Load Balancing In An Ever More Demanding Virtualized & Cloudy World

We’ve been using the Kemp Loadmasters for many years now and they have served us very well. You might know that Microsoft Azure has a partnership with Kemp technologies to provide full featured load balancing in your public & hybrid cloud solutions. I pretty happy with that as when talk about load balancing with Microsoft we always end up discussing the need for more features and layer 7 support. I sometimes jokingly tease them that this is due to their Windows NLB legacy. While I have done some magic with that, it is way too limited for today’s (and yesterdays) demands and needs. Also the hacks they use to get it to work can’t be used in network virtualization. In the cloud Microsoft has the Azure Load Balancer. Whilst nice when combined with availability sets many of the current workloads need more. That’s exactly what the KEMP Virtual LoadMaster for Azure delivers in their partnership with Microsoft:

  • Layer 4, Layer 7 Load Balancing
  • Layer 7 (or Cookie) Persistence
  • SSL Offload/SSL Acceleration
  • Application Health Checking
  • Adaptive (Server Resource) Load Balancing
  • Layer 7 Content Switching
  • Application Acceleration: HTTP Caching, Compression & IPS

To me (and many other IT Pros) Kemp is the company that opened load balancing up to everyone on this planet with budget friendly but high value solutions. They took away the barrier to better & more capable load balancing for the masses. Furthermore they keep improving and I have seen many existing customers, including me get ever more benefits with the newer firmware releases, even on their entry level, older models like the LM2200 that are not for sale anymore. So you can keep using them or move them to the lab. They have great support and respond very quickly to vulnerabilities like Heartbleed, Shellshock and Poodle.

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Another benefit of this partnership is that we can use the load balancing solution we know and trust in all our environments: on premises (physical or virtual appliance), in the cloud & at our hosting companies. Partner ships with OEMs ensure that you can use the hardware you prefer (the DELL R320 is a nice example) and their Virtual Load Master now even extends into the cloud. So our options are to …

… deploy an appliance …

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…  virtualize the LoadMasters …

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… leverage Kemp in the cloud

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…. or select your own preferred OEM …

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They cover all our bases with that line up and it helps with operational ease & efficiencies.

As I’m investigating some scenarios with KEMP LoadMasters in a Hyper-V environment (on premises, multi sites, Azure IAAS & Multifactor Authentication you can expect to see some blog posts on this. Some of these will leverage technologies available in Windows Server vNext (Technical Preview). Lot’s of very interesting ideas to support high availability & flexibility that are affordable and not just point solutions.

Ah the joy of being in virtualization is that one gets great exposure to storage, networking, cloud solutions and on premises. The experience & knowledge of the entire stack isn’t just fun (yes working can be fun) but it is also what allows to build great solutions.

Hyper-V, KEMP LoadMaster & DFS Replication Provide FTP Solutions For Surveyors Network

Remember the blog entry about A Hardware Load Balancing Exercise With A Kemp Loadmaster 2200 KEMP Loadmaster to provide redundancy for a surveyors GPS network? Well, we got commissioned to come up with a redundant FTP solution for their needs last month and this blog is about what we came up with. The aim was to make due with what is already available.

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FTP 7.5 in Windows 2008 R2

We use the FTP Server available in Windows 2008 R2 which provides us with all functionality we need: User Isolation and FTP over SSL.

The data from all the GPS stations is sent to the FTP server for safe keeping and is to be used to overcome certain issues customers might have with missing data from surveying solution. This data is not being made available to customers by default, it’s only for special cases & purposes. So we need to collect the data in its own folder named after its account so we can configure user isolation. This also prevents the GPS Stations from writing in locations where it shouldn’t.

As every GPS Station slogs in with the “Station” account it ends up in the “Station” folder as root FTP folder and can’t read or write out of that folder. The survey solution service desk can FTP into that folder and access any data they want.

The data that’s being provided by the software solution (LanSurvey01 and lanSurvey02) is to be sent to its own folder “Data” that is also set up with user Isolation to prevent the application from reading or writing anywhere else on the file system.

The data from should be publicly available to the customers and for this we created a separate FTP site called “Public” that is configured for anonymous access to the same Data folder but with read permissions only. This way the customers can get all the data they need but only have read access to the required data and nothing more.

For more information on setting up FTP 7.5 and using FTP over SSL you might take a look here http://learn.iis.net/page.aspx/304/using-ftp-over-ssl/ and read my blog on FTP over SSL Pollution of the Gene Pool a Real Life “FTP over SSL” Story

High Availability

In the section above we’ve taken care of the FTP needs. Now we still need redundancy. We could use Windows NLB but since this network already uses a KEMP Loadmaster due to the fact that the surveyor’s software has some limitations in its configuration capabilities that doesn’t allow Windows Network Load Balancing being used.

We want both the GPS stations and the surveyor’s application servers to be able to send FTP data when one of the receiving FTF servers is down for some reason (updates, upgrades, maintenance or failure). What we did is set up a VIP for use with FTP on the Kemp Loadmaster. This VIP is what is used by the GPS Stations and the application to write and by the customers to read the FTP data.

DFS-R to complete the solution

But up until now we’ve been ignoring an issue. When using NLB to push data to hosts we need to ensure that all the data will be available on all the nodes all of the time. You could opt to only have the users access the FTP service via a NLB VIP address and push the data to both nodes without using NLB. The latter might be done at the source but then you have twice the amount of data to push out. It also means extra work to configure and maintain the solution. We could copy the data to one FTP node and copy it from there. That works but leaves you very vulnerable to a service outage when the node that gets the original copy is down. No new data will be available. Another issue is the fact that you need a rock solid way to copy the data and have it done it a timely manner, even after down time of one or more of the nodes.

