Write a post

Building a Movie Recommendation Service with Apache Spark & Flask - Part 2

Published Jul 08, 2015Last updated Apr 17, 2017
Building a Movie Recommendation Service with Apache Spark & Flask - Part 2

This Apache Spark tutorial goes into detail into how to use Spark machine learning models, or even another kind of data analytics objects, within a web service. This open the door to on-line predictions, recommendations, etc. By using the Python language, we make this task very easy, thanks to Spark own Python capabilities, and to Python-based frameworks such as Flask.

Read Part 1 of this Apache Spark tutorial here. Most of the code in that first part, about how to use ALS with the public MovieLens dataset, comes from my solution to one of the exercises proposed in the CS100.1x Introduction to Big Data with Apache Spark by Anthony D. Joseph on edX, that is also publicly available since 2014 at Spark Summit . There I've added with minor modifications to use a larger dataset and also code about how to store and reload the model for later use.

That first part combines powerfully with this second one. By doing so, you will be able to develop a complete on-line movie recommendation service.

Our complete web service contains three Python files:

  • engine.py defines the recommendation engine, wrapping inside all the Spark related computations.
  • app.py is a Flask web application that defines a RESTful-like API around the engine.
  • server.py initialises a CherryPy webserver after creating a Spark context and Flask web app using the previous.

But let's explain each of them in detail, together with the peculiarities of deploying such a system using Spark as a computation engine. We will put the emphasis on how to use a Spark model within the web context we are dealing with. For an explanation on the MovieLens data and how to build the model using Spark, have a look at the tutorial about Building the Model.

All the code for this tutorial is available in a GitHub repo. There is also a repo explaining many Spark-related concepts. Go there and make them yours.

A Recommendation Engine

At the very core of our movie recommendation web service resides a recommendation engine (i.e. engine.py in our final deployment). It is represented by the class RecommendationEngine and this section will describe step by step how its functionality and implementation.

Starting the Engine

When the engine is initialized, we need to generate the ALS model for the first time. Optionally (we won't do it here) we might be loading a previously persisted model in order to use it for recommendations. Moreover, we might need to load or precompute any RDDs that will be used later on to make recommendations.

We will do things of that kind in the __init__ method of our RecommendationEngine class (making use of two private methods). In this case, we won't save any time. We will repeat the whole process every time the engine it creates.

import os
from pyspark.mllib.recommendation import ALS
import logging
logger = logging.getLogger(__name__)

class RecommendationEngine:
    """A movie recommendation engine
    def __count_and_average_ratings(self):
        """Updates the movies ratings counts from 
        the current data self.ratings_RDD
        logger.info("Counting movie ratings...")
        movie_ID_with_ratings_RDD = self.ratings_RDD.map(lambda x: (x[1], x[2])).groupByKey()
        movie_ID_with_avg_ratings_RDD = movie_ID_with_ratings_RDD.map(get_counts_and_averages)
        self.movies_rating_counts_RDD = movie_ID_with_avg_ratings_RDD.map(lambda x: (x[0], x[1][0]))
    def __train_model(self):
        """Train the ALS model with the current dataset
        logger.info("Training the ALS model...")
        self.model = ALS.train(self.ratings_RDD, self.rank, seed=self.seed,
                               iterations=self.iterations, lambda_=self.regularization_parameter)
        logger.info("ALS model built!")
    def __init__(self, sc, dataset_path):
        """Init the recommendation engine given a Spark context and a dataset path
        logger.info("Starting up the Recommendation Engine: ")
        self.sc = sc
        # Load ratings data for later use
        logger.info("Loading Ratings data...")
        ratings_file_path = os.path.join(dataset_path, 'ratings.csv')
        ratings_raw_RDD = self.sc.textFile(ratings_file_path)
        ratings_raw_data_header = ratings_raw_RDD.take(1)[0]
        self.ratings_RDD = ratings_raw_RDD.filter(lambda line: line!=ratings_raw_data_header)\
            .map(lambda line: line.split(",")).map(lambda tokens: (int(tokens[0]),int(tokens[1]),float(tokens[2]))).cache()
        # Load movies data for later use
        logger.info("Loading Movies data...")
        movies_file_path = os.path.join(dataset_path, 'movies.csv')
        movies_raw_RDD = self.sc.textFile(movies_file_path)
        movies_raw_data_header = movies_raw_RDD.take(1)[0]
        self.movies_RDD = movies_raw_RDD.filter(lambda line: line!=movies_raw_data_header)\
            .map(lambda line: line.split(",")).map(lambda tokens: (int(tokens[0]),tokens[1],tokens[2])).cache()
        self.movies_titles_RDD = self.movies_RDD.map(lambda x: (int(x[0]),x[1])).cache()
        # Pre-calculate movies ratings counts
        # Train the model
        self.rank = 8
        self.seed = 5L
        self.iterations = 10
        self.regularization_parameter = 0.1

