Baby steps with CNTK and F#

So what have I been up to lately? Obsessing over CNTK, the Microsoft deep-learning library. Specifically, the team released a .NET API, which got me interested in exploring how usable this would be from the F# scripting environment. I started a repository to try out some ideas already, but, before diving into that in later posts, I figure I could start by a simple introduction, to set some context.

First, what problem does CNTK solve?

Imagine that you are interested in predicting something, and that you have data available, both inputs you can observe (the features), and the values you are trying to predict (the labels). Imagine now that you have an idea of the type of relationship between the input and the output, something along the lines of:

labels ≈ function(features, parameters).

To make this more concrete, that function could be quite complex, and involve multiple layers of input transformation into the final output (“deep learning”), or it could be quite simple, for instance a traditional linear regression, something along the lines of:

car price ≈ car years * coefficient1 + car engine size * coefficient2 + constant.

In this particular case, we have 2 features (car years and car engine size), 1 label (car price), and 3 parameters (coefficient1, coefficient2 and constant) - and we would like to find “good” values for the 3 parameters so that the predicted value is in general close to the correct value.

The purpose of CNTK is to:

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a very basic example, a simple linear regression. Using CNTK here is complete overkill, and not worth the overhead; I would not use it for something that simple. Our goal here is simply to illustrate the basics of how CNTK works, from F#. In future posts, we will look into scenarios where CNTK is actually useful. As a secondary goal, I want to discuss some of the aspects that make building a nice F# API on top of the current .NET one tricky.

Loading CNTK into the F# scripting environment

First order of business: let’s load this thing into VS Code.

CNTK has a few packages on Nuget, based on what environment you want to run on. In our case, we will focus on a CPU-only scenario, using the CNTK.CPUOnly 2.3.1 package.

We assume that the Ionide-fsharp and Ionide-Paket extensions are installed in VS Code. Open the Folder where you want to work, and run the Paket: Init command (CTRL+SHIFT+P reveals the available commands). This will create a paket.dependencies file in the folder, where you can now specify what packages are needed, like this:

nuget CNTK.CPUOnly

Run Paket: Install next, and let Paket do its magic, and download the required packages. Once the operation completes, you should see a new folder, packages, with the following structure:


Let’s start creating the script we will be working with now, by adding an F# script file CNTK.fsx to our folder. Unfortunately, CNTK depends on a few native libraries to run properly. As a result, the setup is a bit more involved than the usual #r "path/to/library.dll. We’ll follow @cdrnet approach to load native libraries described here, and add to the PATH every folder that contains the dlls we need, so Cntk.Core.Managed-2.3.1.dll can find them:

Note: I put the full code used in the post on a gist here

open System
open System.IO

    Environment.GetEnvironmentVariable("Path") + ";" + __SOURCE_DIRECTORY__)

let dependencies = [

|> Seq.iter (fun dep -> 
    let path = Path.Combine(__SOURCE_DIRECTORY__,dep)
        Environment.GetEnvironmentVariable("Path") + ";" + path)

#I "./packages/CNTK.CPUOnly/lib/net45/x64/"
#I "./packages/CNTK.CPUOnly/support/x64/Dependency/"
#I "./packages/CNTK.CPUOnly/support/x64/Dependency/Release/"
#I "./packages/CNTK.CPUOnly/support/x64/Release/"

#r "./packages/CNTK.CPUOnly/lib/net45/x64/Cntk.Core.Managed-2.3.1.dll"
open CNTK

Creating a Function

We can now start using CNTK in our script. Let’s build a function that takes 2 floats as input, and returns a float as an output, multiplying each of the inputs by a parameter.

