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Ranking With ONNX Models

Vespa has support for advanced ranking models through it’s tensor API. If you have your model in the ONNX format, Vespa can import the models and use them directly.

Importing ONNX model files

Add the file containing the ONNX models somewhere under the application package. For instance, if your model file is my_model.onnx you could add it to the application package under a files directory something like this:

├── files
│   └── my_model.onnx
├── schemas
│   └── main.sd
└── services.xml

An application package can have multiple models.

To download models during deployment, see deploying remote models.

Ranking with ONNX models

To make the above model available for ranking, you define the model in the schema, and then you can refer to the model using the onnx (or onnxModel) ranking feature:

schema my_schema {

    document my_document {
        field my_field type tensor(d0[1],d1[10]) {
            indexing: attribute | summary

    onnx-model my_onnx_model {
        file: files/my_model.onnx
        input "model_input_0": attribute(my_field)
        input "model_input_1": my_function
        output "model_output_0": output_name

    rank-profile my_rank_profile {

        function my_function() {
            expression: tensor<float>(d0[1],d1[10])(d1)

        first-phase {
            expression: sum( onnx(my_onnx_model).output_name )



This defines the model called my_onnx_model. It is evaluated using the onnx ranking feature. This rank feature specifies which model to evaluate in the ranking expression and, optionally, which output to use from the model.

The onnx-model section defines three things:

  1. The model’s location under the applications package
  2. The inputs to use for evaluation and where they should come from
  3. The outputs to use for evaluation

In the example above, the model should be found in files/my_model.onnx. This model has two inputs. For inputs, the first name specifies the input as named in the ONNX model file. The source is where the input should come from. This can be either:

  • A document field: attribute(field_name)
  • A query parameter: query(query_param)
  • A constant: constant(name)
  • A user-defined function: function_name

For outputs, the output name is the name used in Vespa to specify the output. If this is omitted, the first output in the ONNX file will be used.

The output of a model is usually a tensor, however the rank score should result in a single scalar value. In the example above we use sum to sum all the elements of the tensor to a single value. You can also slice out parts of the result using Vespa’s tensor API. For instance, if the output of the example above is a tensor with the two dimensions d0 and d1, and you want to extract the first value, this can be expressed by:


The input tensors must have dimension names starting with "d0" for the first dimension, and increasing for each dimension (i.e. "d1", "d2", etc). The result of the evaluation will likewise be a tensor with names "d0", "d1", etc.

The types of document tensors are specified in the schema as shown above. If you specify the types of query tensors in the query profile types, you can pass tensors in HTTP requests by using the HTTP parameter “ranking.features.query(myTensor)” (assuming the ranking expression contains “query(myTensor)”. To do this specify a query profile of a type containing

<field name="ranking.features.query(myTensor)" type="tensor(d0[1],d1[784])" />

A tensor example can be found in the sample application.

Batch dimensions

When training your model you will typically have an input which contains a dimension for batches, for instance an input with sizes [-1, 784]. Here, -1 typically denotes the batch dimension. This allows control over the batch size during training, and it is common to use a batch size much smaller than the entire training set (i.e. mini-batches) during training.

During run-time evaluation, Vespa typically does inference over a single exemplar. If this is the case in your network, take care to specifically set the batch dimension to size 1.

Limitations on model size and complexity

Note that in the above rank profile example, the onnx model evaluation was put in the first phase ranking. In general, evaluating these models are expensive and more suitable in the second phase ranking.

The assumption when evaluating ONNX models in Vespa is that the models will be used in ranking, meaning that the model will be evaluated once for each document. Please be aware that this imposes some natural restrictions on the size and complexity of the models, particularly if the application has a large number of documents. However, effective use of the first and second phase can make running deep models feasible.


The Transformers sample application uses an ONNX model to re-rank documents. The model is exported from HuggingFace’s Transformers library.

The Question-Answering sample application uses two different ONNX models:

  • One for creating a dense vector representation of a query string for use in ANN retrieval
  • One for extracting an answer string from a relevant passage