It is often the case that application server clustering and load-balancing are mistakenly believed to be the same thing. They are not. While server clustering does provide rudimentary load-balancing functionality, it does a better job of providing basic fail-over and availability assurance than it does load-balancing. In fact, load balancing has effectively been overtaken by application delivery, which builds on load balancing but is much, much more than that today.

Clustering essentially turns one instance of an application server into a controlling node, a proxy of sorts, through which requests are funneled and then distributed amongst several instances of application servers. Sounds like load-balancing, on the surface, but digging deeper will reveal there are many reasons why application server clustering will not support long-term scalability and efficiency.

Aside from the obvious hardware accelerated functions provided by an application delivery controller (a.k.a. modern load balancer), there are a number of other reasons to look to options other than application server clustering when you are trying to build out a scalable, efficient application architecture.

Here are the top three reasons you should reconsider (or not consider in the first place) a scalability solution centered around application server clustering technology.

JUST LOAD BALANCING ISN'T EFFICIENTideabulb

Simple load balancing is not efficient. It uses industry standard algorithms ultimately derived from network load balancing to distribute requests across a pool (or farm) of servers. Those algorithms don't take into consideration a wide variety of factors that can affect not only capacity of an application but the performance of an application. There is no intelligence, no real awareness of the application in an application server clustering architecture and thus the solution does not utilize resources in a way that squeezes out as much capacity and performance from applications.

Application server clustering also lacks many of the features available in today's application delivery controllers that enhance the efficiency of servers and supporting infrastructure. Optimization of core protocols and reuse of connections can dramatically increase the efficiency and performance of applications and neither option is available in application server clustering solutions. That's because the application server clustering solution relies on the same core protocol stack (TCP/IP) as the application server and operating system, and neither are optimized for scalability.

LACK OF SUPPORT FOR CLOUD COMPUTING and VIRTUALIZED ENVIRONMENTS

Dynamism is the ability of your application and network infrastructure to handle the expansion and contraction of applications in an on-demand environment. If you're considering building your own private cloud computing environment and taking advantage of the latest style of computing, you'll want to consider options other than application server clustering to serve as your '"control node".

Aside from failing to exhibit the four core properties necessary in a cloud computing infrastructure (transparency, scalability, security, and application intelligence), application server clustering itself is not designed to handle a fluid application infrastructure. Like early load balancers, it expects to manage a number of servers in a farm and that the number (and location) will remain the same. Its configuration is static, not dynamic, and it is not well-suited to automatically adjusting to changing infrastructure conditions in the data center.

Virtualization initiatives put similar demands on controlling solutions like application delivery and application server cluster controllers; demands that cannot be met by application server cluster controllers due to their static configuration nature.

IT ISN'T SCALABLE

When it comes down to it there is only one reason you really need to stay away from application server clustering as a mechanism for scaling your applications: application server clustering doesn't scale well.

Think about it this way, you are trying to scale out an application by taking an instance of the application server (the one you need to scale, by the way) and turning it into a controlling node. While the application server clustering functionality is likely capable of supporting twice scalability the number of concurrent connections as a single instance running an application, it isn't likely to be able to handle three or four times that number. You are still limited by the software, by the operating system, and by the hardware capabilities of the server on which the clustering solution is deployed.

The number of web sites that are static and do not involve dynamic components served from application servers of some kind are dwindling. Most sites recognize the impact of Web 2.0 on their customer base and necessarily include dynamic content as the primary source of web site content. That means they're trying to serve a high number of concurrent customers on traditional application server technology solutions. Scaling those applications is an important part of deploying a site today, both to ensure availability and to meet increasingly demanding performance requirements.

Application server clustering technology wasn't designed for this kind of scalability, and there's a reason that folks like Microsoft, Oracle/BEA, and IBM partner with hardware application delivery solution providers: they know that in order to truly scale an application, you're going to need a hardware-based solution. Application server vendors build application servers that are focused on building, deploying, and serving up rich, robust applications. And every one of them has said in the past, "Use a hardware load balancer to scale."

 

If the recommendation of your application server vendor isn't enough to convince you that application server clustering isn't the right choice for scaling web applications, I don't know what is.

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