An Introduction to Load Balancing

So, if you have been working on web services in this half of the decade, you must have come across the term “load balancing”. So what is load balancing? Let’s find out!

What is load balancing?

Load balancing, as the name suggests, is distributing work to multiple agents. In our case, we distribute incoming HTTP requests from browsers, apps or other servers between a pool of web servers that can serve this request.

How does load balancing work?

Load balancing works primarily in two ways:

  1. Client-side
  2. Server-side

Client-side load balancing

In client-side load balancing, we expect the client to distribute requests to each of the servers capable of serving the request. We provide the client with a list of target servers and the client chooses a server by some load balancing algorithm for each request it makes.

The simplest example is a DNS based load-balancing. Most websites (including Medium) use multiple web servers to handle the traffic. Every time you visit a website, the browser asks the DNS servers to provide a list of IP addresses of servers hosting the website’s content. If the DNS responds with multiple servers, the browser chooses one and sends the request. For subsequent requests, the browser would choose another server from the list of servers returned by the DNS earlier.

Client-side load balancing is also used in microservices utilizing a service discovery framework like Consul or a service mesh like Istio.

Advantages

  1. No additional infrastructure required
  2. Simple to implement

Disadvantages

  1. Unreliable, as we do not have control over external clients like browsers
  2. There will be an uneven load distribution

Server-side load balancing

In server-side load balancing, we run an additional server called a “Load Balancer”, a reverse-proxy that is responsible for distributing requests among application servers that can handle the request. Application servers register themselves with the load-balancer. Client requests first reach the load balancer and it routes to one of the registered application servers based on its configuration. Server-side load balancing is much more common. We use servers such as NGINX, Envoy, HA Proxy or services like Amazon ELB, Cloudflare etc for load balancing.

Advantages

  1. More control over load balancing

Disadvantages

  1. Additional infrastructure requires cost and maintenance

Load balancing algorithms

A load-balancing algorithm determines how requests are distributed among the origin servers.

Round-robin

This is the simplest load balancing algorithm. It assigns requests to servers in a pool one after the other. For example, in a pool of three servers, the first request will be sent to upstream 1, second to upstream 2, third to upstream 3 and again fourth to upstream 1 and so on.

Least Connection

This algorithm assigns requests based on which server has the least amount of active connections (load).

Weighted

This is a variant of any of the above load balancing algorithms with a slight modification. Every server known to the load balancer now has a weight associated with it. This weight can be based on how close or how powerful the application server is to the load balancer etc. The higher the weight, the higher number of requests get assigned to the origin server.

Adaptive

This algorithm adapts its routing based on metrics provided by the application servers usually involve monitoring response times or some form of telemetry from the application servers.

Sticky

Sometimes (esp legacy web-apps) web application maintains some server-side local state in the form of sessions. This forces you to route the subsequent requests to the server that handled the first request by the client. Such routing is called sticky load balancing. Avoid such architecture, it does not scale well.

This was a small intro about load balancing. The best way to learn is to spin-up a few servers and experiment. You can use ready-to-spin docker containers or virtual machines to deploy a copy of an app and a load-balancer and watch it in action.

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Computer Whisperer. Open-source contributor. Find me at https://amitosh.in/

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