Inbound Load Balancing

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Inbound load balancing is useful for supporting multiple servers, but appearing externally as a single system. This makes it possible to distribute the load of a website across several physical servers, in a semi-intelligent way that recognizes if a server goes down, etc.

Failover

Failover behavior is not directly supported but can be accomplished by using separate pools for servers to be used in this fashion on the Virtual Server settings.

For example, with a two-server setup (live and hot-standby), put the primary server in one pool and put the secondary server in a second pool. Then choose the primary server's pool for Virtual Server Pool and select the second pool for Fall Back Pool. It is not possible to do 3 or more levels of automatic failover.

Set up Load Balancing Pool

The first thing to do is create a pool (Services > Load Balancer, Pools tab, click "+").

Enter a Name and Description, and select Load Balance for the Mode. Set the port as appropriate (e.g. for HTTP, use 80).

Pick a Monitor type, such as ICMP and enter the Server IP Address of a server that can serve content for the site, then click Add to pool. Note that all servers must be listening on the same port. The port that external clients (from the WAN) connect to can be different from this port. Repeat the process for additional servers, if any exist.

Note that if there is more than one server, they must be synchronized (or using shared storage) and serving the same content. If a web application server that uses server-side sessions is used, the sessions must be shared across all servers. For example, use a session state server, or store all session data in a shared database.

Any servers added to the list will have traffic load balanced between them, and they will be monitored. If a server goes down, traffic will no longer be sent to it. The up/down status is tracked using the chosen Monitor type.

Set up Virtual Server

The next step is to send traffic to the pool by adding a new Virtual Server (Services > Load balancer, Virtual Servers tab, click "+"). Enter a Name and Description, and enter the WAN IP address clients will use for the IP address. If this IP address is a different address than the WAN IP address, it may need a Virtual IP address configured.

The Port is the TCP port that clients will connect to on the WAN interface. This can be different from the port used by the servers in the pool for listening.

Select the Virtual Server Pool created previously, and optionally select a Fall Back Pool. The Fall Back Pool may serve the same content as the rest of the servers in the pool (eg, in a two-server live/hot-standby setup), or it may be a server that always returns a static "Sorry, this site is offline" message. If a Fall Back Pool is not selected, or if the server is unavailable, connections to the virtual server will fall through and will not be redirected.

Advanced Settings

The Settings tab under Services > Load Balancer contains global options to tweak how relayd monitors and provides services.

  • Timeout: The global Timeout in milliseconds for health checks. The default value when blank is 1000ms (1 second). For heavily loaded or sensitive servers and certain types of health checks, this may not be long enough.
  • Interval: Number of seconds between health checks. The default value when blank is 10 seconds. As with Timeout, this may need increased in certain cases.
  • Prefork: The number of processes spawned by relayd to handle requests. This only applies to DNS mode, as that is the only mode on pfSense where relayd acts as a proxy instead of a relay.

Firewall Rules

Firewall rules on the WAN tab where the Virtual Server is located are also necessary. Since relayd is NAT-based these rules must pass traffic to the local Pool addresses and ports.

Additional Notes

Sticky connections

Sticky connections (System > Advanced, Miscellaneous tab) can somewhat alleviate the problems of shared sessions, but they are not as reliable as using shared session storage. For the scenario where a client requests a web page and then all the content (images, scripts) on that page, if sticky connections are enabled the client will grab the page and all the images and scripts from the same server. However, depending on how long it is until they request the next page, they may or may not go to the same server a second time. That timeout value may be adjusted using the field underneath the Use Sticky Connections checkbox on System > Advanced, Miscellaneous tab.

Failover and Recovery

The relayd daemon on pfSense monitors all the servers in the pool (every 10 seconds by default). If it detects a server as being offline, it immediately stops sending traffic to that server. It continues trying to connect, and when it detects it back online, it resumes sending traffic. If it sends a client request to a server that is down (e.g. before pfSense detects that it is down), that client request will time out.

If all servers go down, pfSense will send traffic to servers in the the Fall Back Pool. Once a pool server is back up, it will again start to send traffic to the preferred pool server(s), but note that some traffic may still go to the Fall Back Pool for a short period of time, especially if Sticky connections is turned on. Because of this, if the Fall Back Pool is serving the same content as the pool server(s), it is important that it shares content/sessions with the pool server(s) just as multiple pool servers would do.

Lack of NAT Reflection

The relayd service implements server load balancing entirely in pf using NAT. It does not, however, automatically add NAT reflection rules even when NAT reflection is enabled. That parameter applies only to Port Forwards and 1:1 NAT. This means that by default it is not possible be able to connect to virtual servers from the same network on which the real servers reside.

Manual Outbound NAT rules may be added to work around this limitation section. The outbound NAT rules must hide the true source of the traffic so "reflected" client connections appear to originate from the firewall itself.

For more details on why internal connections do not work and what rules need to be added manually, see Redirection and Reflection section of the pf manual.

Troubleshooting

See Inbound Load Balancing Troubleshooting

Limitations

The relayd load balancing daemon is good for simple deployment and for those which behave well within its limits and capabilities. For more advanced deployments a more full-featured proxy is required, such as HAproxy.