Introduction to the Azure Machine Learning Workbench

Following the announcements post published some days ago  here,  we will dig deeper on this new tool, the Workbench. This is also called AML Workbench, which is shorter and this term will be used from now on to refer to Azure Machine Learning Workbench (glad about the acronym as I do not want to type that again :P)


But, what’s the AML Workbench?

It is a desktop application for Windows and MacOS, it has built-in data preparation that learns the data preparation steps as we perform them, which is able take avantage of the best open source frameworks including TensorFlow, Cognitive Toolkit, Spark ML and scikit-learn.

This also means that if you have a GPU that supports AI (read my earlier blog post on the topic here ) you will be benefitting from that power heads-on.

Oh, it has also a command line interface for those who like them 😀


Sounds interesting? Then let’s get started!


Concepts first!

AML – Azure Machine Learning

This is in need to be described at the earliest as it might be a bit confusing. This is a solution proposal from Microsoft that englobes different components and services to provide an integrated end-to-end solution for data science and advanced analytics.

With it we can prepare data, develop experiments and deploy models at cloud scale (read massive scalability here)

AML consists of a few components:

  • AML Workbench – Desktop tool to “do-it-all” from a single location.
  • AML Experimentation Service – I “suppose” this will enable us to validate hypothesis in a protected scenario.
  • AML Model Management Service – I suppose this will enable us to manage our models
  • Microsoft Machine Learning Libraries for Apache Spark (MML Spark Library) – I read Spark/Hadoop integration here, probably to Azure servers
  • Visual Studio Code Tools for AI – I read here R & Python integration with Visual Studio


This picture showcases how AML Workbench fits in the Microsoft AI Ecosystem:

AML intro architec high level.JPG

To say that AML fully integrates with OS (Open Source) initiatives such as scikit-learn, TensorFlow, Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit or Spark ML.

The created experiments can be run in managed environments as Docker containers and clusters running Hadoop with Spark (I am wondering why is Microsoft is only mentioning Spark there if they work together? – Ok! As it was built as an improvement over MapReduce it can also run Stand Alone in the cloud, that’s why!). Also they can use advanced hardware like GPU-enabled VMs in Azure.

AML is built on top of the following technologies:

  • Jupyter Notebooks
  • Apache Spark
  • Docker
  • Kubernetes
  • Python
  • Conda


AML Workbench (yeah, finally!)

Desktop application with a command-line for Windows & MacOS to manage ML solutions through the entire data science life cycle.

  • ETL
  • Model development and experiment management
  • Model Deployment


It provides the following functionalities:

  • Data Preparation that can learn by example (Wow!)
  • Data source abstraction
  • Python SDK for invoking visually constructed data preparation packages (SSIS anyone?)
  • Built-in Jupyter Notebook service and Client UX (like anaconda?)
  • Experiment monitoring and management
  • Role-based access to support sharing and collaboration
  • Automatic project snapshots for each run and version control (trazability on “experiments” at last!) along GIT integration
  • Integration with popular Python IDEs


Let’s install it!

First things first, do you have a computer with windows 10 or macOS Sierra? (I guess you won’t have a Windows Server 2016 at home, do you?) If so proceed.. else go update 😉


Oh, well… before installing we need to set up an ML experimentation account..

Go log-in in the Azure portal here

Click on the new button (+) on the top left corner of the Azure portal and tzpe “machine learning” and select the “Machine Learning experimentation (preview)”

Azure 01 MLE preview.JPG

Click create and fill in the nice form:

Azure 02 MLE preview.JPG

Be sure to select “DevTest” as the cost-saving Model Management pricing tear, otherwise it will have a cost. Dev Test appears as “0.00”. Otherwise you might forget and have a non-pleasant surprise…

Azure 03 MLE preview.JPG

As I am not that much into playing with azure at a personal level (mostly HOLs and learning) I deleted all my resources, including a DB I created at a HOL that suddenly had a cost… luckily very low… and created all the required elements from the ground up. Resource Group, experimentation account, storage account, workspace, model management account, account name… my recommendation is that you keep that data safe and close to you. As this is all protected by Microsoft’s Azure security.

