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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

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Load balancing in vCenter and ESXI

One of the things you can do with a portgroup is define teaming for the underlying physical NICs.

teaming

If you don’t do anything here, the default setting of “Route based on originating virtual port” applies. What this does is quite obvious. Each virtual port on the virtual switch is mapped to a physical NIC behind the scenes; so all traffic to & from that virtual port goes & comes via that physical NIC. Since your virtual NIC connects to a virtual port this is equivalent to saying all traffic for that virtual NIC happens via a particular physical NIC.

In the screenshot above, for instance, I have two physical NICs dvUplink1 and dvUplink2. If I left teaming at the default setting and say I had 4 VMs connecting to 4 virtual ports, chances are two of these VMs will use dvUplink1 and two will use dvUplink2. They will continue using these mappings until one of the dvUplinks dies, in which case the other will take over – so that’s how you get failover.

This is pretty straightforward and easy to set up. And the only disadvantage, if any, is that you are limited to the bandwidth of a single physical NIC. If each of dvUplink1 & dvUplink2 were 1Gb NICs it isn’t as though the underlying VMs had 2Gb (2 NICs x 1Gb each) available to them. Since each VM is mapped to one uplink, 1Gb is all they get.

Moreover, if say two VMs were mapped to an uplink, and one of them was hogging up all the bandwidth of this uplink while the remaining uplink was relatively free, the other VM on this uplink won’t automatically be mapped to the free uplink to make better use of resources. So that’s a bummer too.

A neat thing about “Route based on originating virtual port” is that the virtual port is fixed for the lifetime of the virtual machine so the host doesn’t have to calculate which physical NIC to use each time it receives traffic to & from the virtual machine. Only if the virtual machine is powered off, deleted, or moved to a different host does it get a new virtual port.

The other options are:

  • Route based on MAC hash
  • Route based on IP hash
  • Route based on physical NIC load
  • Explicit failover

We’ll ignore the last one for now – that just tells the host to use the first physical NIC in the list and use that for all VMs.

“Route based on MAC hash” is similar to “Route based on originating virtual port” in that it uses the MAC address of the virtual NIC instead of virtual port. I am not very clear on how this is better than the latter. Since the MAC address of a virtual machine is usually constant (unless it is changed or a different virtual NIC used) all traffic from that MAC address will use the same physical NIC always. Moreover, there is the additional overhead in that the host has to check each packet for the MAC address and decide which physical NIC to use. VMware documentation says it provides a more even distribution of traffic but I am not clear how.

“Route based on physical NIC load” a good one. It starts off with “Route based on originating virtual port” but if a physical NIC is loaded, then the virtual ports mapped to it are moved to a physical NIC with less load! This load balancing option is only available for distributed switches. Every 30s the distributed switch checks the physical NIC load and if it exceeds 75% then the virtual port of the VM with highest utilization is moved to a different physical NIC. So you have the advantages of “Route based on originating virtual port” with one of its major disadvantages removed.

In fact, except for “Route based on IP hash” none of the other load balancing mechanisms have an option to utilize more than a single physical NIC bandwidth. And “Route based on IP hash” does not do this entirely as you would expect.

“Route based on IP hash”, as the name suggests, does load balancing based on the IP hash of the virtual machine and the remote end it is communicating with. Based on a hash of these two IP addresses all traffic for the communication between these two IPs is sent through one NIC. So if a virtual machine is communicating with two remote servers, it is quite likely that traffic to one server goes through one physical NIC while traffic to the other goes via another physical NIC – thus allowing the virtual machine to use more bandwidth than that of one physical NIC. However – and this is an often overlooked point – all traffic between the virtual server and one remote server is still constrained by the bandwidth of the physical NIC it happens via. Once traffic is mapped to a particular physical NIC, if more bandwidth is required or the physical NIC is loaded, it is not as though an additional physical NIC is used. This is a catch with “Route based on IP hash” that’s worth remembering.

If you select “Route based on IP hash” as a load balancing option you get two warnings:

  • With IP hash load balancing policy, all physical switch ports connected to the active uplinks must be in link aggregation mode.
  • IP hash load balancing should be set for all port groups using the same set of uplinks.

What this means is that unlike the other load balancing schemes where there was no additional configuration required on the physical NICs or the switch(es) they connect to, with “Route based on IP hash” we must combine/ bond/ aggregate the physical NICs as one. There’s a reason for this.

In all the other load balancing options the virtual NIC MAC is associated with one physical NIC (and hence one physical port on the physical switch). So incoming traffic for a VM knows which physical port/ physical NIC to go via. But with “Route based on IP hash” there is no such one to one mapping. This causes havoc with the physical switch. Here’s what happens:

  • Different outgoing traffic flows choose different physical NICs. With each of these packets the physical switch will keep updating its MAC address table with the port the packet was got from. So for instance, say the two physical NICs are connected to physical switch Port1 and Port2 and the virtual NIC MAC address is VMAC1. When an outgoing traffic packet goes via the first physical NIC, the switch will update its tables to reflect that VMAC1 is connected to Port1. Subsequent traffic flows might continue using the first physical NIC so all is well. Then say a traffic flow uses the second physical NIC. Now the switch will map VMAC1 to Port2; then a traffic flow could use Port1 so the mapping gets changed to Port1, and then Port2, and so on …
  • When incoming traffic hits the physical switch for MAC address VMAC1, the switch will look up its tables and decide which port to send traffic on. If the current mapping is Port1 traffic will go out via that; if the current mapping is Port2 traffic will go out via that. The important thing to note is that the incoming traffic flow port chosen is not based on the IP hash mapping – it is purely based on whatever physical port the switch currently has mapped for VMAC1.
  • So what’s required is a way of telling the physical switch that the two physical NICs are to be considered as bonded/ aggregated such that traffic from either of those NICs/ ports is to be treated accordingly. And that’s what EtherChannel does. It tells the physical switch that the two ports/ physical NICs are bonded and that it must route incoming traffic to these ports based on an IP hash (which we must tell EtherChannel to use while configuring it).
  • EtherChannel also helps with the MAC address table in that now there can be multiple ports mapped to the same MAC address. Thus in the above example there would now be two mappings VMAC1-Port1 and VMAC1-Port2 instead of them over-writing each other!

“Route based on IP hash” is a complicated load balancing option to implement because of EtherChannel. And as I mentioned above, while it does allow a virtual machine to use more bandwidth than a single physical NIC, an individual traffic flow is still limited to the bandwidth of a single physical NIC. Moreover there is more overhead on the host because it has to calculate the physical NIC used for each traffic flow (essentially each packet).

Prior to vCenter 5.1 only static EtherChannel was supported (unless you use a third party virtual switch such as the Cisco Nexus 1000V). Static EtherChannel means you explicitly bond the physical NICs. But from vCenter 5.1 onwards the inbuilt distributed switch supports LACP (Link Aggregation Control Protocol) which is a way of automatically bonding physical NICs. Enable LACP on both the physical switch and distributed switch and the physical NICs will automatically be bonded.

(To enable LACP on the physical NICs go to the uplink portgroup that these physical NICs are connected to and enable LACP).

lacpThat’s it for now!

Update

Came across this blog post which covers pretty much everything I covered above but in much greater detail. A must read!