What Is DNS Load Balancing and How Does It Work?

DNS load balancing distributes incoming traffic across multiple servers for robust performance and high availability.

DNS load balancing uses the domain name system (DNS) to distribute site traffic across multiple servers to raise network throughput, optimize performance, minimize downtime, and increase overall computing efficiency. 

What Is DNS Load Balancing?

DNS load balancing distributes incoming network traffic across multiple servers or resources to improve the availability, scalability, and performance of a service or application by spreading the load among several server instances. It presents a simple and efficient way to achieve load distribution among multiple servers. 

The DNS is often described as the Internet's phonebook because it translates website domain names (such as f5.com or amazon.com) into numeric IP addresses that servers use to identify websites and devices connected to the Internet. This process is called DNS resolution. During DNS resolution, a user's browser contacts a DNS server to request the destination website's correct numeric IP address. 

The DNS resolver looks up the IP address associated with the requested domain name by querying the domain’s DNS servers for the domain’s A record, or address record, which maps domain names to one or more IP addresses. The DNS resolver may also encounter a CNAME (Canonical Name) record, which maps a domain name to another domain name as an alias, or between a parent domain and subdomains.

Most domains today employ multiple DNS servers to protect against server failure or to handle high traffic volumes. Each of these different server instances, all with a different IP address, can handle incoming requests for the domain, so the DNS query returns a list of multiple IP addresses in response to the DNS query. A DNS load balancer uses various methods or rules for choosing which IP address to share in response to a DNS query, ensuring that connection traffic is distributed across multiple available servers.

A CNAME record can also be useful in DNS load balancing, as it allows a single domain name to resolve to the same IP address as another domain: A CNAME can be set up to point to a load balancer's domain name or to the primary domain name that uses load balancing. 

How to Use DNS as a Load Balancer

DNS load balancing spreads the incoming network traffic across multiple server instances, distributing the load and improving the availability and performance of the application or service. If one server becomes unavailable or overloaded, the DNS resolver will continue to provide IP addresses for the remaining servers, which ensures redundancy and failover capabilities.

What Is the Difference Between DNS Load Balancing and Traditional Load Balancing?

DNS load balancing and traditional load balancing serve similar purposes, but they operate at different layers of the network stack and have some key differences.

DNS load balancing operates at the DNS level of application layer 7 and uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) on the Transport layer of the TCP/IP model to transport data, though UDP is preferred over TCP for DNS because of its speed and lightweight packets. 

Implementing DNS load balancing is relatively simple compared to other load balancing solutions and is especially beneficial for small and medium-sized businesses with budget constraints.  It doesn't demand complex configurations or dedicated load balancer hardware or software—making it accessible for organizations with limited IT resources. DNS load balancing can also be configured to direct users to servers in different geographic regions. This is especially useful for organizations with a global presence, as it can direct traffic to the nearest application instance and/or route traffic for GDPR compliancy.

On the other hand, traditional load balancing operates at the transport layer 4 or application layer 7. Layer 4 load balancers act upon data found in network and transport layer protocols (IP, TCP, UDP). Layer 7 load balancers distribute requests based upon data found in application layer protocols such as HTTP. These load balancers are typically dedicated devices that use hardware or software to distribute client requests across a group of servers or server instances.

These load balancers provide more advanced features and finer control over traffic distribution. The distribution of client requests is usually controlled by a dedicated load balancer device or service, which can make dynamic decisions based on performance and other factors. These load balancing devices or services can also perform more advanced algorithms and include health checks to monitor server status and automatically remove or redirect traffic from unhealthy servers to healthy ones. This provides higher availability and fault tolerance.

What Is the Difference Between DNS Round Robin and Advanced Load Balancing?

DNS Round Robin is a basic form of load balancing that relies on DNS to distribute client requests by cycling through a list of IP addresses associated with different servers. Each client request is automatically sent to the next IP address in the list. DNS Round Robin is relatively simple to set up and manage because it only requires the configuration of multiple A records associated with different IP addresses. Changes are made by updating these A records. 

