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Ranking with XGBoost Models

Vespa supports importing Gradient Boosting Decision Tree (GBDT) models trained with XGBoost.

Exporting models from XGBoost

Vespa supports importing XGBoost's JSON model dump, e.g. Python API xgboost.Booster.dump_model. When dumping the trained model, XGBoost allows users to set the dump_format to json, and users can specify the feature names to be used in fmap.

Here is an example of an XGBoost JSON model dump with 2 trees and maximum depth 1:

  { "nodeid": 0, "depth": 0, "split": "fieldMatch(title).completeness", "split_condition": 0.772132337, "yes": 1, "no": 2, "missing": 1, "children": [
    { "nodeid": 1, "leaf": 0.673938096 },
    { "nodeid": 2, "leaf": 0.791884363 }
  { "nodeid": 0, "depth": 0, "split": "fieldMatch(title).importance", "split_condition": 0.606320798, "yes": 1, "no": 2, "missing": 1, "children": [
    { "nodeid": 1, "leaf": 0.469432801 },
    { "nodeid": 2, "leaf": 0.55586201 }

Notice the split attribute which represents the Vespa feature name. The split feature must resolve to a Vespa rank feature defined in the document schema. The feature can also be user defined features (for example using functions).

The above model JSON was produced using the XGBoost Python api with a regression objective:

import xgboost as xgb

dtrain = xgb.DMatrix('training-vectors.txt')
param = {'base_score':0, 'max_depth':1,'objective':'reg:squarederror'}
bst = xgb.train(param, dtrain, 2)
bst.dump_model("trained-model.json",fmap='feature-map.txt', with_stats=False, dump_format='json')

The training data is represented using LibSVM text format. See also a complete XGBoost training notebook using ranking objective.

Feature mappings from XGBoost to Vespa

XGBoost is trained on array or array like data structures where features are named based on the index in the array as in the example above. To convert the XGBoost features we need to map feature indexes to actual Vespa features (native features or custom defined features):

$ cat feature-map.txt |egrep "fieldMatch\(title\).completeness|fieldMatch\(title\).importance"
36  fieldMatch(title).completeness q
39  fieldMatch(title).importance q

In the feature mapping example, feature at index 36 maps to fieldMatch(title).completeness and index 39 maps to fieldMatch(title).importance. The feature mapping format is not well described in the XGBoost documentation, but the sample demo for binary classification writes:

Format of feature-map.txt: <featureid> <featurename> <q or i or int>\n:

  • "Feature id" must be from 0 to number of features, in sorted order.
  • "i" means this feature is binary indicator feature
  • "q" means this feature is a quantitative value, such as age, time, can be missing
  • "int" means this feature is integer value (when int is hinted, the decision boundary will be integer)

When using pandasDataFrame's with columns names, one does not need to provide feature mappings.

See also a complete example of how to train a ranking function, using learning to rank with ranking losses, in this notebook.

Importing XGBoost models

To import the XGBoost model to Vespa, add the directory containing the model to your application package under a specific directory named models. For instance, if you would like to call the model above as my_model, you would add it to the application package resulting in a directory structure like this:

├── models
│   └── my_model.json
├── schemas
│   └── main.sd
└── services.xml

An application package can have multiple models.

To download models during deployment, see deploying remote models.

Ranking with XGBoost models

Vespa has a xgboost ranking feature. This ranking feature specifies the model to use in a ranking expression. Consider the following example:

schema xgboost {
    rank-profile prediction inherits default {
        first-phase {
          expression: nativeRank
        second-phase {
            expression: xgboost("my_model.json")

Here, we specify that the model my_model.json is applied to the top ranking documents by the first-phase ranking expression. The query request must specify prediction as the ranking.profile. See also Phased ranking on how to control number of data points/documents which is exposed to the model.

Generally the run time complexity is determined by:

  • The number of documents evaluated per thread / number of nodes and the query filter
  • The complexity of computing features. For example fieldMatch features are 100x more expensive that nativeFieldMatch/nativeRank.
  • The number of XGboost trees and the maximum depth per tree

Serving latency can be brought down by using multiple threads per query request.

XGBoost models

There are six different objective types that Vespa supports:

  • Regression reg:squarederror / reg:logistic
  • Classification binary:logistic
  • Ranking rank:pairwise, rank:ndcg and rank:map

For reg:logistic and binary:logistic the raw margin tree sum (Sum of all trees) needs to be passed through the sigmoid function to represent the probability of class 1. For regular regression the model can be directly imported but the base_score should be set 0 as the base_score used during the training phase is not dumped with the model.

An example model using the sklearn toy datasets is given below:

from sklearn import datasets
import xgboost as xgb
breast_cancer = datasets.load_breast_cancer()
c = xgb.XGBClassifier(n_estimators=20, objective='binary:logistic')
c.get_booster().dump_model("binary_breast_cancer.json", fmap='feature-map.txt', dump_format='json')

To represent the predict_proba function of XGBoost for the binary classifier in Vespa, we need to use the sigmoid function:

schema xgboost {
    rank-profile prediction-binary inherits default {
        first-phase {
            expression: sigmoid(xgboost("binary_breast_cancer.json"))

Debugging Vespa inference score versus XGBoost predict score

  • When dumping XGBoost models to a JSON representation some of the model information is lost (e.g. the base_score or the optimal number of trees if trained with early stopping). XGBoost also has different predict functions (e.g. predict/predict_proba). The following XGBoost System Test demonstrates how to represent different type of XGBoost models in Vespa.
  • For training, features should be scraped from Vespa, using either match-features or summary-features so that features from offline training matches the online Vespa computed features. Dumping features can also help debug any differences by zooming into specific query,document pairs using recall parameter.
  • It's also important to use the highest possible precision when reading Vespa features for training as Vespa outputs features using double precision. If the training routine rounds features to float or other more compact floating number representations, feature split decisions might differ in Vespa versus XGboost.
  • In a distributed setting when multiple nodes uses the model, text matching features such as nativeRank, nativFieldMatch, bm25 and fieldMatch might differ, depending on which node produced the hit. The reason is that all these features use term(n).significance, which is computed locally indexed corpus. The term(n).significance feature is related to Inverse Document Frequency (IDF). The term(n).significance should be set by a searcher in the container for global correctness as each node will estimate the significance values from the local corpus.