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Version: 0.9.5

VowpalWabbit on Apache Spark


VowpalWabbit (VW) is a machine learning system which pushes the frontier of machine learning with techniques such as online, hashing, allreduce, reductions, learning2search, active, and interactive learning. VowpalWabbit is a popular choice in ad-tech due to it's speed and cost efficacy. Furthermore it includes many advances in the area of reinforcement learning (e.g. contextual bandits).

Advantages of VowpalWabbit

  • Composability: VowpalWabbit models can be incorporated into existing SparkML Pipelines, and used for batch, streaming, and serving workloads.
  • Small footprint: VowpalWabbit memory consumption is rather small and can be controlled through '-b 18' or setNumBits method.
    This determines the size of the model (e.g. 2^18 * some_constant).
  • Feature Interactions: Feature interactions (e.g. quadratic, cubic,... terms) are created on-the-fly within the most inner learning loop in VW. Interactions can be specified by using the -q parameter and passing the first character of the namespaces that should be interacted. The VW namespace concept is mapped to Spark using columns. The column name is used as namespace name, thus one sparse or dense Spark ML vector corresponds to the features of a single namespace. To allow passing of multiple namespaces the VW estimator (classifier or regression) expose an additional property called additionalFeatures. Users can pass an array of column names.
  • Simple deployment: all native dependencies are packaged into a single jars (including boost and zlib).
  • VowpalWabbit command line arguments: users can pass VW command line arguments to control the learning process.
  • VowpalWabbit binary models Users can supply an inital VowpalWabbit model to start the training which can be produced outside of VW on Spark by invoking setInitialModel and pass the model as a byte array. Similarly users can access the binary model by invoking getModel on the trained model object.
  • Java-based hashing VWs version of murmur-hash was re-implemented in Java (praise to JackDoe) providing a major performance improvement compared to passing input strings through JNI and hashing in C++.
  • Cross language VowpalWabbit on Spark is available on Spark, PySpark, and SparklyR.

Limitations of VowpalWabbit on Spark

  • Linux and CentOS only The native binaries included with the published jar are built Linux and CentOS only. We're working on creating a more portable version by statically linking Boost and lib C++.
  • Limited Parsing Features implemented in the native VW parser (e.g. ngrams, skips, ...) are not yet implemented in VowpalWabbitFeaturizer.


In PySpark, you can run the VowpalWabbitClassifier via:

from import VowpalWabbitClassifier
model = (VowpalWabbitClassifier(numPasses=5, args="--holdout_off --loss_function logistic")

Similarly, you can run the VowpalWabbitRegressor:

from import VowpalWabbitRegressor
model = (VowpalWabbitRegressor(args="--holdout_off --loss_function quantile -q :: -l 0.1")

Through the args parameter you can pass command line parameters to VW as documented in the VW Wiki.

For an end to end application, check out the VowpalWabbit notebook example.

Hyper-parameter tuning

  • Common parameters can also be set through methods enabling the use of SparkMLs ParamGridBuilder and CrossValidator (example). Note if the same parameters are passed through args property (e.g. args="-l 0.2" and setLearningRate(0.5)) the args value will take precedence. parameter
  • learningRate
  • numPasses
  • numBits
  • l1
  • l2
  • powerT
  • interactions
  • ignoreNamespaces


VowpalWabbit on Spark uses an optimized JNI layer to efficiently support Spark. Java bindings can be found in the VW GitHub repo.

VWs command line tool uses a 2-thread architecture (1x parsing/hashing, 1x learning) for learning and inference. To fluently embed VW into the Spark ML eco system the following adaptions were made:

  • VW classifier/regressor operates on Spark's dense/sparse vectors

    • Pro: best composability with existing Spark ML components.
    • Cons: due to type restrictions (e.g. feature indicies are Java integers) the maximum model size is limited to 30-bits. One could overcome this restriction by adding additional type support to the classifier/regressor to directly operate on input features (e.g. strings, int, double, ...).
  • VW hashing is separated out into the VowpalWabbitFeaturizer transformer. It supports mapping Spark Dataframe schema into VWs namespaces and sparse features.

    - Pro: featurization can be scaled to many nodes, scale independent of distributed learning.
    - Pro: hashed features can be cached and efficiently re-used when performing hyper-parameter sweeps.
    - Pro: featurization can be used for other Spark ML learning algorithms.
    - Cons: due to type restrictions (e.g. sparse indicies are Java integers) the hash space is limited by 30-bits.
  • VW multi-pass training can be enabled using '--passes 4' argument or setNumPasses method. Cache file is automatically named.

    • Pro: simplified usage.
    • Pro: certain algorithms (e.g. l-bfgs) require a cache file when running in multi-pass node.
    • Cons: The cache file is created in the Java temp directory. Depending on your nodes i/o and the location of the temp directory this can be a bottleneck.
  • VW distributed training is transparently setup and can be controlled through the input dataframes number of partitions. Similar to LightGBM all training instances must be running at the same time, thus the maxium parallelism is restricted by the number of executors available in the cluster. Under the hoods VWs built-in spanning tree functionality is used to coordinate allreduce. Required parameters are automatically determined and supplied to VW. The spanning tree coordination process is run on the driver node.

    • Pro: seamless parallelization.
    • Cons: currently barrier execution mode is not implemented and thus if one node crashes the complete job needs to be manually restarted.