Oh, and Click “Create” to create all this components in the cloud. We should see a “Deployment in progress..” message which should be over in a couple of minutes, as shown in the picture below.

Azure 04 MLE preview.JPG

Also we should see the details of the resources created, storage, resource group, etc… along some useful tools to download (at last) the AML Workbench.

We can also download it from here

And double click it or right click and select “install”.

After the installer loads we should see the gorgeous installer…

Azure 05 MLE preview.JPG

It’s clean, it’s! I meant modern!

As usual, click continue and you will be presented the dependencies and installation path, shown next.

Azure 06 MLE preview.JPG

There I did not like I could not change the installation path… so we can only click the install button… and cross fingers that this does not create any conflict with your Anaconda installation… as this is a clear preview (read here: under your own responsibility)

Oh, I do NOT recommend you to wait for the installation to finish…

…go watch a series or to the gym (as I did in fact) – the installation will take about half an hour to download and install all the required components…


Now AML Workbench (preview) is installed in your computer, congratulations!!

Azure 07 MLE preview.JPG

Note that you can find it at C:\Users\<user>\AppData\Local\AmlWorkbench

Oh, and get used to this icon, I have the feeling we will be visiting it for a while 😉

But let’s continue, we are not yet finished!!


First steps!

So, let’s do something! Baby steps of course..

Start it and log-in to your Azure/Microsoft account. Automatically you should be able to see the recently created workspace in the Azure portal.


Click on the plus sign next to “Projects” panel in the top left or in the text menu, select File and then “New Project…”

We will give our project a name, like “Iris”, then select a directory to save your Azure Machine Learning Projects in your local computer and add a description.

We have to select our workspace, which by default will be the one we just created in the first place.

We will select the template “Classifying Iris” and click on the “Create” button below. This template is a companion sample project for Azure Machine Learning which uses the iris flower dataset.

Azure 07b MLE preview.JPG

Once the project has been created we will see the dashboard of the recently created project.

We can see several sections from our dashboard: the home section of our project, the data sources, notebooks, runs and Files.

On the project dashboard panel we can see a description of our project with instructions on how to set it up and follow the Quick start and tutorials, as well as an execution section.

The Data panel showcases the data sources and the preparations for obtaining them. This is a pretty special section with truly amazing features that can only be found on the AML Workbench, but we will see it on a next post.

It is worth noting that the Notebook panel is basically a Jupyter notebook container, as on the installation there was a custom anaconda installation being made, which also did not seem to tamper with my installation of Anaconda…

We can also open the project in Visual Studio Code or other configured IDE.

If we do not have we can install it now here

On the text menu, select File, then “Configure Project IDE” and input a name and the path for your IDE, which I selected VS Code, as we can see next:

Azure 08 MLE preview.JPG

Once this is installed, we should install Python support for VSCode, so we go to the extensions menu and select one of the Python extensions. In my case I selected the Python 0.7.0 from Don Jayamanne, but this extension seems the most complete.

Azure 09 MLE preview.JPG

Once this is set up we can go to the text menu, click on File, then on “Open Project”, next to it should appear our configured IDE between brackets, “(Visual Studio Code)”. We can see VSCode with the project loaded and we can click on one of the Python source files, for example, We should see the syntax highlighter at work, intellisense also working, between some other features.

Azure 10 MLE preview.JPG

Now, let’s execute it, we can go to the project dashboard panel and select “local”, then the source file “” and add “0.01” in the arguments and click run.

We could also execute it on the Files panel, select the “”

On the right side of AML Workbench, the Jobs pane should appear and showcase the execution(s) that we have started.

While we are at it, we could try some other executions changing the argument to range from 0.001 to 10.

Azure 11 MLE preview.JPG

What we are doing is executing a logistic regression algorithm which uses the scikit-learn library.

Once the different executions have finished, we could go to the Runs panel. There, select “” on the run list and the run history dashboard should show the different runs.

Azure 12 MLE preview.JPG

We can click on the different executions and see the details.

By now we have grasped the concepts of AML and its ecosystem, configured our environment in Azure, installed the Workbench, configured and next created a sample project and executed it locally.

Hope this was a good introduction and you enjoyed it.