Why Scale and Not Traffic Complexity Is the Biggest Driver of Load Balancer Evolution

by Craig Risi on Application Delivery • June 28, 2021

Application delivery controllers (ADCs) have become critical components of the connected world. They enable the many millions of “connected worlds” to respond to all data and traffic in a high-performance manner. Why are ADCs so vital today, and how did they develop into the critical applications we see today?

In this article, we will explore how our technological ecosystem evolved to create the modern-day ADC and how that has led load balancers to move away from merely managing traffic to providing scale, security, and driving application performance, and how Snapt has transformed as part of these changes, creating Aria to meet the initial digital ADC needs and then eventually developing Nova as an ADC that can meet the needs of both existing infrastructure and where the future is taking the industry.

 

Customer needs dictated demand

As with most aspects of technology, ADCs evolved to meet the needs of the customer at the time. The technology was initially created to solve the problems of server performance and data traffic management. When a single server took on too much volume, it would slow down and often even die when faced with too much traffic. Traditional hardware load balancers were created to distribute the data flow between different servers to prevent any single server from being overtaxed. This was done initially at an ad hoc level, with users evenly distributed between servers, regardless of the operations they were performing, and eventually evolved into understanding the underlying performance of different servers or the location of the traffic to route it more intelligently to increase this performance.

In that earlier phase of the technology, with expensive hardware involved, the focus for many customers came down to features and choosing the load balancers that provided the best performance or a set of features rather than focusing too heavily on the cost (especially for big companies).

 

Those customer needs are changing

The ADC market has progressed from those early days, when hardware sat between physical servers, to being completely software-driven. At the forefront of this shift was the move to cloud technology, and companies now needing to run their software on virtual machines rather than physical servers.

While we see ADCs as applications that now run on a variety of servers, the first iterations of ADC-like devices were purpose-built hardware devices. With most corporate applications running on massive servers in even bigger data centers that featured a vast array of complex cables transmitting data to different servers, hardware was designed to act as a buffer between the network and the server, ensuring it would not get overwhelmed by all the different messages going in and out but instead be synchronized and balanced through these hardware balancers.

Load balancing also began this shift from operating in the data plane, where data packets are merely forwarded to other locations, to the control plane, which makes use of routing tables to identify the right network paths, giving companies more control over their data, thus offering both increased security and performance, as data only go where they’re needed and can best be optimized.

As the software itself became more intelligent at handling the flow of data coming in and out of a computer’s network port, it became practical for companies to explore creating applications that can be better optimized for the underlying machines rather than relying on expensive hardware.

To make things even more complicated, these cloud service providers are also doing a fantastic job of managing the software traffic between different virtual machines, meaning that the focus has shifted away from traditional load management—even at the software level—and is no longer about covering a deficiency in your server performance but about enhancing it.

ADC software needs to operate on each node of a particular network, whether in a company data center or on a VM in the cloud, to maintain its effectiveness. This means it must be lightweight enough to run on small containers. This migration to a virtualized world has helped rapidly expand the capabilities and usage of ADCs in the software space, making it fast and easy for many companies to deploy ADCs on a global scale at far less expense, with a focus on scale and speed replacing the former expensive feature-rich hardware.

With many cloud services providing load balancing applications of their own, the market has also shifted toward moving beyond simply balancing load and driving scale to looking for increased performance through efficiency. The features you will now need in any decent ADC are the ability to operate in a multi-cloud setup, allowing companies to deploy and deliver software to the location and data center where it is most needed, security, performance—and importantly—efficiency.

Snapt has addressed these changing needs firsthand, creating Aria as an ADC that can run any server/endpoint and provide companies with the load balancing and security required. With companies focusing on scale, with far more nodes across different cloud providers, and with a stricter focus on security, we saw the need to create Nova to respond to these critical concerns.

 

How ADC technology has adapted, changed, and grown over the years

It was this initial transition from hardware to software, back in 2004 when application delivery controllers first became genuine named applications, but it involved more than enhancement of ADCs’ capability. Early ADCs focused on simply load balancing and application acceleration. It was only in 2006 that features like caching, compression, traffic shaping, connection multiplexing, SSL offload, application layer security, and content switching were being introduced into the different controllers available.

Back in those early years (if you can really call the mid-2000s “early”), most ADCs operated on large servers that hosted big monolithic systems with a variety of virtual machines used only to manage part of the load and perform initial caching, while much of the processing was still handled by these powerful servers. The role of the ADC was more about ensuring that the right load distribution and caching were taking place so that the various machines and users working on these big applications were still able to receive reasonable performance.

With the advent of microservices and containerization that allow software to be deployed more easily, both applications and ADCs have become smaller in size. This change has increased the need for a centralized network of ADCs that can communicate together, creating the need for more intelligent algorithms and artificial intelligence to make this all a reality. This brings us to the dawn of the ADC 2.0 era in which the industry now finds itself.

 

The future of ADC technology in our digital landscape

The future of ADC technology is bright and exciting in the industry, although it is filled with uncertainty and high risk. The ADC is no longer an application that runs in isolation and drives delivery independently through each node. It is now part of a sophisticated interconnected network of ADCs that drive delivery across a global landscape rather than a local one. This makes it a vital cog in the digital landscape, in which companies are looking to expand their digital footprints globally and be able to deliver services wherever people are located, allowing the ADC network to scale and meet the diverse needs of an ever-evolving and increasingly connected world.

This all makes application delivery greatly dependent on the stability and security of any given network, and as such, more emphasis must be placed on monitoring threats across every node, creatively detecting vulnerabilities from within and mitigating their responses proactively in a way that has minimal impact on the overall availability and performance of the underlying system. This presents both a stellar opportunity for the use of AI in today’s ADCs and a growing challenge, as ADC technology must keep up with the many threats that can affect this space and requires ADC developers to constantly enhance and update their services to counter them.

This could also lead companies to rely on contingency measures across their systems and possibly even see the need for different ADCs from different companies to work together to tackle threats, not just at corporate levels, but globally as well. All this is very dependent on vital and often confidential data that must be kept encrypted, so it will also require the landscape to work toward a level of standardization and regulation to ensure that delivery, scalability, and security needs can be met in the most effective manner possible.

 

How Snapt’s Nova ticks all the boxes

Given where we have come from and where the industry is going, you, as a company, need an ADC that can keep you on the cutting edge, no matter where the technological world is headed. Snapt’s Nova ADC provides a central hub in which to scale your software across all cloud providers and on-premises servers, bringing improved application performance, intelligent load balancing, and enhanced security to every node on your network.

N Nova ADC is not just built for the future of application delivery—it is competitive across the board when it comes to what you are paying for. Take a look at our compare page to see for yourself. Thanks to embedded artificial intelligence that proactively manages security and application performance and allows easy and efficient tracking across your entire platform, Nova is an ADC that is already delivering on the promises of the future and will ensure your ADC needs are met for many years to come.

 

It’s clear that there are major changes in the move to the cloud and that ADCs are playing an increasingly vital role in how companies scale software to meet the needs of their customers. We need to understand how technology has evolved in the recent past to better understand where it may go in the future and ensure that we, as an industry, are prepared to be a part of that change by ensuring that we have ADCs in place that don’t just monitor our existing load but drive the future needs of our customers.