Why you should use an Aws Application Load Balancer (Part 1)

In the vast landscape of Amazon Web Services (AWS), there are several tools and services that often go underutilized, even in scenarios where they can bring immense value. One such service is the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) Application Load Balancer (ALB). While you might associate load balancers with distributing traffic across multiple servers, it’s essential to recognize that ALBs can be a game-changer, even if your infrastructure consists of just a single server.

What is an Application Load Balancer (ALB)?

Before delving into the reasons to use an ALB, let’s start by understanding what an ALB is. An ALB is a service within EC2 that functions as a traffic distributor, intelligently routing incoming client requests to specific targets, typically EC2 instances or ECS (Elastic Container Service) containers. It operates at the application layer (Layer 7) of the OSI model, making it well-suited for modern web applications that require deep-level content inspection and routing decisions.

Now, let’s explore how an ALB differentiates itself from its counterparts, the Classic Load Balancer (CLB) and the Network Load Balancer (NLB):

Application Load Balancer vs. Classic Load Balancer:

  • Layer 7 vs. Layer 4: The most significant difference between ALB and the Classic Load Balancer lies in the layer at which they operate. Classic Load Balancers function at Layer 4, mainly focusing on TCP/UDP traffic, whereas ALB operates at Layer 7, providing the capability to inspect and route based on HTTP/HTTPS content. This feature is particularly beneficial for web applications that require content-based routing.
  • Content-Based Routing: ALBs can route traffic based on request content, including URL paths, host headers, query parameters, and even custom headers. This fine-grained control allows for advanced routing and traffic management, which is not possible with Classic Load Balancers.
  • Advanced Health Checks: ALBs offer more robust health check options, including the ability to check the health of specific microservices or endpoints. This is crucial for ensuring that traffic is directed to healthy targets.

Application Load Balancer vs. Network Load Balancer:

  • Layer 7 vs. Layer 4: Similar to the comparison with the Classic Load Balancer, ALB operates at Layer 7, while the Network Load Balancer functions at Layer 4. The choice between ALB and Network Load Balancer depends on the specific needs of your application.
  • Web Application Load Balancing: ALB is tailor-made for web applications. It can distribute traffic based on factors like content, URL, and HTTP request type, making it ideal for microservices architectures and container-based applications.
  • Simplified Target Configuration: Network Load Balancers require you to define IP targets, which may be challenging when working with dynamic environments. ALBs can work with targets defined by Auto Scaling Groups, Amazon EC2 Instance IDs, Lambda Functions, as well as IP targets, making them more user-friendly and adaptable.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of ALB and its distinctions from Classic and Network Load Balancers, let’s explore the compelling reasons why you should use an ALB, even if your organization is using a single web server.

Simplified Certificate Management

Using an ALB streamlines the process of managing SSL/TLS certificates for your application. You can seamlessly integrate your ALB with AWS Certificate Manager, eliminating the need for manual certificate management. This ensures that your application remains secure without the administrative overhead and complexities often associated with SSL/TLS certificate handling.

Enhanced Security

  • Web Application Firewall (WAF): You can set up AWS Web Application Firewall (WAF) with your ALB to protect your application from a range of web-based threats. This provides enhanced security, making your application resilient to various attacks.
  • SSL/TLS Offloading: ALBs are capable of handling SSL/TLS termination, which involves offloading the resource-intensive task of encryption and decryption from your server. This not only reduces the attack surface on your server(s) but also improves overall security by focusing on protecting the ALB, which is purpose-built for this task.
  • Isolation in Private Subnet: ALBs allow you to deploy your targets in a private subnet, isolating them from direct internet traffic. This added layer of security prevents your application’s backend infrastructure from being directly accessible from the internet, minimizing potential attack vectors. This is especially valuable when your architecture includes sensitive or internal services that should not be exposed to the public web.

Future Auto Scaling Readiness

Even if you start with just one server, using an ALB prepares your infrastructure for future growth. By creating an Auto Scaling Group (ASG) for your server, you can establish auto-scaling policies. These policies automatically adjust the number of instances based on traffic patterns or predefined criteria. This future-proofs your application, allowing it to scale smoothly as your user base and traffic increase.

Multi-AZ (Availability Zone) Deployment

Deploying your server in multiple Availability Zones (AZs) and distributing traffic through an ALB enhances the reliability and high availability of your application. In the event of an AZ-level failure, traffic is seamlessly redirected to a healthy AZ, ensuring minimal downtime and uninterrupted service for your users.

Logging and Monitoring Capabilities

ALBs offer extensive logging and monitoring capabilities, often integrated with Amazon CloudWatch. Continuous monitoring allows you to keep a close eye on your servers’ health and ALB performance, enabling proactive responses to issues in real-time. Additionally, setting up access logs on your ALB records critical information about incoming requests and outgoing responses. This data is invaluable for debugging, auditing, and optimizing your application’s performance.

Content-Based Routing

One of the strengths of ALBs is their content-based routing capabilities. With ALBs, you can intelligently distribute traffic based on various factors, such as URL paths and hostnames. This feature makes it easy to host multiple websites, applications, or microservices, even in a single-server deployment, offering flexibility and efficiency in your infrastructure setup.

Path-Based Routing for Microservices

Path-Based Routing is a crucial feature offered by ALBs, especially for microservice architectures. It allows you to route incoming requests to specific paths, making it easier to manage and scale microservices. It also enables the efficient routing of incoming requests to distinct microservices running on separate targets behind the ALB. For example, you can route requests to /users to a user management microservice and those to /products to a product catalog microservice. Path-Based Routing not only streamlines the traffic management process but also enhances the maintainability of your microservices ecosystem. Each microservice can be independently managed, ensuring optimal performance, fault tolerance, and maintainability. This approach optimizes resource utilization and isolates different services, preventing interference or resource contention, which is a common concern in monolithic applications.

Host-Based Routing for Microservices

Host-Based Routing is a pivotal component of ALB functionality, particularly when implementing a microservices architecture. It allows for precise traffic routing based on hostnames, which is valuable when your microservices are distributed across dedicated targets. Each microservice can have its own subdomain or hostname, like api.example.com or app.example.com, which are mapped to separate target groups behind the ALB. This architecture ensures that each microservice operates independently, simplifying scalability, maintenance, and resource allocation. Host-Based Routing optimizes the performance and isolation of your microservices, enabling them to efficiently handle their respective workloads. Additionally, it streamlines versioning and updates for individual microservices, reducing the risk of disruptions to the overall application.

Preventing “Noisy Neighbor” Problems in Monolithic Applications

Path-Based and Host-Based Routing not only benefit microservices but can also address “noisy neighbor” problems in monolithic applications. In a monolithic setup, different components of the application share the same server resources. This shared environment can lead to resource contention, where a resource-intensive component negatively impacts the performance of others. By routing requests to specific paths or hostnames, you can segregate and isolate different parts of your monolithic application. For example, you can direct resource-intensive tasks to dedicated paths or subdomains, preventing them from impacting the rest of the application. This not only enhances resource allocation but also optimizes the overall performance and stability of your monolithic application, ensuring a consistent user experience.

Bringing It All Together

Incorporating an ALB into your infrastructure setup is a forward-thinking approach. It not only enhances the security, scalability, and resilience of your application but also ensures that your system is well-prepared for future growth and the challenges that come with it, making it a valuable asset, regardless of your current server count.

About the Author

Chris Florin

As a Principal Architect, I bring a wealth of experience and expertise in AWS cloud solutions. With a passion for innovation, I lead our team in delivering exceptional results that empower businesses to thrive in the ever-evolving world of cloud technology.

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