load balancing intermediaries have long used the terms “virtual server” and “virtual IP address”. With the widespread adoption of virtualization these terms have become even more confusing to the uninitiated. Here’s how load balancing and application delivery use the terminology.

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I often find it easiest to explain the difference between a “virtual server” and a “virtual IP address (VIP)” by walking through the flow of traffic as it is received from the client.

When a client queries for “www.yourcompany.com” they get an IP address, of course. In many cases if the site is served by a load balancer or application delivery controller that IP address is a virtual IP address. That simply means the IP address is not tied to a specific host. It’s kind of floating out there, waiting for requests. It’s more like a taxi than a public bus in that a public bus has a predefined route from which it does not deviate. A taxi, however, can take you wherever you want within the confines of its territory. In the case of a virtual IP address that territory is the set of virtual servers and services offered by the organization.

The client (the browser, probably) uses the virtual IP address to make a request to “www.yourcompany.com” for a particular resource such as a web application (HTTP) or to send an e-mail (SMTP). Using the VIP and a TCP port appropriate for the resource, the application delivery controller directs the request to a “virtual server”. The virtual server is also an abstraction. It doesn’t really “exist” anywhere but in the application delivery controller’s configuration. The virtual server determines – via myriad options – which pool of resources will best serve to meet the user’s request. That pool of resources contains “nodes”, which ultimately map to one (or more) physical or virtual web/application servers (or mail servers, or X servers).

A virtual IP address can represent multiple virtual servers and the correct mapping between them is generally accomplished by further delineating virtual servers by TCP destination port. So a single virtual IP address can point to a virtual “HTTP” server, a virtual “SMTP” server, a virtual “SSH” server, etc… Each virtual “X” server is a separate instantiation, all essentially listening on the same virtual vserver-vipIP address.

It is also true, however, that a single virtual server can be represented by multiple virtual IP addresses. So “www1” and “www2” may represent different virtual IP addresses, but they might both use the same virtual server. This allows an application delivery controller to make routing decisions based on the host name, so “images.yourcompany.com” and “content.yourcompany.com” might resolve to the same virtual IP address and the same virtual server, but the “pool” of resources to which requests for images is directed will be different than the “pool” of resources to which content is directed.  This allows for greater flexibility in architecture and scalability of resources at the content-type and application level rather than at the server level.

WILS: Write It Like Seth. Seth Godin always gets his point across with brevity and wit. WILS is an ATTEMPT TO BE concise about application delivery TOPICS AND just get straight to the point. NO DILLY DALLYING AROUND.

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