Unfortunately, this simple implementation of DNS load balancing has inherent problems that limit its reliability and efficiency. Most significantly, DNS does not check for server or network outages or errors, and so always returns the same set of IP addresses for a domain even if servers are down or inaccessible. If a server becomes unavailable, DNS Round Robin load balancing may still route traffic to it until the DNS record is updated manually.

Another issue arises because resolved addresses are usually cached, by both intermediate DNS servers (called resolvers) and clients, to improve performance and reduce the amount of DNS traffic on the network. Each resolved address is assigned a validity lifetime (called its time-to-live, or TTL), but long lifetimes mean that clients might not learn about changes to the group of servers in a timely fashion, and short lifetimes improve accuracy but lead to the increased processing and DNS traffic that caching is meant to mitigate in the first place.

Advanced load balancing techniques, on the other hand, are more feature-rich and often include sophisticated algorithms, health checks, and traffic management capabilities to distribute traffic efficiently and ensure high availability, scalability, and optimized performance. These distribution mechanisms include weighted round-robin, least connections, or response time-based routing for more efficient and dynamic traffic distribution and management, making them suitable for complex and high-demand environments. 

Why Is DNS Balancing Necessary?

Load balancing plays a crucial role in managing and optimizing traffic flow in modern networked environments, as it helps deliver a seamless and responsive user experience while maintaining system availability and responsiveness, even under heavy loads or when faced with server failures. 

How DNS Load Balancing Addresses Needs

DNS load balancing enables the distribution of network traffic across multiple servers or data centers, which is especially important for content delivery and handling high traffic volumes, such as in e-commerce websites, social media platforms, and online streaming services. It helps ensure that no single server is overwhelmed or bottlenecked with traffic while others remain underutilized. This promotes optimal resource utilization and helps prevent server overload.

DNS load balancing also helps deliver high availability. By distributing incoming traffic across multiple servers or server instances, it reduces the risk of a single point of failure. If one server becomes unavailable due to hardware failure, maintenance, or other issues, the load balancer can redirect traffic to healthy servers, minimizing service downtime. 

As the demand for a service or application grows, load balancing allows for the easy scaling of resources by the horizontal addition of more servers to the pool. This scalability is critical for handling increased traffic and ensuring that the system can accommodate a growing user base without degradation in performance. Load balancers can consider factors like server load, fault tolerance, and proximity to the client to ensure that users experience low latency and fast response times.

DNS Load Balancing Strategies

The choice of load balancing strategy depends on the specific requirements and constraints of the application or organization, and may depend on factors like the database architecture, the nature of the application, server capacity, and workload characteristics.

Weighted Round Robin

Weighted round-robin is a load balancing strategy that assigns different weights or priorities to various server nodes in a pool, influencing the distribution of incoming client requests. This strategy is particularly useful when dealing with servers that have different hardware specifications or performance capabilities. By assigning weights, more powerful servers handle a larger portion of the traffic.

Geographic Load Balancing

This approach takes into account the geographical proximity of clients to various server locations and uses weights to influence the distribution of client requests. The load balancer is aware of the geographic locations of both client requests and the available server locations or data centers. This information is then used to identify the nearest or most optimal server location for servicing the request. Geographic load balancing is particularly useful for organizations with a global user base and multiple data centers or server locations. It can ensure a consistent user experience across different regions.

Dynamic Load Balancing

Dynamic load balancing involves making real-time adjustments to the distribution of network traffic based on the current state of the servers or the network. Dynamic load balancers monitor the health and performance of servers in the pool, checking server availability, response times, CPU utilization, memory usage, and other metrics. Based on the information gathered, the load balancer dynamically routes incoming requests to the server that is best equipped to handle the request. Dynamic load balancing is used in scenarios where traffic patterns are unpredictable, traffic loads fluctuate frequently, or there is a need to provide a high level of performance optimization. It is commonly used in data centers, cloud computing environments, content delivery networks (CDNs), and applications with rapidly changing workloads.

