This article is the third of a series dedicated to breaking down the basics and important decisions necessary to fully utilize MLOps.

The first article, "How to Choose MLOps Tools: Top Considerations that Impact Decision-Making," focused on the principle of MLOps as a LEGO set with emphasis on the individual components--or pieces--that build it. The second article, "MLOps Tools: The Ins and Outs of Choosing a Cloud Provider," highlighted GCP, AWS, and Azure's MLOps offerings. With MLOps becoming more mainstream, each of these cloud providers have invested heavily in improving and broadening their offerings. 

However, there has also been a surge of third-party tools that have emerged into the MLOps space. With so many options, understanding the third-party landscape can be confusing and exhausting. The purpose of this article is to break down the approach to picking the right third-party tool for your business.

Why do organizations use third-party tools? 

The first thing to consider is whether your organization has a need for a third-party tool. As we have already discussed, established platforms are investing heavily in improving their ML offerings so there are many cases where another tool is not needed. Below are some things to consider when assessing the need for a third-party tool. 

Gap in the market

Third-party tools can have very specific use-cases that address a gap in the market broader platforms have not yet covered. Recall from the series of earlier articles, the key features of an MLOps system are as follows:

  • Data management
  • Model versioning and storage
  • Model training and deployment
  • Model validation
  • Continuous integration & continuous delivery (CI/CD)

While it is important to approach MLOps holistically with all these individual components, you may find that a third-party tool can address one of these specific components in a unique way that fits well with your overall system.

Less disruption to your business

There are many business considerations that go into choosing any platform to host your systems. With MLOps being relatively new to your business, it is possible your platform is not already optimized for MLOps since it was not a deciding factor when you were building. If that is the case, then starting over on a new platform can be costly and disruptive to your business. Third-party tools give you flexibility and can integrate well into your existing system allowing you to utilize MLOps without starting from scratch.

Get started quicker

Third-party tools can be more customizable and blend easily into your existing systems. This gives you the ability to cut back on the upfront configuration time required to utilize larger platforms. The flexibility to get started quicker can bring value to your business faster depending on the specific use case. With lower upfront set up time it is also possible to explore different tools and experiment with different offerings before committing to a final platform to run your pipelines. 

Types of third-party tools

Third-party MLOps tools can be broadly categorized into two different groups: paid, or so-called "off the shelf" tools, and open-source third-party tools. Each of these categories comes with its own benefits and drawbacks that will ultimately affect your tool selection process. 

Paid or off-the-shelf third-party tools are a great option for organizations that want to implement a straightforward MLOps solution to either round out an existing environment or build out a new one. Going back to the LEGO comparison in the previous article, off-the-shelf tools can be compared to existing LEGO sets; they include all the necessary parts and instructions required to build out exactly what is advertised when picking it up from the store shelf.

While paid tools can be compared to pre-designed LEGO sets that just need assembly, open-source third-party tools can be better compared to something like a custom build designed to meet the specific wants and needs to the owner, which will also require an added level of love and attention.

Top considerations for third party tool selection:

Before selecting either paid or open-source third-party tools, your organization needs to be aware of a few factors that will be critical to making the third-party tool choice for their MLOps environment

  1. Cost
  2. Support & ease of use
  3. Flexibility & customizability
  4. Compatibility

Below, we will outline how these considerations play out in the context of implementing either off-the-shelf or open-source third-party tools into either a completely new or existing MLOps environment.

Cost

Cost considerations are the largest divider between paid and unpaid third-party tools. As the name suggests, paid tools will require a certain level of financial investment from the organization. Off-the-shelf tools will often come in the form of subscription-based services that might come with a wide variety of different terms, which includes $/user, $/hour/amount of work done, or even a completely flat fee for your organization. Your organization's needs will often determine which one is the most valuable model. 

On the other hand, unpaid tools will require no direct financial investment, which will lead to potential cost savings. However, due to the higher level of expertise required to implement and build out these tools for specific MLOps needs, other costs need to be considered in the form of staffing the right experts for the selected tools.

Support & ease of use

Like mentioned above, paid third-party tools will include all the pieces required to run them, often only requiring customer data to be input for them to run once implemented in the user environment. This ensures that the tool is easy to use without requiring a high level of MLOps expertise. Another benefit paid solutions provide is the ability to contact support services that are often included as part of the subscription-based service. Most issues can be resolved by simply filing a ticket with the solution vendor who will then take over the problem-solving. 

Unlike paid third-party tools, unpaid tools will more often than not require a much larger level of experience to implement and run, due to the lack of formal customer support that paid tools offer. Instead, support for the open-source third-party tools will most likely need to be found on places such as GitHub or Stack exchange, which won't always offer the correct support solution.

Two important things to consider when assessing support is documentation and release history. Thorough documentation will allow you to troubleshoot problems and derive the most value from the software. Similarly, release history will let you know how responsive the developers are to fixing identified bugs and extending functionality. In general, you can expect more reliable documentation and consistent release history with paid tools. 

Flexibility & customizability

When looking for third-party tools for an MLOps environment, it's very important to make sure that the tool's capabilities align with your organization's wants and needs. As mentioned above, paid tools will ensure for relatively easy deployment and operation. However, this often comes at the cost of customizability, meaning that the solutions will be limiting in terms of capabilities, providing only exactly what is advertised when purchasing. 

Customizability is where open-source tools often shine. Since they need to be individually configured for implementation and operation, they can also be configured in such a way that they're optimized to meet the requirements your organization has of your MLOps environment. Furthermore, these types of tools can also be continually modified to meet evolving requirements as MLOps environments mature. 

Compatibility

When using two or more different third-party tools together, it's incredibly important to ensure that all parts work together seamlessly to provide the best possible results. If your organization already uses certain tools or environments, any new tools must be able to communicate to the existing ones to ensure your environment runs seamlessly. Complexities caused by incompatible tools will also likely result in added costs from required maintenance to get your MLOps environment up and running. These concerns will apply to both paid and unpaid tools, since no matter how well they meet all your wants and needs, if they can't talk to each other, their functionality will be limited to the point of uselessness. It would be like trying to communicate with someone that doesn't speak the same language as you without the option of using any sort of translation service – there might be a way around it, but it will be incredibly clunky and will slow down your entire MLOps environment.

Where to go next

Now that we have explored the benefits of third-party tools and considerations to assess before choosing one, it's time to take the next step and begin designing an environment for your organization. In our next article, we will explore specific third-party tools for you to consider.