A Guide to Taking Machine Learning Models to Production

November 6, 2023


Machine learning has taken the world by storm in recent years, and it's not hard to see why. The ability of machines to analyze data, learn from it, and make predictions or decisions has transformed industries and applications across the board. However, one of the most significant challenges in the world of machine learning isn't the actual development of the models; it's how to effectively take those models to production. 

The goal of building a machine learning model is to solve a problem, and a machine learning model can only do so when it is in production and actively in use by consumers. As such, model deployment is as important as model building. In this blog post, we'll explore the key challenges and solutions involved in bringing machine learning models into a real-world production environment.

The Challenge of Model Deployment

Data scientists excel at creating models that represent and predict real-world data. However, effectively deploying machine learning models is more of an art than science. Deployment requires skills more commonly found in software engineering and DevOps. Unfortunately, many data science projects never make it to production, with estimates suggesting that up to 90% of them fail at this stage.

One of the critical factors that can make the difference between success and failure is the ability to collaborate and iterate as a team. Bridging the gap between IT, which focuses on stability and uptime, and data science, which emphasizes iteration and experimentation, is key to ensuring a successful model deployment.

In today's fast-paced business environment, getting machine learning models into production is crucial to gaining a competitive edge. Let's explore some best practices and considerations for doing so effectively.

Key Considerations for Model Deployment

Before embarking on a machine learning project, there are three key areas every team needs to consider:

  1. Data Storage and Retrieval: A machine learning model is only as good as the data it's trained on. You must consider how your training data is stored, the size of your data, and how you'll retrieve data for training and prediction. Whether you store data on-premise or in the cloud, and whether you use batch or real-time data retrieval, are essential decisions to make.
  2. Frameworks and Tooling: You'll need the right tools and frameworks to build, train, and deploy your machine learning models. Consider the efficiency, popularity, and support of these tools. Are they open-source or closed? Do they support the platforms you intend to target? Make informed decisions to ensure the success and longevity of your models.
  3. Feedback and Iteration: Machine learning projects are never static. You need to establish processes for getting feedback from models in production and setting up continuous delivery. This includes monitoring model performance, addressing issues like bias creep or data skew, and safely deploying new models without interrupting existing operations.

An Example of Machine Learning Deployment

Let's illustrate these considerations with a hypothetical example. Imagine you're an ML engineer tasked with designing an end-to-end system for Adstocrat, an advertising agency aiming to predict ad click-through rates.

Data Concerns

  • How is your training data stored?: Adstocrat's training data is stored in a Google Cloud Storage (GCS) bucket, consisting of CSV files describing ads and corresponding images. Given that the data is already in the cloud, building the ML system in the cloud is a logical choice.
  • How large is your data?: Adstocrat serves millions of ads monthly, resulting in a large dataset, particularly for the image data. This reinforces the decision to use cloud resources for scalability.
  • How will you retrieve the data for training?: Since the data is in a GCS bucket, it can be easily retrieved for model training on the Google Cloud Platform.
  • How will you retrieve the data for prediction?: Prediction data will be requested via a REST API, so this informs the choice of the target platform for the project.

Frameworks and Tooling

For this project, we can decide to use Python for prototyping, Tensorflow for model building due to the large dataset that includes images, and Tensorflow Extended (TFX) for building pipelines. TFX provides a comprehensive set of components for efficiently deploying machine learning models, making it a suitable choice for this project. The choice of TFX also aligns well with Python and Tensorflow, offering consistency and support for Google Cloud Platform.

Feedback and Iteration Concerns

You can plan to leverage TFX's feedback mechanisms to manage model versioning, track models in production, and evaluate new models against current ones using TensorFlow Model Analysis (TFMA). This allows you to ensure that your models continue to perform effectively and that new models can be safely deployed without disruptions.

The Challenge of Production

One of the biggest challenges in deploying machine learning models into production is ensuring that they not only work correctly but also efficiently and effectively. Let's delve into some of the critical issues that arise when transitioning from the development phase to actual deployment:

1. Scalability & Latency

As the user base of a machine learning application grows, the infrastructure hosting the model must scale to accommodate the increased workload. This scaling process should not negatively impact the latency, or the time it takes for a request to be processed. Balancing scalability and low latency is a complex task.

Why is it a challenge? If a server becomes inundated with too many requests, it can clog the pipeline and lead to increased latency. This can result in a poor user experience, which is unacceptable for many applications.

Solution: It's essential to determine the threshold at which the service should scale. For example, if the primary server hosting the model reaches 90% CPU usage, an automated process can trigger the creation of another instance of the machine learning model and redirect some requests to this new instance. This approach ensures that as the user base expands, the system can handle the increased load without compromising response times.

2. Model Monitoring & Maintenance

Machine learning models degrade over time as they are exposed to real-world data. This degradation occurs because the data used for training and validation may differ from the data the model encounters in production. If machine learning models are left unmonitored, it can significantly impact their performance and user experience.

Why is it a challenge? Consider the example of a movie recommendation system like Netflix. If the system fails to adapt to your changing movie preferences, it can affect your experience and, in turn, lead to a decline in viewership. This reduction in viewership translates to a potential loss of revenue for the platform.

Solution: To address this challenge, machine learning models must incorporate continuous monitoring and maintenance. One approach is to implement online learning or retrain models frequently. This ensures that the models remain accurate and up-to-date with the changing data distribution in the production environment. By continuously adapting to user preferences, systems like Netflix can continue to provide relevant recommendations and, subsequently, keep their audience engaged.

3. Reproducibility

When something goes wrong in a production environment, it's crucial to fix it promptly. But how can you fix a problem if you cannot reproduce it consistently to determine the root cause with confidence?

Why is it a challenge? Imagine a scenario where a critical machine learning model, after routine retraining, starts to perform worse than ever before. Without the ability to reproduce the issue, diagnosing and rectifying the problem becomes extremely challenging.

Solution: The key to addressing this challenge is to adopt version control for both the models and the data used. Just as you version your code, versioning your models allows you to roll back to a previous version if issues arise. Additionally, versioning your data ensures that you can replicate any issues that may have been caused by changes in the data distribution. This approach provides a level of transparency and control that is essential for effective model maintenance and troubleshooting.


While this guide provides a high-level overview, it is essential to dive into the specific details and technologies relevant to your project. With careful planning and the right tools, you can navigate the challenges of model deployment and leverage machine learning to gain a competitive advantage in your industry.

In conclusion, while developing machine learning models is a critical part of the process, it's equally important to ensure that these models can seamlessly transition to production. Scalability, model monitoring, and reproducibility are essential aspects of this transition. By understanding these challenges and implementing the suggested solutions, companies can take full advantage of the power of machine learning in real-world applications while maintaining robust and efficient production systems.

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