Jul 16 2021

Local Agencies Meet Surging Demands with Load Balancers

City and county governments deployed software and hardware to boost application and website performance during the pandemic.

Nine years ago, Sussex County CIO William Kosinetz had the foresight to deploy virtual desktops to enable a mobile workforce. So, when the coronavirus pandemic struck last year, the New Jersey county was fully prepared to let employees work from home.

The CIO purchased more Google Chromebooks so the county’s 1,200 employees could take them home. The data center infrastructure was in already place.

The county had deployed VMware Horizon virtual desktop infrastructure software and two types of load balancers — a Barracuda hardware appliance and VMware’s software-based NSX Advanced Load Balancer — to ensure that users had fast, reliable access to their work applications and data.

“It’s part of the infrastructure that creates a stable environment to handle the usage demand,” Kosinetz says.

Load balancers, also known as application delivery controllers, improve application and website ­performance and uptime by distributing requests evenly across servers. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many local and state government agencies have relied on their load balancers more than ever as employees telecommute and as citizen demand for online government services has increased.

Without load balancers, servers can get overwhelmed, resulting in slower service and potential downtime, analysts say.

“Load balancers are critical to the availability of applications and services, even more so in the ­pandemic era where we do everything online,” says Brad Casemore, IDC’s research vice president of data center networks.

Load balancers and application delivery controllers have evolved over the past decade, he says. Vendors have added optional and integrated capabilities, including security features such as access control, web application ­firewalls and SSL offloading, which handles the encryption and decryption of network traffic, freeing server resources for application ­performance.

Sussex County Uses Load Balancing for Virtual Desktops

Sussex County deploys load balancers across its five data centers to ensure high availability of its v­irtual desktop and applications.

In its data center for administrative departments, for example, the county installed two Barracuda Load Balancer ADC 340 appliances that sit in front of 15 servers, including multiple Microsoft Exchange Server devices and ­multiple connection and security servers for its VMware Horizon virtual desktop environment.

The Barracuda ­appliances serve as the main load balancer when employees request access to their virtual desktops and applications. 

Within the servers, Kosinetz and his team also installed VMware’s ­software-based NSX Advanced Load Balancer in front of two application servers that host 60 virtualized or containerized ­applications, including Microsoft Office, Adobe software, and finance and purchasing apps.

The county uses a round-robin approach, where a user request goes to one server and the next request goes to another server.

“If you get a spike in users, you don’t overstress server resources,” he says.

The IT department chose VMware’s NSX load balancer in front of its application servers because it fits well with the county’s VMware ­virtual environment. 

William Kosinetz,  CIO, Sussex County, N.J.

“It’s part of the infrastructure that creates a stable environment to handle the usage demand,” says ­ William Kosinetz, CIO of Sussex County, N.J. Source: 

A virtual load ­balancer is convenient because the IT staff doesn’t have to worry about additional power, cooling or network cables that a hardware appliance would need, Kosinetz says.

Today, county employees work out of their offices on staggered shifts to ensure everyone is socially distanced, but 80 percent of the staff still works remotely part time. Employees access their virtual desktops on zero- client devices in the office and on Chromebooks at home.

Overall, the virtual desktop environment has worked perfectly during the pandemic — and the load balancers are a big reason why, Kosinetz says.

“Our applications are stable and quick,” he says.

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Alexandria Seeks Speedy Website Performance for Residents 

In Virginia, the city of Alexandria has always used a mix of Citrix ADC physical and software-based load balancers to improve ­application ­performance and to handle spikes in web traffic, such as on e­lection day.

“Our residents may not know it, but when they pay taxes or look up building permits, they are going through our load ­balancer to get a seamless ­experience,” says Alexandria CIO Vanetta Pledger.

The city’s load balancers became even more important during the COVID-19 outbreak because they handled the influx of 1,500 employees who ­suddenly needed remote VPN access to the city’s network.

900%

The increase New York state systems saw in web traffic in one week early in the pandemic

Source: Source: 1washingtonpost.com, “The Technology 202: State Unemployment Websites Are Crashing Amid Record Number of Claims,” April 2, 2020

The load balancers also ­optimize the performance of new, temporary websites that the city launched during the pandemic so residents could apply for housing assistance and small ­business grants and get news on food distribution and COVID-19 ­vaccines, Pledger says.

“We don’t want people to get a ‘page loading’ message or timeout error, so the load ­balancers give a timelier response,” she says.

The ADC appliances not only improve performance and ensure ­redundancy, they also bolster ­security. The load ­balancers serve as a gateway between the outside world and the inside world and block ­malicious traffic, such as ­malware and distributed denial of service attacks, says Information Technology Services Deputy Director Ryon Saenz.

The city relies on the virtual software version of Citrix ADC for any high-demand websites or web-based serv­ices. The benefit of virtual load balancers is that the ITS staff can spin them up quickly to ensure fast website speeds.

“It gives us the flexibility and agility to scale out quickly,” Saenz says.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How can DevOps help your agency rapidly scale up services? 

Best Practices for Load Balancers

In Texas, El Paso County also uses load balancer appliances to increase capacity, allowing for more concurrent users and improving the reliability of applications, such as its law enforcement records management system, says Christopher Stathis, the county’s CIO.

Stathis and his team say appliance load balancers are complex and not always easy to implement. They recommend that government IT staffers reach out to their application vendors for assistance if needed. 

“It is very important to ensure that the applications are set up with the help of enterprise application vendors,” Stathis says. “We have found that many application vendors do not have much experience with having their products being balanced. As a result, we must work hard to get their products functional on these appliances.”

In Alexandria, Citrix ADC constantly monitors system resources and sends alerts to the ITS staff if server utilization reaches a certain threshold that could impact performance. The staff may add more servers into the load balancing pool to ensure good performance, says Alexandria CISO Anthony Harvey.

Overall, load balancers might not get a lot of glory, but they are an important piece of the data center infrastructure, he says.

“Load balancers are critical,” Harvey says. “If you get spikes in traffic, you can shift the traffic on the fly. It makes it a more agile environment for us.”

Illustration by Stuart Bradford