Core Concepts

A good place to start before diving further into the docs.

ZenML consists of the following key components:


Our command-line tool is your entry point into ZenML. You install this tool and use it to setup and configure your repository to work with ZenML. A simple init command serves to get you started, and then you can provision the infrastructure that you wish to work with easily using a simple stack register command with the relevant arguments passed in.


A repository is at the core of all ZenML activity. Every action that can be executed within ZenML must take place within a ZenML repository. ZenML repositories are inextricably tied to git. ZenML creates a .zen folder at the root of your repository to manage your assets and metadata.


Within your repository, you will have one or more pipelines as part of your experimentation workflow. A ZenML pipeline is a sequence of tasks that execute in a specific order and yield artifacts. The artifacts are stored within the artifact store and indexed via the metadata store. Each individual task within a pipeline is known as a step. The standard pipelines (like SimplePipeline) within ZenML are designed to have easy interfaces to add pre-decided steps, with the order also pre-decided. Other sorts of pipelines can be created as well from scratch.

Pipelines are functions. They are created by using decorators appropriate to the specific use case you have.

The moment it is run, a pipeline is compiled and passed directly to the orchestrator.


Pipelines are traditionally represented as DAGs. DAG is an acronym for Directed Acyclic Graph.

  • Directed, because the nodes of the graph (i.e. the steps of a pipeline), have a sequence. Nodes do not exist as free-standing entities in this way.

  • Acyclic, because there must be one (or more) straight paths through the graph from the beginning to the end. It is acyclic because the graph doesn't loop back on itself at any point.

  • Graph, because the steps of the pipeline are represented as nodes in a graph.

ZenML follows this paradigm and it is a useful mental model to have in your head when thinking about how the pieces of your pipeline get executed and how dependencies between the different stages are managed.


A step is a single piece or stage of a ZenML pipeline. Think of each step as being one of the nodes of the DAG. Steps are responsible for one aspect of processing or interacting with the data / artifacts in the pipeline. ZenML currently implements a SimpleStep interface, but there will be other more customised interfaces (layered in a hierarchy) for specialized implementations. For example, broad steps like SplitStep, PreprocesserStep, TrainerStep and so on.

In this way, steps can be thought of as hierarchical. In a later release, you can see how the TrainerStep might look like:

│ │
│ └───TensorflowFeedForwardTrainer

Each layer defines its own special interface that is essentially placeholder functions to override. So, someone looking to create a custom trainer step would subclass the appropriate class based on the user's requirements.


Artifacts are the data that power your experimentation and model training. It is actually steps that produce artifacts, which are then stored in the artifact store.

Artifacts can be of many different types like TFRecords or saved model pickles, depending on what the step produces.

Artifact Store

An artifact store is a place where artifacts are stored. These artifacts may have been produced by the pipeline steps, or they may be the data first ingested into a pipeline via an ingestion step.


Metadata are the pieces of information tracked about the pipelines, experiments and configurations that you are are running with ZenML. Metadata are stored inside the metadata store.

Metadata Store

The configuration of each pipeline, step, backend, and produced artifacts are all tracked within the metadata store. The metadata store is an SQL database, and can be sqlite or mysql.


When we think about steps as functions, we know they receive input in the form of artifacts. We also know that they produce output (also in the form of artifacts, stored in the artifact store). But steps also take parameters. The parameters that you pass into the steps are also (helpfully!) stored in the metadata store. This helps freeze the iterations of your experimentation workflow in time so you can return to them exactly as you ran them.


A stack is made up of the following three core components:

  • An Artifact Store

  • A Metadata Store

  • An Orchestrator (backend)

A ZenML stack also happens to be a Pydantic BaseSettings class, which means that there are multiple ways to use it.


Backends are the infrastructure and environments on which your pipelines run. There are different kinds of backends depending on the particular use case. For example, there are orchestrator backends (like Apache Airflow), processing backends (like Google Cloud Dataflow) and training backends (like Google AI Platform).


An orchestrator is a special kind of backend that manages the running of each step of the pipeline. Orchestrators administer the actual pipeline runs. You can think of it as the 'root' of any pipeline job that you run during your experimentation.

Tying Things All Together

ZenML's core abstractions are either close to or replicate completely the commonly-found abstractions found in the industry for pipeline-style workflows. As a data scientist, it perhaps isn't natural to think of your work from within this 'pipeline' abstraction, but we think you'll see the benefits if you try it out with some examples. Check out our Get Started guide to see an example of what ZenML will add to your current workflow!

Important considerations

Artifact stores and metadata stores can be configured per repository as well as per pipeline. However, only pipelines with the same artifact store and metadata store are comparable, and therefore should not change to maintain the benefits of caching and consistency across pipeline runs.

On a high level, when data is read from an artifact the results are persisted in your artifact store. An orchestrator reads the data from the artifact store and begins preprocessing - either itself or alternatively on a dedicated processing backend like Google Dataflow. Every pipeline step reads its predecessor's result artifacts from the artifact store and writes its own result artifacts to the artifact store. Once preprocessing is done, the orchestration begins the training of your model - again either itself or on a separate / dedicated training backend. The trained model will be persisted in the artifact store, and optionally passed on to a serving backend.

A few rules apply:

  • Every orchestration backend (local, Google Cloud VMs, etc) can run all pipeline steps, including training.

  • Orchestration backends have a selection of compatible processing backends.

  • Pipelines can be configured to utilize more powerful processing (e.g. distributed) and training (e.g. Google AI Platform) backends.

A quick example for large datasets makes this clearer. By default, your experiments will run locally. Pipelines that load large datasets would be severely bottlenecked, so you can configure Google Dataflow as a processing backend for distributed computation, and Google AI Platform as a training backend.

System design

The design choices in ZenML follow the understanding that production-ready model training pipelines need to be immutable, repeatable, discoverable, descriptive, and efficient. ZenML takes care of the orchestration of your pipelines, from sourcing data all the way to continuous training - no matter if it's running somewhere locally, in an on-premise data center, or in the cloud.

In different words, ZenML runs your ML code while taking care of the "Operations" for you. It takes care of:

  • Interfacing between the individual processing steps (splitting, transform, training).

  • Tracking of intermediate results and metadata

  • Caching your processing artifacts.

  • Parallelization of computing tasks.

  • Ensuring the immutability of your pipelines from data sourcing to model artifacts.

  • No matter where - cloud, on-prem, or locally.

Since production scenarios often look complex, ZenML is built with integrations in mind. ZenML will support a range of integrations for processing, training, and serving, and you can always add custom integrations via our extensible interfaces.