Implementing DNS Load Balancing

Because DNS load balancers are critical tools for managing traffic on your website or application, it’s important to configure and manage them correctly. The following best practices can help ensure that your load balancer is properly configured and able to accommodate the traffic demands of your users and applications.

Understand Your Application Requirements

Begin by considering the specific needs of your applications or services, including such factors as expected traffic patterns, geographical distribution of users, the sensitivity to latency, and the need for high availability. Load balancers are most effective when they're configured according to specific traffic patterns, so take time to study the traffic coming into your website or application and optimize your configuration accordingly.

Future-Proof Your Infrastructure

Scalability is an important consideration for future-proofing your infrastructure. As your organization and user base grow, your DNS load balancing needs are likely to evolve. Make sure your load balancer solution can scale up or down in response to traffic demands; this elasticity is valuable in cloud environments where resources can be dynamically provisioned based on demand.

Monitor Your Servers

Implementing health checks and continuously monitoring the status of your servers is critical for obtaining peak performance from your load balancer. Monitor all the server's resources (memory utilization, CPU usage, etc.) on a regular basis so that you can quickly identify any potential issues and address them.  Remove or redirect traffic from unhealthy servers to maintain high availability.

Regularly Review and Optimize

Review your DNS load balancing configuration periodically and make optimizations based on changing traffic patterns, server performance, and application requirements.

Choose the Right DNS Load Balancer

Select a DNS load balancing solution that meets your requirements. Consider features like geographic load balancing, weighted routing, health checks, security protection for web applications and APIs, and ease of management. While custom and DIY load balancer solutions may offer greater control and customization, particularly for organizations with very specific requirements, they also come with responsibilities for ongoing maintenance, security, and scalability that should not be underestimated. Third-party DNS load balancing services often operate a distributed network of servers in multiple geographic locations. This global reach enables them to efficiently direct users to the nearest server, reducing latency and improving the user experience. Third-party services also usually offer a variety of load distribution algorithms that allow you to fine-tune how traffic is distributed based on your specific needs and server capabilities. Service-based load balancing solutions are also designed to handle a wide range of traffic loads and can scale up or down as needed.

How F5 Can Help

DNS load balancing is an effective traffic distribution solution for small and medium-sized businesses or organizations with limited IT resources as it doesn't demand complex configurations or dedicated load balancer hardware or software.

F5 offers a range of load balancer products and solutions. These include cloud-based DNS load balancer services that simplify implementation and management complexities and are fully configurable via APIs, with built-in DDoS and WAF protections and disaster recovery capabilities. The service offers global location-based routing to efficiently direct application traffic across environments for high performance and the best user experience. The system monitors system health checks to detect failed or degraded resource instances and reroute clients to maintain application and service availability. F5 Distributed Cloud DNS Load Balancer provides global auto-scaling to keep up with demand as applications increase, traffic patterns change, and request volume skyrockets, but with utility-based pricing: You pay only for the services you need and use. 

In addition, F5 NGINX Plus and F5 NGINX are the best-in-class load-balancing solutions used by high-traffic websites such as Dropbox, Netflix, and Zynga. More than 350 million websites worldwide rely on NGINX Plus and NGINX Open Source to deliver their content quickly, reliably, and securely.

NGINX Plus provides a range of sophisticated load-balancing algorithms that are much more effective and accurate than basic DNS load balancing, and with all of them it checks server status to avoid forwarding requests to inaccessible servers. It also supports a form of DNS load balancing that solves the problems described previously; see Configuring HTTP Load Balancing Using DNS in the NGINX Plus Admin Guide. Because it is software-based, NGINX Plus runs on commodity hardware and is significantly less expensive than most competing hardware-based solutions.