As you read above we provide a NLB VIP as a target for the surveyor’s application and the GPS Stations to send their data to. This means the data will be sent to the FTP NLB array even if one of the nodes is down for some reason. To get the data that arrives from 2 application servers and from 40 GPS Stations synchronized and up to date on both the NLB nodes we use the Data File System – Replication (DFS-R) built into Windows 2008 R2. We have no need for a DFS-Namespace here, so we only use the replication feature. This is easy and fast to set up (add the DFS service from the File Server Role) and it doesn’t require any service down time (no reboot required). The fact that both the FTP nodes are member of a Windows 2008 R2 domain does help with making this easy. To make sure we have replication in all direction we opt to set it up as a full and the replication schedule is 24/7, no days off J Since we chose to replicate the FTP root folder we have both the Data and the Stations folders covered as well as the folder structure needed to have FTP user Isolation function.

This solution was built fast and easily using Windows 2008 R2 out of the box functionality: FTP(S) with User Isolation and DFS-R. The servers are running as hyper-V guests in a Hyper-V cluster providing high availability through Live Migration.

A Hardware Load Balancing Exercise With A Kemp Loadmaster 2200

I recently had the opportunity to get my hands on a hardware load balancer for a project where, due to limitations in the configuration of the software, Windows Network Load Balancing could not be used. The piece of kit we got was a LoadMaster 2200 by Kemp Technologies. A GPS network/software services solution (NTRIP Caster) for surveyors needed load balancing, not only for distributing the load, but also to help with high availability. The software could not be configured to use a Virtual IP address of a Windows Load Balancer cluster. That meant when had to take the load balancing of the Windows server nodes. I had been interested in Kemp gear for a while now (in function of some Exchange implementations) but until recently I did not get my hands on a LoadMaster.

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We have two networks involved. One the 192.1683.2.0/24 network serves as a management, back office network to which the dial access call are routed and load balanced to 2 separate servers WebSurvey01 and WebSurvey02 (running VMs running on Hyper-V). The Other network is 192.168.1.0/24 and that serves the internet traffic for the web site and the NTRIP data for the surveyors, which is also load balanced to WebSurvey01 and WebSurvey02. The application needs to see the IP addresses of the clients so we want transparency. To achieve this we need to use the gateway of the VIP on the Kemp load balancer as the gateway. That means we can’t connect to those apps from the same subnet, but this is not required. The clients dial in or come in from the internet. A logical illustration (it’s not a complete overview or an exact network diagram) of such a surveyors network configuration is shown below.

PublicVRSNetWithHardwareLoadBalancing

Why am I using layer 7 load balancing? Well, layer 4 is a transport layer (which is transparent but not very intelligent) and as such is not protocol aware while layer 7 is an application layer and is protocol aware. I want the latter as this gives me the possibility to check the health of the underlying service, filter on content, do funky stuff with headers (which allows us to give the clients IP to the destination server => X-Forwarded-For header when using layer 7), load balance traffic based on server load or service etc. Layer 7 not as fast as layer 4, as there is more things to do, code to run, but when you don’t overload the device that not a problem as it has plenty of processing power.

The documentation for the KEMP LoadMaster is OK. But I really do advise you to get one, install it in a lab and play with all the options to test it as much as you can. Doing so will give you a pretty good feel for the product, how it functions and what you can achieve with it. They will provide you with a system to do just that when you want. If you like it and decide to keep it, you can pay for it and it’s yours. Otherwise you can just return it. I had an issue in the lab due to a bad switch and my local dealer was very fast to offer help and support. I’m a happy customer so far. It’s good to see more affordable yet very capable devices on the market. Smaller projects and organizations might not have the vast amount of server nodes and traffic volume to warrant high end load balancers but they have needs that need to be served, so there is a market for this. Just don’t get in a “mine is bigger than yours” contest about products. Get one that is the best bang for the buck considering your needs.

One thing I would like to see in the lower end models is a redundant hot swappable power supply. It would make it more complete.  One silly issue they should also fix in the next software update is that you can’t have a terminal connection running until 60 seconds after booting or the appliance might get stuck at 100% CPU load. Your own DOS attack at your fingertips. Update: I was contacted by KEMP and informed that they checked this issue out. The warning that you should not have the vt100 connected during a reboot is an issue the used to exist in the past but is no longer true. This myth persists as it is listed on the sheet of paper that states “important” and which is the first thing you see when you open the box. They told me they will remove it from the "important"-sheet to help put the myth to rest and your mind at ease when you unbox your brand new KEMP equipment. I appreciate their follow up and very open communication. From my experience they seems to make sure their resellers are off the same mindset as they also provided speedy and correct information. As a customer I appreciate that level of service.

The next step would be to make this he setup redundant. At least that’s my advice to the project team. Geographically redundant load balancing seems to be based on DNS. Unfortunately a lot of surveying gears seems to accept only IP addresses so I’ll still have to see what possibilities we have to achieve that. No rush, getting that disaster recovery and business continuity site designed and setup will take some time anyway.

They have virtual load balancers available for both VMware and Hyper-V but not for their DR or Geo versions. Those are only on VMware still. The reason we used an appliance here is the need to make the load balancer as independent as possible of any hardware (storage, networking, host servers) used by the virtualization environment.