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To Each His Own – Application Load Balancing Explained

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In a recent post I wrote about this blog that “I strive to keep the content both technical and as accurate as I possibly can”. This post is a technical discussion of Application Load Balancing, and is intended to validate that statement.

Application Load Balancing is a special case of Load Balancing, which differentiates between the various published applications. Application Load Balancing primarily enables the administrator to specify distinct Terminal Server groups for different applications. In addition, some implementations allow the administrator to assign different load evaluators to different applications. The goal of these capabilities is twofold: to achieve optimal utilization of the server farm for the various published applications, and to provide the end-users with the best possible experience while using these applications.

The motivation for the ability to assign different load evaluators to different applications is that different applications utilize a different mix of system resources. For example, some applications are more memory intensive while others make more significant use of the CPU. Therefore, it appears to make sense to assign different load evaluators to such applications: a memory-biased evaluator for memory intensive applications and a CPU-biased evaluator for CPU intensive applications.

While this reasoning appears to make sense, we decided not to implement this functionality in PowerTerm WebConnect. There were several reasons for this decision:

  1. As I explained in a previous post, administrators are ill-equipped to define effective load evaluators. This functionality multiplies the problem by the number of applications.
  2. Consider an application that consumes 30MB of memory and 3% CPU – should it be load-balanced based on CPU or on memory?
  3. Effective load evaluators need to take into account not only the applications’ load but also the servers’ resources. This means that whenever new servers are added to the farm all the load evaluators may need to be adjusted.
  4. As I explained previously, in PowerTerm WebConnect, session sharing generally takes precedence over load evaluation. Consider a scenario where applications A and B are installed on the same servers but have different load evaluators assigned to them. If the user launched A immediately followed by B, the session might open on a different server than had the user launched B and then A. Obviously this doesn’t make sense.

To summarize, we drew the conclusion that this feature complicates the product, but doesn’t offer sufficient value. Indeed, it can easily cause more harm than good. Therefore we excluded it from PowerTerm WebConnect.

As I stated above, the defining aspect of Application Load Balancing is the ability to specify different groups of target Terminal Servers for various published applications. To understand the “raison d’etre” for this feature, you first need to differentiate between the two server farm configurations I refer to as symmetric and asymmetric. In symmetric farm configurations all the servers are essentially identical, at least as far as software. This means that they have the same applications installed, down to the exact version number, at the same locations and using the same setup. Ideally such servers should also be running the exact same version of Windows as well (tools such as RTO Discover are ideal for verifying that the servers are indeed identical). Symmetric farm configurations are much easier to administrate simply because you don’t have to contend with numerous unique server configurations.

In asymmetric server farms, various servers do have different software configurations. For example, a particular application might be installed on some servers yet not on others. Such configurations are more difficult to administrate yet are sometimes required due to:

  1. Compatibility issues either between applications, or between applications and the Operating System. In particular, many Windows applications don’t allow different versions of themselves to be installed on the same machine.
  2. Applications that have special resource requirements. For example, the administrator may decide to dedicate several servers for a particular application so that it doesn’t share precious resources with other published application instances.
  3. If a particular application is only needed by a relatively small number of users, installing it on every server in the farm would make it unnecessarily difficult to maintain. For example, the administrator would need to install its patches on each and every server.
  4. Various licensing issues

My rule of thumb is: use symmetric configurations when you can, asymmetric configurations when you must.

If you must, indeed, use an asymmetric server farm configuration; then the ability to assigned distinct groups of servers to particular published applications is absolutely required. In other words, if your SBC solution does not provide Application Load Balancing then you cannot use asymmetric farm configurations at all. Since the new Windows Server 2008 Session Broker does not provide this feature it is limited to symmetric server farms (which makes since because Microsoft’s design goal for Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services is to support “low complexity scenarios”).

The PowerTerm WebConnect Load Balancer does provide this important functionality. Moreover, PowerTerm WebConnect lets you filter the server list so that only those servers on which the specific application is installed are displayed. Without this capability you might accidentally assign a published application to Terminal Servers on which it isn’t even installed.

Profile:
Dan Shappir is responsible for all aspects of product design, software development and maintenance of the Ericom's product lines. Mr. Shappir joined Ericom in 2001 and brings over 15 years experience in computer programming, and in the design and architecture of software products. Mr. Shappir holds a B.Sc. in Computer Science (with honors) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel and an M.Sc. in Computer Science (with honors) from Tel Aviv University, Israel. | Ericom Software
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