Choosing the Appropriate AWS Load Balancer: ALB vs. NLB
Learn the key differences between Application Load Balancer (ALB) and Network Load Balancer (NLB) to make the right choice for your application.
Join the DZone community and get the full member experience.Join For Free
With the advent of cloud computing, managing network traffic and ensuring optimal performance have become critical aspects of system architecture. Amazon Web Services (AWS), a leading cloud service provider, offers a suite of load balancers to manage network traffic effectively for applications running on its platform. Two such offerings are the Application Load Balancer (ALB) and Network Load Balancer (NLB). This extensive guide aims to provide an in-depth comparison between these two types of load balancers, helping you choose the most suitable option for your application's needs.
The primary role of a load balancer is to distribute network traffic evenly among multiple servers or 'targets' to ensure smooth performance and prevent any single server from being overwhelmed. AWS provides three types of load balancers: Classic Load Balancer (CLB), Application Load Balancer (ALB), and Network Load Balancer (NLB).
The ALB operates at Layer 7 of the OSI model, handling HTTP/HTTPS traffic. It offers advanced request routing based on the content of the request, making it ideal for complex web applications. On the other hand, the NLB operates at Layer 4, dealing with TCP traffic. It's designed for extreme performance and low latencies, offering static IP addresses per Availability Zone (AZ).
Choosing the right load balancer is crucial as it directly impacts your application’s performance, availability, security, and cost. For instance, if your application primarily handles HTTP requests and requires sophisticated routing rules, an ALB would be more appropriate. Conversely, if your application requires high throughput, low latency, or a static IP address, you should opt for an NLB.
Fundamentals of Load Balancing
The Network Load Balancer is designed to handle tens of millions of requests per second while maintaining high throughput at ultra-low latency. Unpredictable traffic patterns do not affect its performance, thanks to its ability to handle sudden and volatile traffic. Furthermore, it supports long-lived TCP connections that are ideal for WebSocket-type applications.
The Application Load Balancer, on the other hand, is best suited for load balancing HTTP and HTTPS traffic. It operates at the request level, allowing advanced routing, microservices, and container-based architecture. It can route requests to different services based on the content of the request, which is ideal for modern, complex web applications.
Key Features and Capabilities
The NLB provides several important features, such as static IP support, zonal isolation, and low-latency performance. It distributes traffic across multiple targets within one or more AZs, ensuring a robust and reliable performance. Furthermore, it offers connection multiplexing and stickiness, enabling efficient utilization of resources.
On the other hand, the ALB comes with built-in features like host and path-based routing, SSL/TLS decryption, and integration with AWS WAF, protecting your applications from various threats. It also supports advanced routing algorithms, slow start mode for new targets, and integration with container services. These features make it ideal for modern, modular, and microservices-based applications.
Both ALB and NLB offer unique advantages. While ALB's strength lies in flexible application management and advanced routing features, NLB shines in areas of extreme performance and support for static IP addresses. It's also worth noting that while ALB can handle HTTP/1, HTTP/2, and gRPC protocols, NLB is designed for lower-level TCP and UDP traffic.
Performance and Efficiency
NLB excels in terms of performance due to its design. As it operates at the transport layer (Layer 4), it merely forwards incoming TCP or UDP connections to a target without inspecting the details of every request. This makes NLB significantly faster and more efficient in forwarding incoming requests, reducing latency.
In contrast, ALB operates at the application layer (Layer 7), inspecting details of every incoming HTTP/HTTPS request. While this introduces a slight overhead compared to NLB, it allows ALB to perform advanced routing based on the content of the request, providing flexibility and control.
When it comes to raw performance and low latency, NLB has an advantage due to its simple operation at Layer 4. However, ALB offers additional flexibility and control at Layer 7, which can lead to more efficient request handling in complex applications.
Handling Traffic Spikes
NLB is designed to handle sudden and massive spikes in traffic without requiring any pre-warming or scaling. This is because NLB does not need to scale the number of nodes processing incoming connections, allowing it to adapt instantly to increased traffic.
ALB, on the other hand, adapts to an increase in connections and requests automatically. However, this scaling process takes some time, so during sudden, substantial traffic spikes, ALB might not be able to handle all incoming requests immediately. In such cases, AWS recommends informing them in advance about expected traffic spikes so they can pre-warm the ALB.
While both NLB and ALB can handle traffic spikes, NLB's design allows it to respond more quickly to sudden increases in traffic, making it a better choice for applications with unpredictable or highly volatile traffic patterns. However, with proper planning and communication with AWS, ALB can also effectively manage large traffic spikes.
NLB provides robust security features, including TLS termination and integration with VPC security groups. However, it lacks some advanced security features, such as support for AWS WAF and user authentication, which are available in ALB.
ALB offers advanced security features like integration with AWS WAF, SSL/TLS termination, and user authentication using OpenID Connect and SAML. It also allows the creation of custom security policies, making it more flexible in terms of security.
Both NLB and ALB offer robust security features, but ALB provides additional flexibility and control with its support for AWS WAF and user authentication. However, the choice between the two should be based on your specific security requirements. If your application primarily deals with HTTP/HTTPS traffic and requires advanced security controls, ALB would be a better choice. On the other hand, for applications requiring high throughput and low latency, NLB might be a more suitable option despite its limited advanced security features.
Costs and Pricing
The cost of using an NLB is largely dependent on the amount of data processed, the duration of usage, and whether you use additional features like cross-zone load balancing. While NLB pricing is relatively lower than ALB, it can cause more connections and hence, a higher load on targets, potentially leading to increased costs.
Like NLB, the cost of ALB is based on the amount of data processed and the duration of usage. However, due to its additional features, ALB generally has a higher cost than NLB. However, it's important to note that ALB's sophisticated routing and management features could lead to more efficient resource usage, potentially offsetting its higher price.
While NLB may appear cheaper at first glance, the total cost of operation should take into account the efficiency of resource usage, which is where ALB excels with its advanced routing and management features. Ultimately, the most cost-effective choice will depend on your application's specific needs and architecture.
Integration and Compatibility
NLB integrates seamlessly with other AWS services, such as AWS Auto Scaling Groups, Amazon EC2 Container Service (ECS), and Amazon EC2 Spot Fleet. It also works well with containerized applications and supports both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.
ALB offers extensive integration options with a wide range of AWS services, including AWS Auto Scaling Groups, Amazon ECS, AWS Fargate, and AWS Lambda. It also supports both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses and integrates with container-based and serverless architectures.
Both NLB and ALB integrate seamlessly into existing AWS infrastructure. They support various AWS services, making them versatile choices for different application architectures. However, with its additional features and capabilities, ALB may require slightly more configuration than NLB.
While both ALB and NLB are powerful tools for managing network traffic in AWS, they cater to different needs and scenarios. ALB operates at the application layer, handling HTTP/HTTPS traffic with advanced request routing capabilities, making it suitable for complex web applications. NLB operates at the transport layer, dealing with TCP/UDP traffic, providing high performance and low latency, making it ideal for applications requiring high throughput.
The choice between ALB and NLB depends on your specific application requirements. If your application handles HTTP/HTTPS traffic and requires advanced routing capabilities, ALB is the right choice. If your application requires high performance, low latency, and static IP addresses, then NLB is more suitable.
For microservices architecture or container-based applications that require advanced routing and flexible management, go for ALB. For applications requiring high throughput and low latency, such as multiplayer gaming, real-time streaming, or IoT applications, choose NLB. As always, the best choice depends on understanding your application's requirements and choosing the tool that best fits those needs.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.