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Introduction to TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline

TL;DR: Reduce boilerplate code to build, train, and serve TensorFlow Ranking models with TensorFlow Ranking Pipelines; Use proper distributed strategies for large scale ranking applications given the use case and resources.


TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline consists of a series of data processing, model building, training, and serving processes that allows you to construct, train, and serve scalable neural network-based ranking models from data logs with minimal efforts. The pipeline is most efficient when the system scales up. In general, if your model takes 10 minutes or more to run on a single machine, consider using this pipeline framework to distribute the load and speed up processing.

The TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline has been constantly and stably run in large scale experiments and productions with big data (terabytes+) and big models (100M+ of FLOPs) on distributed systems (1K+ CPU and 100+ GPU and TPUs). Once a TensorFlow model is proven with on a small part of the data, the pipeline is recomended for hyper-parameter scanning, continuous training and other large-scale situations.

Ranking Pipeline

In TensorFlow, a typical pipeline to build, train, and serve a ranking model includes the following typical steps.

  • Define model structure:
    • Create inputs;
    • Create pre-processing layers;
    • Create neural network architecture;
  • Train model:
    • Generate train and validation datasets from data logs;
    • Prepare model with proper hyper-parameters:
      • Optimizer;
      • Ranking losses;
      • Ranking Metrics;
    • Configure distributed strategies to train across multiple devices.
    • Configure callbacks for various bookkeeping.
    • Export model for serving;
  • Serve model:
    • Determine data format at serving;
    • Choose and load trained model;
    • Process with loaded model.

One of the main objectives of the TensorFlow Ranking pipeline is to reduce boilerplate code in the steps, such as dataset loading and preprocessing, compatibility of listwise data and pointwise scoring function, and model export. The other important objective is to enforce the consistent design of many inherently correlated processes, e.g., model inputs must be compatible with both training datasets and data format at serving.

Use Guide

With all the above design, launching a TF-ranking model falls into the following steps, as shown in Figure 1.

Diagram of TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline
Figure 1: Diagram of TensorFlow Ranking classes and steps to train ranking models with the TF Ranking pipeline. The green modules can be customized for your ranking model.

Example using a distributed neural network

In this example, you will leverage the built-in tfr.keras.model.FeatureSpecInputCreator, tfr.keras.pipeline.SimpleDatasetBuilder, and tfr.keras.pipeline.SimplePipeline that take in feature_specs to consistently define the input features in model inputs and dataset server. The notebook version with a step-by-step walkthrough can be found in distributed ranking tutorial.

First define feature_specs for both context and example features.

context_feature_spec = {}
example_feature_spec = {
    'custom_features_{}'.format(i + 1):,), dtype=tf.float32, default_value=0.0)
    for i in range(10)
label_spec = ('utility',
    shape=(1,), dtype=tf.float32, default_value=-1))

Follow the steps illustrated in Figure 1:
Define input_creator from feature_specs.

input_creator = tfr.keras.model.FeatureSpecInputCreator(
    context_feature_spec, example_feature_spec)

Then define preprocessing feature transformations for the same set of input features.

def log1p(tensor):
    return tf.math.log1p(tensor * tf.sign(tensor)) * tf.sign(tensor)
preprocessor = {
    'custom_features_{}'.format(i + 1): log1p
    for i in range(10)

Define scorer with built-in feedforward DNN model.

dnn_scorer = tfr.keras.model.DNNScorer(
    hidden_layer_dims=[1024, 512, 256],

Make the model_builder with input_creator, preprocessor, and scorer.

model_builder = tfr.keras.model.ModelBuilder(

Now set the hyperparameters for dataset_builder.

dataset_hparams = tfr.keras.pipeline.DatasetHparams(

Make the dataset_builder.