A core element in CNTK is the NDShape, for n-dimensional shape. Think of an NDShape as an n-dimensional array. A vector of size 5 would be an NDShape of dimension [ 5 ] (rank 1), a 12x18 image a NDShape [ 12; 18 ] (rank 2), a 10 x 10 RGB image a NDShape [ 10; 10; 3 channels ] (rank 3), and so on. In our case, the input is an array of size 2, and the output an array of size 1:

let inputDim = 2
let outputDim = 1
let input = Variable.InputVariable(NDShape.CreateNDShape [inputDim], DataType.Double, "input")
let output = Variable.InputVariable(NDShape.CreateNDShape [outputDim], DataType.Double, "output")

Which produces the following output:

val inputDim : int = 2
val outputDim : int = 1
val input = Variable
val output = Variable

Note how the numeric type of the Variable, DataType.Double, is passed in as a argument, and not generic. Note also how the numeric types are aligned with the C# convention; that is, a DataType.Double is an F# float, and a DataType.Float is an F# single.

We can ask a Variable about its shape, for instance input.Shape:

val it : NDShape = CNTK.NDShape { Dimensions = seq [2]; (* more stuff *) Rank = 1; }

Let’s create our Function now:

let device = DeviceDescriptor.CPUDevice

let predictor =
    let dim = input.Shape.[0]
    let weights = new Parameter(NDShape.CreateNDShape [dim], DataType.Double, 0.0, device, "weights")
    // create an intermediate Function
    let product = CNTKLib.TransposeTimes(input, weights)    
    let constant = new Parameter(NDShape.CreateNDShape [ outputDim ], DataType.Double, 0.0, device, "constant") 
    CNTKLib.Plus(new Variable(product), constant)
val device : DeviceDescriptor
val predictor : Function

A couple of comments here. Our predictor creates a named Parameter weights of dimension and type matching the input Variable, with values initialized at 0.0. We multiply the two shapes together, by calling CNTKLib.TransposeTimes, computing x1 * w1 + x2 * w2, which returns a Function. We then create another Parameter for our constant, and sum them up, using CNTKLib.Plus.

Note how we have to explicitly convert product into a Variable in the final step, using new Variable(product). CNTKLib.Plus (and the other functions built in CNTKLib) expects 2 Variable arguments. Unfortunately, a Function is not a Variable, and they do not derive from a common class or interface. The .NET API supports implicit conversion between these 2 types, which works well in C#, where you could just sum these up directly, like this: CNTKLib.Plus(product, constant). F# doesn’t support implicit conversion, and as a result, this requires an annoying amount of explicit manual conversion to combine operations together.

Note also how we passed in device, a DeviceDescriptor, to the Parameter constructor. A CNTK Function is intended to run on a device, which must be specified. In this case, we could have omitted the device, in what case it would have picked up by default CPU.

Working with CNTK Functions

Now that we have a Function - what can we do with it?

Unsuprisingly, we can pass input to a function, and compute the resulting value. We will do that next. However, before doing that, it’s perhaps useful to put things in perspective, to understand why this isn’t as straightforward as you might expect from something named a function. Once an F# function has been instantiated, its whole purpose is to transform an input value into an output value. The intent of a CNTK Function is subtly different: the objective here is to take a function, and modify its Parameters so that when passed in some input, the output it produces is close to some desired output, the Labels. In other words, we want a Function to be “trainable”: we want to be able to pass it known input/output pairs, and adjust the function parameters to fit the data better.

With that said, let’s evaluate our predictor function. To do that, we will need to do 3 things:

Let’s do that:

open System.Collections.Generic

let inputValue = Value.CreateBatch(NDShape.CreateNDShape [inputDim], [| 3.0; 5.0 |], device)
let inputMap = 
    let map = Dictionary<Variable,Value>()
    map.Add(input, inputValue)

let predictedOutput = predictor.Output
let weights = 
    predictor.Parameters () 
    |> Seq.find (fun p -> p.Name = "weights")
let constant = 
    predictor.Parameters () 
    |> Seq.find (fun p -> p.Name = "constant")
let outputMap =
    let map = Dictionary<Variable,Value>()
    map.Add(predictedOutput, null)
    map.Add(weights, null)
    map.Add(constant, null)


To evaluate a Function, we pass it the input we care about, a Dictionary<Variable,Value>, which we fill in with input, the Variable we defined earlier. We provide (completely arbitrarily) a value of [3.0;5.0] as an input value. In a similar fashion, we specify what we want to observe: the predicted value, predictor.Output, as well as the 2 named parameters we created, “weights” and “constant”, which we also retrieve from the Function itself. In this case, we set the Value to null, because we have no input to supply. Finally, we run predictor.Evaluate, which will take the inputMap and fill in the missing values in the outputMap.

