managing changes in data may present a unique challenge. Therefore, it becomes essential to introduce the concept of data and hyperparameters versioning in addition to code versioning. It is worth noting that handling data versioning, especially for unstructured data like images and audio, requires specialized approaches adopted by MLOps platforms.
2-Supporting iterative development and experimentation In Machine Learning (ML), algorithm and model development is an iterative and experimental process. It involves fine-tuning parameters and performing feature engineering to optimize performance. ML pipelines operate with different versions of data, algorithm code, and hyper-parameters. Whenever any of these components change (independently), it triggers the creation of new model versions ready for deployment, leading to further experimentation and metrics evaluation. MLOps platforms play a crucial role in tracking the complete lineage of these artifacts, ensuring transparency and facilitating the iterative nature of ML development and experimentation.
3-Testing In Machine Learning, catching any issues as early as possible in the ML pipeline is essential. Here are a few critical steps for that: a) Data validation: We need to ensure that the data we're working with is clean and has no anomalies. Additionally, when new data comes in, we want to ensure that it follows the same patterns as the data we used before. This helps us maintain consistency and reliability in our models. b) Data preprocessing: It is crucial to preprocess the data efficiently and scalable. This step involves transforming and organizing the data so our models can understand. By doing this correctly, we can avoid discrepancies between the data used for training and the data used for making predictions. We want to minimize any differences that could cause problems later on. c) Algorithm validation: Here, we focus on tracking specific metrics for classification or regression tasks that align with the business problem we are trying to solve. We want to ensure our algorithms perform well and meet the desired outcomes. We also pay attention to algorithm fairness, ensuring our models are not biased or discriminatory in their predictions. These steps help us identify and address potential issues early in the Machine Learning process, allowing us to build robust and reliable models.
4-Security When ML models are deployed in production, they are often integrated into larger systems where their outputs are utilized by various applications, some of which may be unfamiliar. This exposes potential security risks. To mitigate these risks, MLOps must focus on providing security measures and access control. The goal is to ensure that the outputs of ML models are only accessed and used by authorized users, minimizing the chances of unauthorized access or misuse.
5-Production monitoring When ML models are in production, it is essential to continuously monitor their performance to ensure they meet expectations while processing new data. Monitoring involves various aspects, including detecting covariate shifts and prior shifts. These monitoring dimensions help us track any changes in the distribution of input data and the model's underlying assumptions. By actively monitoring these factors, we can identify and address any deviations or issues that may arise, allowing us to maintain the model's effectiveness and reliability over time.
6-Infrastructure requirement Machine learning applications require significant scalability and computational power, leading to the development of complex infrastructures. During the experimentation phase, the utilization of GPUs might be crucial, and the need for dynamic production scaling may arise.

The integral parts of an MLOps structure

Discovery stage: The first step is for the business and data scientists to work together and identify a specific problem that needs to be solved. They collaborate closely to define the problem statement and objectives so that machine learning techniques can address them. They also identify key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the solution’s success.

Data Engineering: Once the problem is defined, data engineers and data scientists team up to gather data from various sources. They work together to process and validate the data, ensuring it is clean and in a suitable format for modeling. This involves cleaning up the data and transforming it into a usable form.

Machine learning pipeline: After the data is prepared, the next step is to design and deploy a pipeline that supports continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD). Data scientists use this pipeline to conduct multiple experiments and tests. It is like a structured workflow that keeps track of the data, model lineage, and associated KPIs across different experiments.

Production deployment: Once the solution is developed, the focus shifts to deploying it securely and seamlessly onto a production server. This could be a server hosted on a public cloud, on-premise, or hybrid environment. The goal is to ensure the solution is accessible and operational for real-world use.

Production monitoring: Once the solution is deployed, it enters the monitoring phase. This involves keeping a close eye on both the deployed model and the underlying infrastructure. The models are continuously monitored using predefined KPIs, such as input data distribution changes or model performance variations. If specific triggers are met, it prompts further experimentation with new algorithms, data, and hyperparameters, leading to an improved version of the machine learning pipeline. Additionally, the infrastructure is monitored to ensure it meets the memory and computing requirements and can be scaled up or down as needed.

💡 Learn more about MLOps issues and the potential solutions that can help tackle these challenges  → https://hystax.com/what-are-the-main-challenges-of-the-mlops-process/

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