Also set the hyperparameters for the pipeline.

pipeline_hparams = tfr.keras.pipeline.PipelineHparams(

Make the ranking_pipeline and train.

ranking_pipeline = tfr.keras.pipeline.SimplePipeline(

Design of TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline

The TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline helps save engineering time with boilerplate code, at the same time, allows flexibility of customization through overriding and subclassing. To achieve this, the pipeline introduces customizable classes tfr.keras.model.AbstractModelBuilder, tfr.keras.pipeline.AbstractDatasetBuilder, and tfr.keras.pipeline.AbstractPipeline to set up the TensorFlow Ranking pipeline.

Design of TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline classes
Figure 2: Overall design of TensorFlow Ranking Pipeline classes.


The boilerplate code related to constructing the Keras model is integrated in the AbstractModelBuilder, which is passed to the AbstractPipeline and called inside the pipeline to build the model under the strategy scope. This is shown in Figure 1. Class methods are defined in the abstract base class.

class AbstractModelBuilder:
  def __init__(self, mask_feature_name, name):

  def create_inputs(self):
    // To create tf.keras.Input. Abstract method, to be overridden.
  def preprocess(self, context_inputs, example_inputs, mask):
    // To preprocess input features. Abstract method, to be overridden.
  def score(self, context_features, example_features, mask):
    // To score based on preprocessed features. Abstract method, to be overridden.
  def build(self):
    context_inputs, example_inputs, mask = self.create_inputs()
    context_features, example_features = self.preprocess(
        context_inputs, example_inputs, mask)
    logits = self.score(context_features, example_features, mask)
    return tf.keras.Model(inputs=..., outputs=logits, name=self._name)

You can directly subclass the AbstractModelBuilder and overwrite with the concrete methods for customization, like

class MyModelBuilder(AbstractModelBuilder):
  def create_inputs(self, ...):

At the same time, you should use ModelBuilder with input features, preprocess transformations, and scoring functions specified as function inputs input_creator, preprocessor, and scorer in the class init instead of subclassing.

class ModelBuilder(AbstractModelBuilder):
  def __init__(self, input_creator, preprocessor, scorer, mask_feature_name, name):

To reduce the boilerplates of creating these inputs, function classes tfr.keras.model.InputCreator for input_creator, tfr.keras.model.Preprocessor for preprocessor, and tfr.keras.model.Scorer for scorer are provided, together with concrete subclasses tfr.keras.model.FeatureSpecInputCreator, tfr.keras.model.TypeSpecInputCreator, tfr.keras.model.PreprocessorWithSpec, tfr.keras.model.UnivariateScorer, tfr.keras.model.DNNScorer, and tfr.keras.model.GAMScorer. These should cover most of the common use cases.

Note that these function classes are Keras classes, so there is no need for serialization. Subclassing is the recommended way for customizing them.


The DatasetBuilder class collects dataset related boilerplate. The data is passed to the Pipeline and called to serve the training and validation datasets and to define the serving signatures for saved models. As shown in Figure 1, the DatasetBuilder methods are defined in the tfr.keras.pipeline.AbstractDatasetBuilder base class,

class AbstractDatasetBuilder:

  def build_train_dataset(self, *arg, **kwargs):
    // To return the training dataset.
  def build_valid_dataset(self, *arg, **kwargs):
    // To return the validation dataset.
  def build_signatures(self, *arg, **kwargs):
    // To build the signatures to export saved model.

In a concrete DatasetBuilder class, you must implement build_train_datasets,build_valid_datasets and build_signatures.

A concrete class that makes datasets from feature_specs is also provided:

class BaseDatasetBuilder(AbstractDatasetBuilder):

  def __init__(self, context_feature_spec, example_feature_spec,
               mask_feature_name, hparams,
    // Specify label and weight specs in training_only_example_spec.
  def _features_and_labels(self, features):
    // To split the labels and weights from input features.

  def _build_dataset(self, ...):
        example_feature_spec+training_only_example_spec, mask_feature_name, ...)

  def build_train_dataset(self):
    return self._build_dataset(...)

  def build_valid_dataset(self):
    return self._build_dataset(...)

  def build_signatures(self, model):
    return saved_model.Signatures(model, context_feature_spec,
                                  example_feature_spec, mask_feature_name)()

The hparams that are used in the DatasetBuilder are specified in the tfr.keras.pipeline.DatasetHparams dataclass.


