Model inference using Hugging Face Transformers for natural language processing (NLP)

This article shows you how to use Hugging Face Transformers for natural language processing (NLP) model inference.

Hugging Face transformers provides the pipelines class to use the pre-trained model for inference. 🤗 Transformers pipelines support a wide range of NLP tasks that you can easily use on Databricks.


  • MLflow 2.3

  • Any cluster with the Hugging Face transformers library installed can be used for batch inference. The transformers library comes preinstalled on Databricks Runtime 10.4 LTS ML and above. Many of the popular NLP models work best on GPU hardware, so you may get the best performance using recent GPU hardware unless you use a model specifically optimized for use on CPUs.

Use Pandas UDFs to distribute model computation on a Spark cluster

When experimenting with pre-trained models you can use Pandas UDFs to wrap the model and perform computation on worker CPUs or GPUs. Pandas UDFs distribute the model to each worker.

You can also create a Hugging Face Transformers pipeline for machine translation and use a Pandas UDF to run the pipeline on the workers of a Spark cluster:

import pandas as pd
from transformers import pipeline
import torch
from pyspark.sql.functions import pandas_udf

device = 0 if torch.cuda.is_available() else -1
translation_pipeline = pipeline(task="translation_en_to_fr", model="t5-base", device=device)

def translation_udf(texts: pd.Series) -> pd.Series:
  translations = [result['translation_text'] for result in translation_pipeline(texts.to_list(), batch_size=1)]
  return pd.Series(translations)

Setting the device in this manner ensures that GPUs are used if they are available on the cluster.

The Hugging Face pipelines for translation return a list of Python dict objects, each with a single key translation_text and a value containing the translated text. This UDF extracts the translation from the results to return a Pandas series with just the translated text. If your pipeline was constructed to use GPUs by setting device=0, then Spark automatically reassigns GPUs on the worker nodes if your cluster has instances with multiple GPUs.

To use the UDF to translate a text column, you can call the UDF in a select statement:

texts = ["Hugging Face is a French company based in New York City.", "Databricks is based in San Francisco."]
df = spark.createDataFrame(pd.DataFrame(texts, columns=["text"]))
display(, translation_udf(df.text).alias('translation')))

Return complex result types

Using Pandas UDFs you can also return more structured output. For example, in named-entity recognition, pipelines return a list of dict objects containing the entity, its span, type, and an associated score. While similar to the example for translation, the return type for the @pandas_udf annotation is more complex in the case of named-entity recognition.

You can get a sense of the return types to use through inspection of pipeline results, for example by running the pipeline on the driver.

In this example, use the following code:

from transformers import pipeline
import torch
device = 0 if torch.cuda.is_available() else -1
ner_pipeline = pipeline(task="ner", model="Davlan/bert-base-multilingual-cased-ner-hrl", aggregation_strategy="simple", device=device)

To yield the annotations:

[[{'entity_group': 'ORG',
   'score': 0.99933606,
   'word': 'Hugging Face',
   'start': 0,
   'end': 12},
  {'entity_group': 'LOC',
   'score': 0.99967843,
   'word': 'New York City',
   'start': 42,
   'end': 55}],
 [{'entity_group': 'ORG',
   'score': 0.9996372,
   'word': 'Databricks',
   'start': 0,
   'end': 10},
  {'entity_group': 'LOC',
   'score': 0.999588,
   'word': 'San Francisco',
   'start': 23,
   'end': 36}]]

To represent this as a return type, you can use an array of struct fields, listing the dict entries as the fields of the struct:

import pandas as pd
from pyspark.sql.functions import pandas_udf

@pandas_udf('array<struct<word string, entity_group string, score float, start integer, end integer>>')
def ner_udf(texts: pd.Series) -> pd.Series:
  return pd.Series(ner_pipeline(texts.to_list(), batch_size=1))

display(, ner_udf(df.texts).alias('entities')))

Tune performance

There are several key aspects to tuning performance of the UDF. The first is to use each GPU effectively, which you can adjust by changing the size of batches sent to the GPU by the Transformers pipeline. The second is to make sure the DataFrame is well-partitioned to utilize the entire cluster.

Finally, you may wish to cache the Hugging Face model to save model load time or ingress costs.

Choose a batch size

While the UDFs described above should work out-of-the box with a batch_size of 1, this may not use the resources available to the workers efficiently. To improve performance, tune the batch size to the model and hardware in the cluster. Databricks recommends trying various batch sizes for the pipeline on your cluster to find the best performance. Read more about pipeline batching and other performance options in Hugging Face documentation.

Try finding a batch size that is large enough so that it drives the full GPU utilization but does not result in CUDA out of memory errors. When you receive CUDA out of memory errors during tuning, you need to detach and reattach the notebook to release the memory used by the model and data in the GPU.

Monitor GPU performance by viewing the live cluster metrics for a cluster, and choosing a metric, such as gpu0-util for GPU processor utilization or gpu0_mem_util for GPU memory utilization.

Repartition data to use all available hardware

The second consideration for performance is making full use of the hardware in your cluster. Generally, a small multiple of the number of GPUs on your workers (for GPU clusters) or number of cores across the workers in your cluster (for CPU clusters) works well. Your input DataFrame may already have enough partitions to take advantage of the cluster’s parallelism. To see how many partitions the DataFrame contains, use df.rdd.getNumPartitions(). You can repartition a DataFrame using repartitioned_df = df.repartition(desired_partition_count).

Cache the model in DBFS or on mount points

If you are frequently loading a model from different or restarted clusters, you may also wish to cache the Hugging Face model in the DBFS root volume or on a mount point. This can decrease ingress costs and reduce the time to load the model on a new or restarted cluster. To do this, set the TRANSFORMERS_CACHE environment variable in your code before loading the pipeline.

For example:

import os
os.environ['TRANSFORMERS_CACHE'] = '/dbfs/hugging_face_transformers_cache/'

Alternatively, you can achieve similar results by logging the model to MLflow with the MLflow `transformers` flavor.

Notebook: Hugging Face Transformers inference and MLflow logging

To get started quickly with example code, this notebook is an end-to-end example for text summarization by using Hugging Face Transformers pipelines inference and MLflow logging.

Hugging Face Transformers pipelines inference notebook

Open notebook in new tab

Additional resources

You can fine-tune your Hugging Face model with the following guides:

Learn more about What are Hugging Face Transformers?