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Chapter: Distributed Systems : Process & Resource Management

Load balancer features

Hardware and software load balancers may have a variety of special features. The fundamental feature of a load balancer is to be able to distribute incoming requests over a number of backend servers in the cluster according to a scheduling algorithm.

Load balancer features


Hardware and software load balancers may have a variety of special features. The fundamental feature of a load balancer is to be able to distribute incoming requests over a number of backend servers in the cluster according to a scheduling algorithm. Most of the following features are vendor specific:


Asymmetric load: A ratio can be manually assigned to cause some backend servers to get a greater share of the workload than others. This is sometimes used as a crude way to account for some servers having more capacity than others and may not always work as desired.


Priority activation: When the number of available servers drops below a certain number, or load gets too high, standby servers can be brought online.


SSL Offload and Acceleration: Depending on the workload, processing the encryption and authentication requirements of an SSL request can become a major part of the demand on the Web Server's CPU; as the demand increases, users will see slower response times, as the SSL overhead is distributed among Web servers. To remove this demand on Web servers, a balancer can terminate SSL connections, passing HTTPS requests as HTTP requests to the Web servers. If the balancer itself is not overloaded, this does not noticeably degrade the performance perceived by end users. The downside of this approach is that all of the SSL processing is concentrated on a single device (the balancer) which can become a new bottleneck. Some load balancer appliances include specialized hardware to process SSL. Instead of upgrading the load balancer, which is quite expensive dedicated hardware, it may be cheaper to forgo SSL offload and add a few Web servers. Also, some server vendors such as Oracle/Sun now incorporate cryptographic acceleration hardware into their CPUs such as the T2000. F5 Networks incorporates a dedicated SSL acceleration hardware card in their local traffic manager (LTM) which is used for encrypting and decrypting SSL traffic. One clear benefit to SSL offloading in the balancer is that it enables it to do balancing or content switching based on data in the HTTPS request.


Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack protection: load balancers can provide features such as SYN cookies and delayed-binding (the back-end servers don't see the client until it finishes its TCP handshake) to mitigate SYN floodattacks and generally offload work from the servers to a more efficient platform.


HTTP compression: reduces amount of data to be transferred for HTTP objects by utilizing gzip compression available in all modern web browsers. The larger the response and the further away the client is, the more this feature can improve response times. The tradeoff is that this feature puts additional CPU demand on the Load Balancer and could be done by Web servers instead.


TCP offload: different vendors use different terms for this, but the idea is that normally each HTTP request from each client is a different TCP connection. This feature utilizes HTTP/1.1 to consolidate multiple HTTP requests from multiple clients into a single TCP socket to the back-end servers.


TCP buffering: the load balancer can buffer responses from the server and spoon-feed the data out to slow clients, allowing the web server to free a thread for other tasks faster than it would if it had to send the entire request to the client directly.


Direct Server Return: an option for asymmetrical load distribution, where request and reply have different network paths.


Health checking: the balancer polls servers for application layer health and removes failed servers from the pool.


HTTP caching: the balancer stores static content so that some requests can be handled without contacting the servers.


Content filtering: some balancers can arbitrarily modify traffic on the way through.


HTTP security: some balancers can hide HTTP error pages, remove server identification headers from HTTP responses, and encrypt cookies so that end users cannot manipulate them.


Priority queuing: also known as rate shaping, the ability to give different priority to different traffic.


Content-aware switching: most load balancers can send requests to different servers based on the URL being requested, assuming the request is not encrypted (HTTP) or if it is encrypted (via HTTPS) that the HTTPS request is terminated (decrypted) at the load balancer.


Client authentication: authenticate users against a variety of authentication sources before allowing them access to a website.


Programmatic traffic manipulation: at least one balancer allows the use of a scripting language to allow custom balancing methods, arbitrary traffic manipulations, and more.


Firewall: direct connections to backend servers are prevented, for network security reasons Firewall is a set of rules that decide whether the traffic may pass through an interface or not.


Intrusion prevention system: offer application layer security in addition to network/transport layer offered by firewall security.



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