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SQLFlow Syntax Extension: TO RUN

Data Transformation

As the purpose of SQLFlow is to extend SQL syntax for end-to-end machine learning, we have to consider data transformation. Usually, there are two kinds of data transformations:

  1. pre-processing, which happens before the training stage. Examples include joining a feature lookup table with the training data table.
  2. in-train loop transformation, which happens in the training loop for each data instance.

The in-train loop transformation differs from the pre-processing primarily in that they are part of the trained models and used in predictions.

SQLFlow users can describe the in-train loop transformation using the COLUMN clause in the TO TRAIN clause, and they can write standard statements like SELECT .. INTO new_table to pre-process the data.

This design is about pre-processing that we cannot express using standard SQL statements.

The Challenge

SQL is extensible and thus powerful. Most DBMS support user-defined functions (UDFs). The SELECT statement applies UDFs and built-in functions to each row of a table/view. However, some pre-processing transformations are not row-wise. An example is sliding-window.

A user told us that he wants to extract temporal features from time-series data by calling the well-known Python package tsfresh, which runs a sliding-window over the time-series data, convert each step into a new row and then calculate many statistaical values on it to derive features.

This requirement intrigues us to support a general way to call arbitrary programs from SQL, hence the idea of the TO RUN clause.

Syntax Extension

We want the syntax extension support to run any program written in any language, and we also want it easy to run Python programs in a way that best fits the current SQLFlow deployment. Let us dive deep into the no-compromise design.

Run Any Program

The subject to run is a program. A program needs versioning and releasing. As always, we assume Docker images are released form. Therefore, the user needs to provide a Docker image as the subject of the TO RUN clause. The SQLFlow compiler translates the TO RUN statement into a Tekton step that runs this Docker image, or more specificially, the entrypoint program of the Docker image.

The following is an example to run an executable built from a program written in Go/C++/.etc.

SELECT * FROM source_table ORDER BY creation_date
TO RUN a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0
INTO output_table;

The SQLFlow compiler translates it into a Tekton step that executes the Docker image a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0 with the command-line options

  • "slide_window_to_row"
  • "--time_column=t"
  • "--value_column=v"
  • "--window_width=120"

and environment variables

  • SQLFLOW_TO_RUN_SELECT=SELECT * FROM source_table ORDER BY creation_date
  • SQLFLOW_TO_RUN_INTO=output_table_name
  • SQLFLOW_TO_RUN_IMAGE=a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0

We will talk more about the command-line options and environment variables later in this document.

The following is an example to run a program written in a script language such as Python.

SELECT * FROM source_table ORDER BY creation_date
TO RUN a_data_scientist/extract_ts_features:1.0
INTO output_table;

TO RUN Semantics

SQLFlow will translate both the SQL statement above into two workflow steps:

  1. Retrive the data from source_table, execute the transformation in SELECT statement and write the result into a temporary table.
  2. docker run a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0 with the command line parameters after the CMD keyword. It will retrieve the data from the temporary table, process the data using the executable in the image and output the result into output_table.

The SELECT Prefix

As the TO RUN clause can run any program in the Docker image, it is not necessary to have an input table. From the SQL users’ point of view, it’s more user friendly to keep the syntax SQL style. As a result, we always keep the SELECT prefix in TO RUN statement. If there is no input table, user can write SELECT 1 as a prefix.

TO RUN a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0
INTO output_table;

The INTO Suffix

Just mentioned in the last section, INTO represents the output table of TO RUN. The TO RUN clause can run any program in the Docker image. The program can output more than one table or don’t output any table. Please check the following examples.

Output two tables - multiple table names after INTO:

SELECT * FROM source_table ORDER BY creation_date
TO RUN a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0
INTO output_table_1, output_table_2;

No output table - no INTO keyword:

SELECT * FROM source_table ORDER BY creation_date
TO RUN a_data_scientist/ts_data_processor:1.0

The Context

In the above example, the entrypoint program takes four command-line options: slide_window_to_row, --time_column=t, --value_column=v, --window_width=120. Also, the program needs context information, including the DBMS endpoints, credential information to access the data, and the SELECT prefix.

The SQLFlow compiler has to pass context in the form of environment variables other than command-line options because some command-line parsing frameworks terminates the program seeing unknown options. When SQLFlow upgrades and introduces new options, the entrypoint program would fail.