We can now review the outputs:

let currentPrediction = 
    |> (fun x -> x |> Seq.toArray)
    |> Seq.toArray

let currentWeights = 
    |> (fun x -> x |> Seq.toArray)
    |> Seq.toArray

let currentConstant = 
    |> (fun x -> x |> Seq.toArray)
    |> Seq.toArray

This is not pretty, but… we have values.

val currentPrediction : float [] [] = [| [| 0.0 |] |]
val currentWeights : float [] [] = [| [| 0.0; 0.0 |] |] 
val currentConstant : float [] [] = [| [| 0.0 |] |] 

The values we get back are pretty unexciting, but at least they are what we would expect to see. Given that both weights and constant were initialized at 0.0, the function should produce a currentPrediction of 0.0 * 3.0 + 0.0 * 5.0 + 0.0, which is indeed 0.0.

Two quick notes here. First, because a value could be of any DataType, we have to manually specify a type when retrieving the values, as in GetDenseData<float>. Then, this is a very stateful model: when we fill in values for the input in the inputMap, we pass in the input instance we initially created to construct the Function. In a similar fashion, we are retrieving values from the instances we passed into the outputMap.

Training a model

This was pretty painful. So what is our reward for that pain?

As I stated earlier, one defining feature of a Function is that it can be trained. What we mean by that is the following: we can take a Function, supply it batches of input and desired output pairs, and progressively adjust the internal Parameter(s) of the Function so that the values computed by the Function become close(r) to the desired output.

Let’s start with a simple illustration. Suppose for a minute that, for our input [ 3.0; 5.0 ], we expected a result of 10.0. Currently, our weights and constant are set to 0.0. By modifying these 3 values, we should be able to tune our predictor to get an answer of 10.0.

This is, of course, a silly example. There are many ways I could change the parameters to produce 10.0 - I could set the constant to 10.0, or the second weight to 2.0, or infinitely many other combinations. To get something meaningful, I would need many different input/output pairs. However, we’ll start with this, strictly to illustrate the mechanics involved.

Training a Function involves 3 elements:

let batchInputValue = Value.CreateBatch(NDShape.CreateNDShape [inputDim], [| 3.0; 5.0 |], device)
let batchOutputValue = Value.CreateBatch(NDShape.CreateNDShape [outputDim], [| 10.0 |], device)

let batch =
    |> dict

let loss = CNTKLib.SquaredError(new Variable(predictor), output, "loss")
let evaluation = CNTKLib.SquaredError(new Variable(predictor), output, "evaluation")

let learningRatePerSample = new TrainingParameterScheduleDouble(0.01, uint32 1)
let learners = 
            Learner.SGDLearner(predictor.Parameters(), learningRatePerSample)

let trainer = Trainer.CreateTrainer(predictor, loss, evaluation, learners)

for i in 0 .. 10 do
    let _ = trainer.TrainMinibatch(batch, true, device)
    trainer.PreviousMinibatchLossAverage () |> printfn "Loss: %f"
    trainer.PreviousMinibatchEvaluationAverage () |> printfn "Eval: %f"

First, we create a batch of input/output values ([ 3.0; 5.0 ] and [ 10.0 ]), and link them to the input and output Variable(s) we created. Then we define what measure we want to use to determine if a prediction is close or not from the target value. In this case, we use the built-in CNTKLib.SquaredError, which computes the square difference between the predicted value (new Variable(predictor)) and the target value (output). For instance, with the initial weights and constant, the predicted value will be 0.0, and we specified that the desired value was 10.0, so the loss function will evaluate to (0.0 - 10.0)^2, that is, 100.0 - and a perfect prediction of 10.0 would result in a loss of 0.0. Finally, without going into much detail, we specify in learners which strategy to apply when updating the function parameters. In this case, we use the built-in Stochastic Gradient Descent (SGD) strategy, with a learning rate of 0.01 (how aggressively to update the parameters) and a batch size of 1, using only one input/output pair at a time when performing adjustments.

