Handling data sources on Azure Machine Learning

Image source : https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/machine-learning/concept-data

Being the fundamental and the most vital factor in any machine learning experiment, the way of handling data in your experiments is crucial. Here we going to discuss different ways of managing your data sources inside Azure Machine Learning (AML).

Since the new Azure Machine Learning Service is becoming the one-stop place for managing all ML related workloads in Azure, the functions and methods can be created/managed using the web portal or using AzureML python SDK (You may use AzureML R SDK or the Azure CLI too)

Data comes in all shapes and sizes. In order to tackle these different data scenarios AML offers different options to manage the data. Let’s discuss these options one by one with their usages, pros and cons.


Datastore is the place where the data sits in an AML experiment. Your AML workspace can have one or more Datastores connected according to your need.

AML is all about cloud-based machine learning. So that, I would recommend using some sort of Azure based storage to store your data in the first hand. Blob storage, File Share, Data Lake Storage, Azure SQL database, Azure PostgreSQL, Azure DB for MySQL and Databricks file system are currently supported data storage types to create Datastores. (Will say your data is at on-prem SQL database. You can use Azure Data Factory to migrate your data load onto Azure.)

You can see the Datastores registered to your workspace either through AML Studio (ml.azure.com) or through the python SDK. When you create a workspace, by default two Datastores are created : workspacefilestore and workspaceblobstore.

Workspaceblobstore acts as the default Datastore of experiments. You can change it at any time through the SDK. This is the place where all your code and other files you put in the experiment sits.

Is it a good idea to keep your data on the workspaceblobstore?

  • Scenario #1 : You are doing a toy experiment with a small dataset (Eg. a 2 MB CSV file). Dataset is static and no plan on updating that during the experiment. Yes! That’s completely ok to keep the dataset inside workspaceblobstore.
  • Scenario #2 : You are doing a deep learning experiment with a 100,000 images. No! Never use workspaceblobstore to keep your data.

Why not the workspaceblobstore always?

Workspaceblobstore is having a file and storage limitation (300MB and/or 2000 files). So that it’s impossible to use it when we have a large dataset. On the other hand, this directly affects for the docker image size (or the snapshot size) you may create for the experiment. Bulky snapshots or the docker images are not a good thing. Always keep it simple and modularized. So always the workspaceblobstore is a no go!


AML datasets is the high-level abstraction of the data you use in experiments. You may create an AML dataset from,

  • A local file / local files
  • Registered datastore (from file(s) sit on a datastore)
  • Web URL
  • Azure Open Datasets

The AML datasets we create may belong to two main types:

  • Tabular datasets – If you have a file/ files that contains data in a tabular format (CSV, JSON line files, Parquet files, Tabular data in SQL databases etc.) creating a tabular dataset would be beneficial as it allows to transform data into a Pandas or Spark DataFrame.    
  • File datasets – Refer to a single or multiple file in your Datastore or on a public URL. File datasets comes handy when you have a scenario like a dataset with 1K images.

AML datasets comes with the advantage of versioning and tracking as well as monitoring. It’s not a hard thing to create perform data drift detection or a simple statistical analysis on data fields of the dataset with a few clicks.  

Microsoft recommends to use AML datasets always in experiments rather than pointing for the datastore directly (which is totally possible). I’ve found out pros and cons in both approaches.

  • AML datasets are easy to version and manage compared to datastore.
  • If you have a tabular dataset, I would always recommend to go for AML tabular datasets.
  • It becomes tricky when you have files. If you use File datasets, you have to use to_path() method to get the list of file paths defined by the dataset. This comes as a flat list! If you are not concerned about the directory structure of the data this is totally fine. But if you wish to create custom dataloaders (Eg. PyTorch custom dataloaders which allows to differentiate classes according to directories) this may not come handy. (You can do a workaround by processing the file path to determine the directory structure though 😀 )  
  • Keep in mind that AML dataset mount() only works for unix-like OS. If you wish to run your experiment on a windows running workstation you may have to download() the dataset.

Will discuss on using these datasets in different model training scenarios in future posts.

There are just some of the experiences I had when playing around with new Azure Machine Learning. The Microsoft Learning GitHub repo (https://github.com/MicrosoftLearning/DP100) for DP100 exam is a really nice place to find some example code on using these functionalities. Let me know your find outs and experiences with AML too 😊

Happy coding!     

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