All the code form the __init__ and the two private methods has been explained in the tutorial about Building the Model.

Adding New Ratings

When using Collaborative Filtering and Spark's Alternating Least Squares, we need to recompute the prediction model for every new batch of user ratings. This was explained in our previous tutorial on building the model.

def add_ratings(self, ratings):
    """Add additional movie ratings in the format (user_id, movie_id, rating)
    # Convert ratings to an RDD
    new_ratings_RDD = self.sc.parallelize(ratings)
    # Add new ratings to the existing ones
    self.ratings_RDD = self.ratings_RDD.union(new_ratings_RDD)
    # Re-compute movie ratings count
    # Re-train the ALS model with the new ratings

    return ratings

# Attach the function to a class method
RecommendationEngine.add_ratings = add_ratings

Making Recommendations

We also explained how to make recommendations with our ALS model in the tutorial about building the movie recommender. Here, we will basically repeat equivalent code, wrapped inside a method of our RecommendationEnginer class, and making use of a private method that will be used for every predicting method.

def __predict_ratings(self, user_and_movie_RDD):
    """Gets predictions for a given (userID, movieID) formatted RDD
    Returns: an RDD with format (movieTitle, movieRating, numRatings)
    predicted_RDD = self.model.predictAll(user_and_movie_RDD)
    predicted_rating_RDD = predicted_RDD.map(lambda x: (x.product, x.rating))
    predicted_rating_title_and_count_RDD = \
    predicted_rating_title_and_count_RDD = \
        predicted_rating_title_and_count_RDD.map(lambda r: (r[1][0][1], r[1][0][0], r[1][1]))

    return predicted_rating_title_and_count_RDD
def get_top_ratings(self, user_id, movies_count):
    """Recommends up to movies_count top unrated movies to user_id
    # Get pairs of (userID, movieID) for user_id unrated movies
    user_unrated_movies_RDD = self.movies_RDD.filter(lambda rating: not rating[1]==user_id).map(lambda x: (user_id, x[0]))
    # Get predicted ratings
    ratings = self.__predict_ratings(user_unrated_movies_RDD).filter(lambda r: r[2]>=25).takeOrdered(movies_count, key=lambda x: -x[1])

    return ratings

# Attach the functions to class methods
RecommendationEngine.__predict_ratings = __predict_ratings
RecommendationEngine.get_top_ratings = get_top_ratings

Apart form getting the top unrated movies, we will also want to get ratings to particular movies. We will do so with a new mothod in our RecommendationEngine.

def get_ratings_for_movie_ids(self, user_id, movie_ids):
    """Given a user_id and a list of movie_ids, predict ratings for them 
    requested_movies_RDD = self.sc.parallelize(movie_ids).map(lambda x: (user_id, x))
    # Get predicted ratings
    ratings = self.__predict_ratings(requested_movies_RDD).collect()

    return ratings

# Attach the function to a class method
RecommendationEngine.get_ratings_for_movie_ids = get_ratings_for_movie_ids

Building a Web API around our Engine using Flask

Flask is a web microframework for Python. It is very easy to start up a web API, by just importing in in our script and using some annotations to associate our service end-points with Python functions. In our case we will wrap our RecommendationEngine methods around some of these end-points and interchange JSON formatted data with the web client.

