load balancing fu for developers to avoid losing what is vital business data

load-balancing-fuI want my client IP
Now read the manuals that's the way you do it
Give the IP to the SLB
That ain't workin' that’s the way to do it
Set the gateway on the server to your SLB

(many apologies to Dire Straits)

My brother called me last week with a load balancing emergency. See, for most retailers the “big day” of the year is the Friday after Thanksgiving. In Wisconsin, particularly for retailers that focus on water sports, the “big day” of the year is Memorial Day because it’s the first long weekend of the summer. My brother was up late trying to help one of those retailers prepare for the weekend and the inevitable spike in traffic to the websites of people looking for boats and water-skis and other water-related sports “things”. They’d just installed a pair of load balancers and though they worked just fine they had a huge problem on their hands: the application wasn’t getting the client IP but instead was logging the IP address of the load balancers.

This is a common problem that crops up the first time an application is horizontally scaled out using a Load balancer. The business (sales and marketing) analysts need the IP address of the client in order to properly slice and dice data collected. The application must log the correct IP address or the data is virtually useless to the business.

There are a couple of solutions to this problem; which one you choose will depend on the human resources you have available and whether or not you can change your network architecture. The latter would be particularly challenging for applications deployed in a cloud computing environment that are taking advantage of a load balancing solution deployed as a virtual network appliance or “softADC” along with the applications, because you only have control over the configuration of your virtual images and the virtual network appliance-hosted load balancer.


image The problem is that often times load balancers in small-medium sized datacenters and cloud computing environments are deployed in a flat network architecture, with the load balancer essentially in a one-armed (or side-armed) configuration. This means the load balancer needs only one interface, and there’s no complex network routing necessary because the load balancer and the servers are on the same network. It’s also often used as a transparent option for a new load balancing implementation when applications are already live and in use and disrupting service is not an option.

But herein lies the source of the problem: because the load balancer and the servers are on the same network the load balancer must pretend to be the client in order to force the responses back through the load balancer (This is also true of larger and more complex configurations in which the load balancer acts as a full proxy). What happens generally is the load balancer replaces the client IP address in the network layer with its own IP address to force responses to come back to it, then rewrites the Ethernet header on the way back out. When the web server logs the transaction, the client IP address is the IP address of the load balancer, and that’s what gets written into the logs. This is also the case in larger deployments when the load balancer is a full proxy; the requests appear to come from the load balancer in order to apply the appropriate optimization and security policies on the responses, e.g. content scrubbing and TCP multiplexing. The load balancer/ADC cannot provide any kind of TCP connection optimization (such as is used to increase VM density) and application acceleration capabilities in such a mode because it never sees the responses. The result is a DSR (Direct Server Return) mode of operation, meaning that while requests traverse the load balancer, the responses don’t.

This is the situation my brother found himself in (on his birthday, no less, what a dedicated guy) when he called me. It was Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend and the site absolutely had to be up and logging client IP addresses accurately or the client – a retailer of water-related goods - was going to be very, very, very angry. 


You might be thinking the obvious solution to this problem is to turn on the spoofing option on the load balancer. It is, but it isn’t. Or at least it isn’t without a configuration change to the servers. See, the real problem in these scenarios is that the servers are still configured with a default gateway other than the load balancer. Enabling spoofing, i.e. the ability of the load balancer to pretend to be the client IP address, in this situation would have resulted in the web server’s responses still being routed around the load balancer because the servers, having no static route to the client IP, would automatically send them to the default gateway (the router). 

imageThe solution is to change the network configuration of the web servers to use a default gateway that is the load balancer’s IP address, thus insuring that responses are routed back through the load balancer regardless of the client IP. Once that’s accomplished then you can enable SNAT and/or spoofing or “preserve client IP” or whatever the vendor refers to the functionality as and the web server logs will show the actual IP address of the client instead of the load balancer.

Another option is to enable the load balancer to insert the “X-Forwarded-For” custom HTTP header. Most modern load balancers offer this as a checkbox configuration feature. Every HTTP request is modified by the load balancer to include the custom HTTP header with a value that is the client’s true IP address. It is then the application’s responsibility to extract that value instead of the default for logging and per-client personalization/authorization. The extent of the modification of the application depends on how reliant on the client IP address is. If it’s only for logging then a web/app server configuration change is likely the only change necessary. If the application makes use of that IP to apply policies or make application-specific decisions, then modification to the application itself will be necessary.


As more developers take to the cloud as a deployment option for applications this very basic – but very frustrating – scenario is likely to occur more often than not as developers become more familiar with load balancers and deploy them in an IaaS environment. IaaS providers offering “auto-scaling” or “load balancing” services as a capability will have taken this problem into consideration when they architected their underlying infrastructure and thus the customer is relieved of responsibility for the nitty-gritty details. Customers deploying a separate virtualized load balancing solution pdf-icon – to take advantage of more robust load balancing algorithms and application delivery features like network-side scripting – will need to be aware of the impact of network configuration on the application’s ability to “see” the client IP address. Even if the customer is not concerned about the ability to extract the real client IP address it is still important to understand the impact to the return data path as well as the loss of functionality (optimization, security, acceleration) from routing around the load balancing solution on the application response.

This particular knowledge falls into the responsibility demesne of what folks like James Urquhart twitterbird and Damon Edwards twitterbird and Shlomo Swidler twitterbird (among many others) calls “devops”; developers whose skill set and knowledge expands into operations in order to successfully take advantage of cloud computing. Developers must be involved with and understand the implications of what has before been primarily an operational concern because it impacts their application and potentially impacts the ability of their applications to function properly. Development and operations must collaborate on just such concerns because it impacts the business and its ability to succeed in its functions, such as understanding the demographics of its customer base by applying GeoLocation technologies to client IP addresses. Without the real client IP address such demographic data mining fails and the business cannot make the adjustments necessary to its products/services. Business, operations, and development must collaborate to understand the requirements and then implement them in the most operationally efficient manner possible. Devops promises to enable that collaboration by tearing down the wall that has long existed between developers and operations.