The SQLFlow server cannot pass in all context information in a single environment variable, which has a limit of value size. Instead, it sets environment variables prefixed with SQLFLOW_.

  • SQLFLOW_DB_TYPE: the type of DBMS.
  • SQLFLOW_DEPLOYMENT_PLATFORM: Kubernetes MaxCompute GoogleCloud

Run a Python Program

Just as the beginning of this article, the original intention of TO RUN statement is data transformation in end-to-end machine learning. Besides SQL, data scientists primarily write Python programs to process the data. And there are quite a few mature python packages to leverage for data processing such as numpy, pandas, sklearn, etc. We are focusing on how to run a Python program in TO RUN statement in this section.

The subject of TO RUN is a docker image. The author provides an executable built from any language. For Python, it’s a complete Python program. Since it can accept the command line parameters from TO RUN statement, the program need a main function, parse the arguments and then execute with the args. Because Python program has dependencies, the author needs to provide a Dockerfile. They can use a standard base image that contains the standard entrypoint program sqlflow.runner. We will discuss more about this program in the Execution Platforms section.

Given the above base Docker image, say, sqlflow/run:base, contributors can derive their images by adding their Python code.

FROM sqlflow/run:base
# Install dependent python packages
RUN pip install tsfresh
RUN pip install pymars
# Copy users' Python programs into image
COPY . /opt/sqlflow_run/python
ENV PYTHONPATH /opt/sqlflow_run/python

Suppose that the above Dockerfile builds into image a_data_scientist/my_python_zoo, SQLFlow users can run it with the following statement.

SELECT * FROM input_table
TO RUN a_data_scientist/my_python_zoo
INTO output_table;

Distributed Data Processing

The above abstraction enables TO RUN to execute a Python program locally in a Tekton step container. For distributed data preprocessing, we can use some powerful python packages such as Dask, Mars in our program. The program can call Kubernetes API to launch some pods, build a specific and ephemeral cluster for this distributed job at first. And then it will construct a computing task DAG using Dask or Mars API and submit the DAG into the cluster to execute the distribtued processing.
Please check the following example code using Dask:

from dask_kubernetes import KubeCluster

# Create a cluster with 2 worker pods.
cluster = KubeCluster.from_yaml("worker-spec.yaml")

from dask.distributed import Client
import dask.array as da

# Connect Dask client to the cluster
client = Client(cluster)

# Create a large array and calculate the mean
array = da.ones((10000, 1000, 1000))
sum = array.sum()

# Wait for the computing task DAG completion
# and get the result value
result_value = sum.compute()

Execution Platforms

SQLFlow can be deployed to various platforms such as Vanilla Kubernetes, MaxCompute, Google Cloud, Amazon AWS and so on. These platforms may have different requirements on the executing environment of the program to access the data and computing resource. As a result The execution detail of TO RUN statement can be different on these platforms.
Currently we have already deployed SQLFlow on Vanilla Kubernetes and MaxCompute, let’s focus on these two platforms in this article.

Vanilla Kubernetes

Just mentioned in the TO RUN semantics section, SQLFlow translates the TO RUN statement into two steps. The second step uses the docker image after TO RUN keyword, runs the following command and executes the Python program directly in this step container:

python /opt/sqlflow_run/python/ --time_column=t --value_column=x --window_width=120


For MaxCompute, we execute the Python program in the PyODPS task node instead of running it in the step container just like above.

  • Use goalisa to submit a PyODPS task to MaxCompute in the way of sending a web request. The Python program content and its arguments are the payload of the request.
  • Fetch the execution logs and wait for the task done.

This step executes the following command in the step container:

alisa.submitter /opt/sqlflow_run/python/ --time_column=t --value_column=x --window_width=120

From the users’ perspective, submitting PyODPS task using goalisa is the private protocol between SQLFlow and MaxCompute and expose too many details. And users only want to focus on the data processing logic in the Python program and don’t want to pay attention to the execution difference among various platforms. To cover these details, we propose to add a module sqlflow.runner and set it as the entry point of the docker image for TO RUN. This module will get the platform type from the environment variable and decide how to execute the python program such as python for Vanilla Kubernetes and alisa.submitter for MaxCompute.