Load Balancing Techniques

Load balancing is a term that describes a method to distribute incoming socket connections to different servers. It’s not distributed computing, where jobs are broken up into a series of sub-jobs, so each server does a fraction of the overall work. It’s not that at all. Rather, incoming socket connections are spread out to different servers. Each incoming connection will communicate with the node it was delegated to, and the entire interaction will occur there. Each node is not aware of the other nodes existence.

Why do you need load balancing?
Simple answer: Scalability and Redundancy.


If your application becomes busy, resource limits, such as bandwidth, cpu, memory, disk space, disk I/O, and more may reach its limits. In order to remedy such problem, you have two options: scale up, or scale out. Load balancing is a scale out technique. Rather than increasing server resources, you add cost effective, commodity servers, creating a “cluster” of servers that perform the same task. Scaling out is more cost effective, because commodity level hardware provides the most bang for the buck. High end super computers come at a premium, and can be avoided in many cases.


Servers crash, this is the rule, not the exception. Your architecture should be devised in a way to reduce or eliminate single points of failure (SPOF). Load balancing a cluster of servers that perform the same role provides room for a server to be taken out manually for maintenance tasks, without taking down the system. You can also withstand a server crashing. This is called High Availability, or HA for short. Load balancing is a tactic that assists with High Availability, but is not High Availability by itself. To achieve high availability, you need automated monitoring that checks the status of the applications in your cluster, and automates taking servers out of rotation, in response to failure detected. These tools are often bundled into Load Balancing software and appliances, but sometimes need to be programmed independently.

How to perform load balancing?

There are 3 well known ways:

  1. DNS based
  2. Hardware based
  3. Software based

DNS based

This is also known as round robin DNS. You can inject multiple A records for the same hostname. This creates a random distribution – requests for the hostname will receive the list in a random order. If you wish to weight it (say serverA can take 2x the number of requests that serverB can), you can simply add more A records for a particular IP.

Hardware based

There are many commercial vendors out there selling appliances to perform load balancing.

Hardware based load balancing is the best way to go, if you have budget for it. These appliances provide the latest features, with little fuss.

Software based

This is where it gets fun, if you’re a technology enthusiast. If your budget doesn’t allow a load balancing appliance, or if you just like doing things yourself, software based load balancing is for you. You can turn a Linux server into your own load balancing appliance. Presumably, you could also use a Windows server, maybe even a Mac, but this article doesn’t cover those. For RHEL based, the “piranha” package provides Linux Virtual Server (LVS) and piranha (an LVS management tool – web based gui). Just “yum install piranha” and you’ll have everything you need to get started. Other softwares include BalanceNG (commercial) and a basic freeware counterpart balance.

This was super simple to use. Just download, run the program. There are a few basic input parameters, and you can be load balancing in no time. This is a no frills binary program. There are no configuration files, no startup/shutdown programs, no logging or reporting. But it does have a nifty console that you can get runtime statistics from. You could create your own tools around “balance” to monitor and gather statistics.

LVS and piranha on RHEL (or better yet, CentOS)

piranha is a gui that makes configuring Linux Virtual Server (LVS) easy. Here are some of the virtual server scheduling features:

  • Round robin
  • Weighted least-connections
  • Weighted round robin
  • Least-connection
  • Locality-Based Least-Connection Scheduling
  • Locality-Based Least-Connection Scheduling (R)
  • Destination Hash Scheduling
  • Source Hash Scheduling

There are two routing methods: NAT and Direct Server Return.

Direct server return is the best, because responses from the real servers go directly back to the requesting server, and don’t have to route back through the LVS funnel.

Direct Server Return:
Direct Server Return Diagram

Follow this link for General description of Direct Server Return on the RHEL site.

There are some specific requirements to make Direct Server return work. Basically, the way it works is the LVS server relays the packets to the selected real server. The real servers have the VIP bound to them. Arp requests are ignored on the real servers, using using iptables or arptables_jf. So, the VIP is bound to the LVS server, and the real servers, but only the LVS virtual server responds to ARP requests, so any incoming packets destined for the VIP go to the LVS server. The LVS server routes these packets to the real servers, which responds as if it got the packets directly!

Proof of Concept
At the time of writing this article, I had access to 3 dedicated servers, running CentOS-5. I installed piranha on the third, and load balanced two real servers!

Here is the /etc/sysconfig/ha/lvs.cf file that piranha_gui helped me make, easily:

serial_no = 30
primary =
service = lvs
backup =
heartbeat = 1
heartbeat_port = 539
keepalive = 6
deadtime = 18
network = direct
debug_level = NONE
virtual v6LB {
     active = 1
     address = eth0:1
     port = 80
     persistent = 0
     send = "GET / HTTP/1.0\r\n\r\n"
     expect = "HTTP"
     use_regex = 0
     load_monitor = none
     scheduler = wlc
     protocol = tcp
     timeout = 6
     reentry = 15
     quiesce_server = 0
     server v6test1 {
         address =
         active = 1
         weight = 1
     server v6test2 {
         address =
         active = 1
         weight = 1

I installed arptables_jf adn configured v6test1 like this:

yum install arptables_jf
arptables -A IN -d -j DROP
arptables -A OUT -d -j mangle --mangle-ip-s
service arptables_jf save
chkconfig --level 2345 arptables_jf on

Then on v6test2 like this:

yum install arptables_jf
arptables -A IN -d -j DROP
arptables -A OUT -d -j mangle --mangle-ip-s
service arptables_jf save
chkconfig --level 2345 arptables_jf on

I pointed www.ipv6poc.com to in DNS.

And, presto, load balancing with Direct Server return is working.

Even though I read that LVS is IPv6 compatible, I couldn’t get it to work. Either piranha doesn’t know how to write the config files with IPv6 IPs, or the LVS version that ships piranha for RHEL5/CENTOS5 doesn’t have IPv6 support. So, instead, used round robin DNS for the IPv6 IPs:

Here is the BIND zone file for ipv6poc.com

[root@v6test1 named]# cat ipv6poc.com.zone
$TTL    1800
$ORIGIN ipv6poc.com.
@               IN SOA  ns1       admin (
                                        42              ; serial (d. adams)
                                        3H              ; refresh
                                        15M             ; retry
                                        1W              ; expiry
                                        1D )            ; minimum

                IN NS           ns1
                IN NS           ns2
                IN MX   10      mail
                IN A  
                IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::101
                IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::102
ns1             IN A  
ns1             IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::101
ns2             IN A  
ns2             IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::102
www             IN A  
www             IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::101
www             IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::102
ipv6            IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::101
v6test1         IN A  
v6test1         IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::101
v6test2         IN A  
v6test2         IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::102
v6test3         IN A  
v6test3         IN AAAA         2607:f208:1:1000::103

And the result is visible here: www.ipv6poc.com. At least it was at time of writing, but these are not my servers solely. If it’s not working, comment, and I’ll see what I can do to get it back up.

797 thoughts on “Load Balancing Techniques”

  1. http://www.ipv6poc.com/ if you’re hitting it with IPv6, you’re going to be fairly sticky, meaning you’ll keep hitting the same server over and over. This is because of caching DNS. With round robin DNS, my DNS server spits out the answers in different order, but your caching nameserver only asks once every 30 minutes.

    If you want to force direct server return over IPv4, use the IP:

  2. Bonnie – your comments smell like advertising, but they are on topic, and I’m just so excited to have somebody post a comment on my blog! I added Kemp to the list of Hardware Load Balancers in the article. Good luck.

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