Load balancing can be performed at various layers in the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) Reference Model for networking. Here we offer an overview of two load‑balancing options at two different layers in the model.

Differences Between Layer 4 and Layer 7 Load Balancing

Layer 4 load balancing operates at the intermediate transport layer, which deals with delivery of messages with no regard to the content of the messages. Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is the Layer 4 protocol for Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) traffic on the Internet. Layer 4 load balancers simply forward network packets to and from the upstream server without inspecting the content of the packets. They can make limited routing decisions by inspecting the first few packets in the TCP stream.

Layer 7 load balancing operates at the high‑level application layer, which deals with the actual content of each message. HTTP is the predominant Layer 7 protocol for website traffic on the Internet. Layer 7 load balancers route network traffic in a much more sophisticated way than Layer 4 load balancers, particularly applicable to TCP‑based traffic such as HTTP. A Layer 7 load balancer terminates the network traffic and reads the message within. It can make a load‑balancing decision based on the content of the message (the URL or cookie, for example). It then makes a new TCP connection to the selected upstream server (or reuses an existing one, by means of HTTP keepalives) and writes the request to the server.

Benefits of Layer 7 Load Balancing

Layer 7 load balancing is more CPU‑intensive than packet‑based Layer 4 load balancing, but rarely causes degraded performance on a modern server. Layer 7 load balancing enables the load balancer to make smarter load‑balancing decisions, and to apply optimizations and changes to the content (such as compression and encryption). It uses buffering to offload slow connections from the upstream servers, which improves performance.

A device that performs Layer 7 load balancing is often referred to as a reverse‑proxy server.

An Example of Layer 7 Load Balancing

Let’s look at a simple example. A user visits a high‑traffic website. Over the course of the user’s session, he or she might request static content such as images or video, dynamic content such as a news feed, and even transactional information such as order status. Layer 7 load balancing allows the load balancer to route a request based on information in the request itself, such as what kind of content is being requested. So now a request for an image or video can be routed to the servers that store it and are highly optimized to serve up multimedia content. Requests for transactional information such as a discounted price can be routed to the application server responsible for managing pricing. With Layer 7 load balancing, network and application architects can create a highly tuned and optimized server infrastructure or application delivery network that is both reliable and efficiently scales to meet demand.

How NGINX Can Help

NGINX Plus and 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.

As a software-based load balancer, NGINX Plus is much less expensive than hardware-based solutions with similar capabilities. The comprehensive load balancing capabilities in NGINX Plus enable you to build a highly optimized application delivery network.

When you insert NGINX Plus as a load balancer in front of your server farm, it increases your entire website’s efficiency, performance, reliability, and scale. NGINX Plus helps you maximize both customer satisfaction and the return on your IT investments.