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As per the documentation here, the runs parameter does nothing. I have looked at the actual Scala code for k means and it appears that the train method only does one start. There is no way to change this.

QUESTION: Am I correct that if I want 5 starts I need to write my own code that calls train 5 times (or until some criteria has been met)?

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That's correct. It used to control making multiple starts at once but for various reasons this didn't work well, and was deprecated / made a no-op. I removed it for Spark 3.0.

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