In fact is so simple that we will show the whole app.py here, instead of going piece by piece.

from flask import Blueprint
main = Blueprint('main', __name__)
import json
from engine import RecommendationEngine
import logging
logger = logging.getLogger(__name__)
from flask import Flask, request
@main.route("/<int:user_id>/ratings/top/<int:count>", methods=["GET"])
def top_ratings(user_id, count):
    logger.debug("User %s TOP ratings requested", user_id)
    top_ratings = recommendation_engine.get_top_ratings(user_id,count)
    return json.dumps(top_ratings)
@main.route("/<int:user_id>/ratings/<int:movie_id>", methods=["GET"])
def movie_ratings(user_id, movie_id):
    logger.debug("User %s rating requested for movie %s", user_id, movie_id)
    ratings = recommendation_engine.get_ratings_for_movie_ids(user_id, [movie_id])
    return json.dumps(ratings)
@main.route("/<int:user_id>/ratings", methods = ["POST"])
def add_ratings(user_id):
    # get the ratings from the Flask POST request object
    ratings_list = request.form.keys()[0].strip().split("\n")
    ratings_list = map(lambda x: x.split(","), ratings_list)
    # create a list with the format required by the negine (user_id, movie_id, rating)
    ratings = map(lambda x: (user_id, int(x[0]), float(x[1])), ratings_list)
    # add them to the model using then engine API
    return json.dumps(ratings)
def create_app(spark_context, dataset_path):
    global recommendation_engine 
    recommendation_engine = RecommendationEngine(spark_context, dataset_path)    
    app = Flask(__name__)
    return app

Basically we use the app as follows:

  • We init the thing when calling create_app. Here the RecommendationEngine object is created and then we associate the @main.route annotations defined above. Each annotation is defined by (see Flask docs):
  • A route, that is its URL and may contain parameters between <>. They are mapped to the function arguments.
  • A list of HTTP available methods.
  • There are three of these annotations defined, that correspond with the three RecommendationEngine methods:
    • GET /<user_id>/ratings/top get top recommendations from the engine.
    • GET /<user_id>/ratings get predicted rating for a individual movie.
    • POST /<user_id>/ratings add new ratings. The format is a series of lines (ending with the newline separator) with movie_id and rating separated by commas. For example, the following file corresponds to the ten new user ratings used as a example in the tutorial about building the model:

Deploying a WSGI Server using CherryPy

Among other things, the CherryPy framework features a reliable, HTTP/1.1-compliant, WSGI thread-pooled webserver. It is also easy to run multiple HTTP servers (e.g. on multiple ports) at once. All this makes it a perfect candidate for an easy to deploy production web server for our on-line recommendation service.

The use that we will make of the CherryPy server is relatively simple. Again we will show here the complete server.py script and then explain it a bit.

import time, sys, cherrypy, os
from paste.translogger import TransLogger
from app import create_app
from pyspark import SparkContext, SparkConf
def init_spark_context():
    # load spark context
    conf = SparkConf().setAppName("movie_recommendation-server")
    # IMPORTANT: pass aditional Python modules to each worker
    sc = SparkContext(conf=conf, pyFiles=['engine.py', 'app.py'])
    return sc
def run_server(app):
    # Enable WSGI access logging via Paste
    app_logged = TransLogger(app)
    # Mount the WSGI callable object (app) on the root directory
    cherrypy.tree.graft(app_logged, '/')
    # Set the configuration of the web server
        'engine.autoreload.on': True,
        'log.screen': True,
        'server.socket_port': 5432,
        'server.socket_host': ''
    # Start the CherryPy WSGI web server
if __name__ == "__main__":
    # Init spark context and load libraries
    sc = init_spark_context()
    dataset_path = os.path.join('datasets', 'ml-latest')
    app = create_app(sc, dataset_path)
    # start web server

This is pretty standard use of CherryPy. If we have a look at the __main__ entry point, we do three things:

  • Create a spark context as defined in the function init_spark_context, passing aditional Python modules there.
  • Create the Flask app calling the create_app we defined in app.py.
  • Run the server itself.

See the following section about starting the server.

Running the Server with Spark

In order to have the server running while being able to access a Spark context and cluster, we need to submit the server.py file to pySpark by using spark-submit. The different parameters when using this command are better explained in the Spark docummentaion. In our case, we will use something like the following:
~/spark-1.3.1-bin-hadoop2.6/bin/spark-submit --master spark:// --total-executor-cores 14 --executor-memory 6g server.py
The important bits are:

  • Use spark-submit and not pyspark directly.
  • The --master parameters must point to your Spark cluster setup (can be local).
  • You can pass additional configuration parameters such as --total-executor-cores and --executor-memory

You will see an output like the following:

INFO:engine:Starting up the Recommendation Engine: 
INFO:engine:Loading Ratings data...
INFO:engine:Loading Movies data...
INFO:engine:Counting movie ratings...
INFO:engine:Training the ALS model...
       ... More Spark and CherryPy logging
INFO:engine:ALS model built!                                                                                                 
[05/Jul/2015:14:06:29] ENGINE Bus STARTING
[05/Jul/2015:14:06:29] ENGINE Started monitor thread 'Autoreloader'.
[05/Jul/2015:14:06:29] ENGINE Started monitor thread '_TimeoutMonitor'.
[05/Jul/2015:14:06:29] ENGINE Serving on
[05/Jul/2015:14:06:29] ENGINE Bus STARTED

Some Considerations When Using Multiple Scripts and Spark-submit

There are two issues we need to work around when using Spark in a deployment like this. The first one is that a Spark cluster is a distrubuted environment of Workers orchestrated from the Spark Master where the Python script is launched. This means that the master is the only one with access to the submitted script and local additional files. If we want the workers to be able to access additional imported Python moules, they either have to be part of our Python distributuon or we need to pass them implicitly. We do this by using the pyFiles=['engine.py', 'app.py'] parameter when creating the SparkContext object.

The second issue is related with the previous one but is a bit more tricky. In Spark, when using transformations (e.g. map on an RDD), we cannot make reference to other RDDs or objects that are not globally available in the execution context. For example, we cannot make reference to a class instance variables. Because of this, we have defined all the functions that are passed to RDD transformations outside the RecommendationEgine class.

Trying the service

Let's now give the service a try, using the same data we used on the tutorial about building the model. That is, first we are going to add ratings, and then we are going to get top ratings and individual ratings.

POSTing New Ratings

So first things first, we need to have our service runing as explained in the previous section. Once is running, we will use curl to post new ratings from the shell. If we have the file user_ratings.file (see Getting the source code below) in the current folder, just execute the following command:
curl --data-binary @user_ratings.file http://<SERVER_IP>:5432/0/ratings
Replacing <SERVER_IP> with the IP address where you have the server running (e.g. localhost or if its running locally). This command will start some computations and end up with an output representing the ratings that has been submitted as a list of lists (this is just to check that the process was successful).

In the server output window you will see the actual Spark computation output together with CherryPy's output messages about HTTP requests.

GETing Top Recommendations

This one you can do it using also curl, but the JSON rendering will be better if you just use your web browser. Just go to http://<SERVER_IP>:5432/0/ratings/top/10 to get the top 10 movie recommendations for the user we POSTed recommendations for. The results should match with those seen in the tutorial about Building the Model.

GETing Individual Ratings

Similarly, we can curl/navigate to http://<SERVER_IP>:5432/0/ratings/500 to get the predicted rating for the movie The Quiz (1994).

Getting the Source Code

The source code for the three Python files, together with additional files, that compose our web service can be found in the following GISTs.


In this tutorial we have built a RESTful API around a Spark recommendation engine using the Flask micro-framework. We have also associated the API to a production web server such as that provided by the CherryPy framework. By doing so we have a scalable service we can use to obtain personalised movie recommendations for multiple web applications.

Moreover, the approach and technologies described here can be used in a similar way with other Spark models. For example, we could wire the service with a MLlib machine learning model for classification or prediction, or with a Spark stream for real-time data analysis.

That is, Spark provides scalable data analytics and, by using it from Python, we open the door to the use of lightweight web frameworks such as Flask and CherryPy, that are expressive, powerful, and very easy to use and deploy.

Discover and read more posts from Jose A Dianes
get started
Enjoy this post?

Leave a like and comment for Jose

2 months ago

Thanks for a great tutorial!
Getting top recommendations
How can i integrate the movie_id in the JSON File

Bodil Biering
3 months ago

Thanks for a great tutorial! I am running spark locally and it works fine for a python program with no library imports, but how do you get spark to run with 3. party libraries eg CherryPy? When I run the start_server.sh I just get an import error.

Vivek Shankar Sharma
5 months ago

Thanks for the tutorial! You pointed out that functions involving RDD tranformations cannot be defined in the same class, but you have contradicted that in the Github code.
Could you please explain it a bit further as I cannot find any related information online?

Show more replies

Get curated posts in your inbox

Learn programming by reading more posts like this