We feed all that into a Trainer, and perform 10 updates (trainer.TrainMinibatch), using the same example input/output each time, and writing out the current value of the loss function:

Loss: 100.000000
Eval: 100.000000
Loss: 9.000000
Eval: 9.000000
// omitted intermediate results for brevity 
Loss: 0.000000
Eval: 0.000000
Loss: 0.000000
Eval: 0.000000

As you can observe, the prediction error decreases rapidly, from 100.0 initially (as expected), to basically 0.0 after only 10 steps.

Let’s make this a bit more interesting, by feeding different examples to the model:

let realModel (features:float[]) =
    3.0 * features.[0] - 2.0 * features.[1] + 5.0

let rng = Random(123456)
let batch () =        
    let batchSize = 32        
    let features = [| rng.NextDouble(); rng.NextDouble() |]
    let labels = [| realModel features |]
    let inputValues = Value.CreateBatch(NDShape.CreateNDShape [inputDim], features, device)
    let outputValues = Value.CreateBatch(NDShape.CreateNDShape [outputDim], labels, device)
    |> dict

Here we simply create a “true” function, realModel, which we use to generate synthetic data. We then modify our previous example, to feed 1,000 different examples for training:

#time "on"

for _ in 1 .. 1000 do
    let example = batch ()
    trainer.TrainMinibatch(example,true,device) |> ignore
    trainer.PreviousMinibatchLossAverage () |> printfn "Loss: %f"

On my machine, extracting the weights and constant from the Function after training yields 3.0019, -1.9978 and 4.9975 - pretty close to the correct values of 3.0, -2.0 and 5.0 that we used in realModel.

Note: I put the full code used in the post on a gist here

Parting thoughts

First, I want to re-iterate that the example we went through is not showcasing a good example of where and how to use CNTK. It is intended primarily as an illustration of CNTK’s building blocks and how they work together. For a trivial linear regression example like this one (shallow learning, if you will), you would be better served with a standard library such as Accord.NET. CNTK becomes interesting if you have a deeper, more complex model, and a larger dataset - we’ll explore this in later posts.

As a side-note, my initial intent was to use real batches for the final example, passing in multiple examples at once, but for reasons I couldn’t figure out yet, the code kept crashing.

My second goal was to explore the design of the current .NET API, as a preliminary step before trying to build an F#-scripting friendly layer on top of it.

In its current state, the CNTK .NET library is fairly low-level, and rather unpleasant to work with from F#. Ideally, one would like to be able to create re-usable blocks and compose them easily, along the lines of the Keras model, using a DSL to, for instance, define a network by stacking standard transformation layers on top of each other.

Such a DSL seems quite possible to achieve in F#, but requires taking into account a few design considerations. First, the choice to use implicit conversion between Variable and Function makes composition of functions in F# painful. This choice is reasonable for C#, but requires re-wrapping every Function into a Variable to string operations together on the F# side.

One aspect I am not a fan of in the library is how the DeviceDescriptor leaks all the way down. With the current model, I could create 2 parameters, one on CPU, one on GPU, and combine them together, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. In an ideal world, I would like to define a Function independently of any device, and only then decide whether I want to train that model on a CPU or a GPU.

Finally, the fact that a Variable or a Function cannot be named after it was instantiated, as far as I can tell, introduces complications in composing blocks together. If naming was separate from instantiation, we could create a function like named : string -> Function -> Function, which could be inserted anywhere.

I haven’t had much time yet to dig into the data readers; so far, most of my efforts have gone into exploring possible directions to address the questions above. If you are interested, the master branch of my repository contains working, straight conversions of the C# examples published by the CNTK team; the results of my explorations can be found in the 3 branches experiment-varorfun, experiment-interpreter and experiment-stacking.

I hope you found something of interest in this post! If you have feedback or suggestions, I would be quite interested to hear about them :) In the meanwhile, I will keep exploring - expect more on the topic in the near future!

Do you have a comment or a question?
Ping me on Mastodon!