Why you still need layer 7 persistence

Tony Bourke of the Load Balancing Digest points out that mega proxies are largely dead. Very true. He then wonders whether layer 7 persistence is really all that important today, as it was largely implemented to solve the problems associated with mega-proxies - that is, large numbers of users coming from the same IP address.

Layer 7 persistence is still applicable to situations where you may have multiple users coming from a single IP address (such as a small client base coming from a handful of offices, with each office using on public IP address), but I wonder what doing Layer 4 persistence would do to a major site these days.  I’m thinking, not much.

I'm going to say that layer 4 persistence would likely break a major site today. Layer 7 persistence is even more relevant today than it has been in the past for one very good reason: session coherence. Session coherence may not have the performance and availability ramifications of the mega-proxy problem, but it is essential to ensure that applications in a load-balanced environment work correctly.

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Layer 7 persistence is still heavily used in applications that are session sensitive. The most common example is shopping carts stored in the application server session, but it also increasingly important to Web 2.0 and interactive applications where state is important. Sessions are used to store that state and therefore Layer 7 persistence becomes important to maintaining that state in a load-balanced environment.

It's common to see layer 7 persistence driven by JSESSIONID or PHPSESSIONID header variables today. It's a question we see in the forums here on DevCentral quite often. Many applications are rolled out, and then inserted into a load balanced environment, and subsequently break because sessions aren't shared across web application servers and the client isn't always routed to the same server or they come back "later" (after the connections have timed out) and expect the application to continue where they left it. If they aren't load balanced back to the same server, the session data isn't accessible and the application breaks. Application server sessions generally persist for hours as opposed to the minutes or seconds allowed for a TCP connection.

Layer 4 (TCP) persistence can't adequately address this problem. Source port and IP address aren't always enough to ensure routing to the correct server because it doesn't persist once the connection is closed, and multiple requests coming from the same browser use multiple connections now, each with a different source port. That means two requests on the same page may not be load balanced to the same server, even though they both may require access to the application session data. These sites and applications are used for hours, often with long periods of time between requests, which means connections have often long timed out. Could layer 4 persistence work? Probably, but only if the time-out on these connections were set unreasonably high, which would consume a lot more resources on the load balancer and reduce its capacity significantly.

And let's not forget SaaS (Software as a Service) sites like salesforce.com, where rather than mega-proxy issues cropping up we'd have lots-of-little-proxy issues cropping up as businesses still (thanks to IPv4 and the need to monitor Internet use) employ forward proxies. And SSL, too, is highly dependent upon header data to ensure persistence today.

I agree with Tony's assessment that the mega proxy problem is largely a non-issue today, but session coherence is taking its place a one of the best reasons to implement layer 7 persistence over layer 4 persistence.


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Published Sep 16, 2008
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