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Different types of cloud load balancing and algorithms

Learn how load balancing in the cloud differs from a traditional network traffic distribution, and explore services available from AWS, Google and Microsoft.

To understand the value and behavior of load balancing, consider a visit to your local bank. If only one teller is available, every customer must rely on the services of that one teller, which results in long waits for service and tremendous stress for the teller. With multiple tellers, waiting customers line up in a queue and are helped by the next available teller.

In this simple example, each of the tellers is an identical instance of a workload, and the familiar roped queue serves as a load balancer to efficiently distribute user requests to those workload instances.

What is load balancing?

Load balancing is the process of distributing network traffic across two or more instances of a workload. IT teams use load balancing to ensure each instance performs at peak efficiency, without any one instance becoming overburdened or failing due to excess network traffic.

Traditionally, a load balancer exists in a local data center as a dedicated physical network device or appliance. However, load balancing is more frequently performed by an application installed on a server -- sometimes called a virtual appliance -- and offered as a network service. Public cloud providers use the service paradigm and provide software-based load balancers as a distinct cloud feature.

Once a load balancer is introduced, it acts as a network front end and often uses a single IP address to receive all network traffic intended for the target workload. The load balancer evenly distributes the network traffic to each available workload instance or throttles traffic to send specific percentages of traffic to each instance.

How load balancing works
Diagram of how load balancing works. Load balancing is accomplished through a hardware device or software.

For example, if there are two identical workloads, a load balancer ensures that each instance receives 50% of the incoming network traffic. However, the load balancer also can alter those percentages, such as 60%/40%, or implement a "first available" rule to tailor the traffic flow to each workload instance's capabilities.

With a load balancer, the target workloads can be in different physical places. Cloud load balancing provides similar benefits that enable users to distribute network traffic across multiple instances within the same region or across multiple regions or availability zones.

What are the benefits of cloud load balancing?

Load balancing provides the same set of benefits, regardless of whether it lives in a local data center or a cloud environment:

  • Better workload scalability and performance. A single workload or application is fine as long as it handles the incoming traffic and requests in a timely manner, but sometimes, a business must add workload instances to handle greater network traffic volumes and sudden and unexpected spikes in traffic. A load balancer is critical here to queue and distribute that traffic across multiple instances so the overall application runs efficiently and with satisfactory UX.
  • Better workload reliability. When a single workload handles 100% of incoming requests, the underlying software and underlying hardware pose a single point of failure for the workload. Adding more workload instances and load balancing the traffic between them vitally enhance workload resiliency and availability. If one workload instance (node) fails, others continue to function and direct traffic to remaining instances. This is the heart of high availability workload deployments.
  • Better business continuity (BC) and governance. For many businesses, application availability is central to business governance and regulatory compliance. The implementation of multiple workloads into a cluster and sharing traffic with load balancers is a primary means to boost workload reliability, which, in turn, benefits BC and helps the business meet compliance obligations.

What are the different types of load balancing in cloud computing?

Enterprises can implement load balancing in several different ways and tailor it to benefit or emphasize specific traffic goals:

  • Hardware. This is a traditional physical box of circuitry connected within the physical network. A hardware load balancer can include chipsets that are designed specifically to handle traffic at full network line speeds -- therefore, these load balancers are typically installed in high-volume data centers where performance is a top priority.
  • Software. Software installed onto a regular enterprise server also can perform load balancing. This is typically far less expensive than dedicated hardware load balancers, and upgrades are typically easier than with dedicated load-balancing devices.
  • Virtual instances. An enterprise can package load-balancing software into a VM or virtual appliance and then deploy it on a virtualized server. This process is simpler because the load-balancing software is already installed and configured in the VM, and it can be migrated easily between virtual servers just as any other VM.

Cloud load balancing and network traffic layers: Layer 4 vs. Layer 7

Load balancing is defined by the type of network traffic based on the traditional seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) network model. Cloud load balancing is most commonly performed at Layer 4 (transport or connection layer) or Layer 7 (application layer).

Some cloud load-balancing services operate at Layer 4 to direct data from transport layer protocols, including TCP, User Datagram Protocol (UDP) and Transport Layer Security. Load balancing at this lower level of the network stack provides the best performance -- millions of network requests per second with low latencies -- and is a great option for erratic or unpredictable network traffic patterns. Layer 4 load-balancing services include AWS Network Load Balancer, Google Cloud Platform (GCP) TCP/UDP Load Balancing and Microsoft Azure Load Balancer.

The OSI model
The seven layers of the OSI model. Load balancers for network traffic sit in Levels 4 and 7.

At the top of the network stack, Layer 7 handles more complex traffic, such as HTTP and HTTPS requests. Each of the major cloud providers has its own feature or service for this:

Since this traffic is much higher up the network stack, IT teams can implement more advanced content-based or request-based routing decisions. These options work well with modern application instances and architectures, such as microservices and container-based workloads.

The choice of a cloud load balancer should extend beyond traffic types alone. Cloud providers also differentiate load-balancing services based on scope and framework. For example, GCP suggests global load-balancing services when workloads are distributed across multiple regions, while regional load-balancing services are a good fit when all workloads are in the same region. Similarly, GCP suggests external load balancers when traffic comes into the workloads from the internet and internal load balancers when traffic is intended for use within GCP.

Broader features and capabilities available with providers' cloud load-balancing services are valuable as well. These include support for a single front-end IP address, support for automatic workload scaling, and integration with other cloud services, such as monitoring and alerting.

What are the different types of cloud load balancing algorithms?

Load balancers use several common load-balancing algorithms, both in local data centers and in public cloud services, to distribute traffic to the different workload nodes. These algorithms include the following:

  • Round robin. This method divides incoming traffic requests evenly across all the workload instances (nodes). For example, if there are three workload instances, the load balancer will rotate traffic to each instance in order -- request 1 to server 1, request 2 to server 2, request 3 to server 3, request 4 to server 1 and so on. Round robin works well when all nodes are identical and have similar computing capabilities.
  • Weighted round robin. Some workload instances use servers with different computing capabilities. Weighted round robin can shift the percentage of traffic to different nodes by assigning a "weight" to each node. More capable nodes receive higher weighting, and the load balancer sends more traffic to them.
  • Least connection. Traffic is routed to workload instances with the fewest connections or shortest queue, which means these are the least busy instances. This dynamic approach eases demands on instances that have complex processing requests.
  • Weighted least connection. This assigns a "weight" to each node so administrators can shift the distribution of traffic based on connection activity. This can end up like round robin or weighted round robin if all nodes are identical, but ideally, it compensates to give more traffic to idle or more powerful nodes and equipment.
  • Resource-based. This adaptive approach uses a software agent on each node to determine the computing load and report its availability to the load balancer, which, in turn, makes dynamic traffic routing decisions. This can also employ information from software-defined networking controllers.
  • Request-based. Load balancers, especially in the cloud, can distribute traffic based on fields in the request, such as HTTP header data, query parameters, and source and destination IP addresses. This helps to route traffic from specific sources to desired destinations and maintain sessions that may have been disconnected.

Cloud load-balancing tools

Major public cloud providers offer native load-balancing tools to complement cloud service suites, but cloud users are not limited to these options. There are many powerful and full-featured software-based load balancers, which an enterprise can deploy to local data centers and cloud instances with equal ease. Popular cloud-native and third-party load balancers include the following:

When selecting a load balancer, consider the complete suite of features and functions to ensure that the load balancer will meet application and business demands into the future. Such features include support for security and encryption, performance and scalability, support for hybrid cloud and multi-cloud environments, cost and more.

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