The Ranking Pipeline is based on the tfr.keras.pipeline.AbstractPipeline class:

class AbstractPipeline:

  def build_loss(self):
    // Returns a tf.keras.losses.Loss or a dict of Loss. To be overridden.
  def build_metrics(self):
    // Returns a list of evaluation metrics. To be overridden.
  def build_weighted_metrics(self):
    // Returns a list of weighted metrics. To be overridden.
  def train_and_validate(self, *arg, **kwargs):
    // Main function to run the training pipeline. To be overridden.

A concrete pipeline class that trains the model with different tf.distribute.strategys compatible with is also provided:

class ModelFitPipeline(AbstractPipeline):

  def __init__(self, model_builder, dataset_builder, hparams):
  def build_callbacks(self):
    // Builds callbacks used in Override for customized usage.
  def export_saved_model(self, model, export_to, checkpoint=None):
    if checkpoint:
      model.load_weights(checkpoint), signatures=dataset_builder.build_signatures(model))

  def train_and_validate(self, verbose=0):
    with self._strategy.scope():
      model =
      train_dataset, valid_dataset = (
      self.export_saved_model(model, export_to=model_output_dir)

The hparams used in the tfr.keras.pipeline.ModelFitPipeline are specified in the tfr.keras.pipeline.PipelineHparams dataclass. This ModelFitPipeline class is sufficient for most TF Ranking use cases. Clients can easily subclass it for specific purposes.

Distributed Strategy support

Please refer to distributed training for a detailed introduction of TensorFlow supported distributed strategies. Currently, the TensorFlow Ranking pipeline supports tf.distribute.MirroredStrategy (default), tf.distribute.TPUStrategy, tf.distribute.MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy, and tf.distribute.ParameterServerStrategy. Mirrored strategy is compatible with most of the single machine systems. Please set strategy to None for no distributed strategy.

In general, MirroredStrategy works for relatively small models on most devices with CPU and GPU options. MultiWorkerMirroredStrategy works for big models that do not fit in one worker. ParameterServerStrategy does asynchronous training and requires multiple workers available. TPUStrategy is ideal for big models and big data when TPUs are available, however, it is less flexible in terms of the tensor shapes it can handle.


  1. The minimal set of components for using the RankingPipeline
    See example code above.

  2. What if I have my own Keras model
    To be trained with tf.distribute strategies, model needs to be constructed with all trainable variables defined under the strategy.scope(). So wrap your model in ModelBuilder as,

class MyModelBuilder(AbstractModelBuilder):
  def __init__(self, model, context_feature_names, example_feature_names,
               mask_feature_name, name):
    super().__init__(mask_feature_name, name)
    self._model = model
    self._context_feature_names = context_feature_names
    self._example_feature_names = example_feature_names

  def create_inputs(self):
    inputs = self._model.input
    context_inputs = {inputs[name] for name in self._context_feature_names}
    example_inputs = {inputs[name] for name in self._example_feature_names}
    mask = inputs[self._mask_feature_name]
    return context_inputs, example_inputs, mask

  def preprocess(self, context_inputs, example_inputs, mask):
    return context_inputs, example_inputs, mask

  def score(self, context_features, example_features, mask):
    inputs = dict(
        list(context_features.items()) + list(example_features.items()) +
        [(self._mask_feature_name, mask)])
    return self._model(inputs)

model_builder = MyModelBuilder(model, context_feature_names, example_feature_names,
                               mask_feature_name, "my_model")

Then feed in this model_builder to the pipeline for further training.