Semantic search is a great tool to help your customers or employees find the right products or information. It can even surface difficult-to-index information for better results. That said, if your semantic methodologies aren’t being deployed to work fast, they won’t do you any good. The customer or employee isn’t just going to sit around while the system takes its time responding to their query—and a thousand others are likely being ingested at the same time.

Slow semantic search isn’t going to cut it. So, how can you make semantic search fast?

Fortunately, this is the kind of problem Lucidworks loves to solve. We recently tested a modest-sized cluster—read on for more details—that resulted in 1500 RPS (requests per second) against a collection of over one million documents, with an average response time of roughly 40 milliseconds. Now that’s some serious speed.

Implementing Semantic Search

Lucidworks has implemented semantic search using the semantic vector search approach to make lightning-fast, machine-learning magic happen. There are two critical parts.

Part One: The Machine Learning Model

First, you need a way to encode text into a numerical vector. The text could be a product description, a user search query, a question, or even an answer to a question. A semantic search model is trained to encode text such that text semantically similar to other text is encoded into vectors numerically “close” to one another. This encoding step needs to be fast to support the thousands of possible customer searches or user queries every second.

Part Two: The Vector Search Engine

Second, you need a way to quickly find the best matches to the customer search or user query. The model will have encoded that text into a numerical vector. From there, you need to compare that to all the numerical vectors in your catalog or lists of questions and answers to find those best matches—the vectors that are “closest” to the query vector. You will need a vector engine that can handle all that information effectively and at lightning speed. The engine could contain millions of vectors; you just want the best twenty matches to your query. And of course, it must handle a thousand or so such queries every second.

Milvus, the semantic search engine, tackles these challenges within the Lucidworks platform. Milvus is open-source software, and it is fast. Milvus uses FAISS (Facebook AI Similarity Search), the same technology Facebook uses in production for its own machine learning initiatives. When needed, it can run even faster on GPU. When Lucidworks Fusion 5.3 (or higher) is installed with the machine learning component, Milvus is automatically installed as part of that component, so you can easily turn on all these capabilities.

The size of the vectors in a given collection, specified when the collection is created, depends on the model that produces those vectors. For example, a given collection could store the vectors created from encoding (via a model) all product descriptions in a product catalog. Similarity searches would not be feasible across the entire vector space without a semantic search engine like Milvus. So, similarity searches would have to be limited to pre-selected candidates from the vector space (for example, 500) and would have both slower performance and lower quality results. Milvus can store hundreds of billions of vectors across multiple collections of vectors to ensure that the search is fast and results are relevant.

Using Semantic Search

Now that we’ve learned a little about why Milvus might be so important, let’s return to the semantic search workflow. Semantic search has three stages. The machine learning model is loaded and/or trained during the first stage. Afterward, data is indexed into Milvus and Solr. The final stage is the query stage when the actual search occurs. We’ll focus on those last two stages below.

Indexing into Milvus

As shown in the above diagram, during the indexing stage, the following steps occur for each document in the provided data source:

  1. A document is sent to the Smart Answers index pipeline.
  2. The chosen document field (such as an answer in a Q&A system or a product description in an ecommerce system) is sent to the ML model.
  3. The ML model returns a numeric vector (encoded from the field). The type of model determines the size of the vector.
  4. The vector and a unique ID are stored in a Milvus collection.
  5. The document and the prior unique ID are stored in Solr.

Of course, there can be variations, such as more than one field encoded and stored in Milvus. Let’s get into stage two.

Querying Milvus

As shown in the above diagram, the query stage begins similarly to the indexing stage, with queries coming instead of documents. For each query:

  1. The query is sent to the Smart Answers index pipeline.
  2. The query is then sent to the ML model.
  3. The ML model returns a numeric vector (encrypted from the query). Again, the type of model determines the size of the vector.
  4. The vector is sent to Milvus, which determines which vectors in the specified Milvus collection best match the provided vector.
  5. Milvus returns a list of unique IDs and distances corresponding to the vectors determined in step four.
  6. A query containing those IDs and distances is sent to Solr.
  7. Solr then returns an ordered list of the documents associated with those IDs.

Scale Testing

To ensure the optimal efficiency of our semantic search flows for customers, we conduct scale tests on the Google Cloud Platform. These tests utilize Gatling scripts and involve a Lucidworks Fusion cluster with eight replicas each of the ML model and query service, along with a single instance of Milvus. Tests were run using the Milvus FLAT and HNSW indexes. The FLAT index has 100% recall but is less efficient – except when the datasets are small. The HNSW (Hierarchical Small World Graph) index still has high-quality results and improved performance on larger datasets.

Let’s jump into some numbers from a recent example we ran:

Getting Started

The Smart Answers pipelines are designed to be easy to use. Lucidworks has pre-trained models that are easy to deploy and generally have good results—though training your own models in tandem with pre-trained models will offer the best results.

Contact us today to learn how to implement these initiatives into your search tools to power more effective and delightful results.

Still early on in the research phase? Check out this blog post next, “How Semantic Search Helps Users Help Themselves.”

About Elizabeth Edmiston

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