Load balancers from F5 Networks and Zeus Technology tip the scales

F5 BIG-IP and Zeus ZXTM traffic managers offer choice between polish and price

Load balancers used to be fairly simple, distributing user requests from the Internet to a group of servers instead of just one. Between the drive to differentiate themselves and the increasing sophistication of Web sites and enterprise intranets, current load balancers add a plethora of additional features, from SSL off-loading to Web application acceleration to content inspection and security filters that guard against hackers exploiting known vulnerabilities to gain control of Web servers or applications.

F5 Networks’ BIG-IP 6800 Local Traffic Manager and the Zeus Technologies’ ZXTM (Zeus Extensible Traffic Manager) 7000 represent the two basic types of load balancers: switch-based and router-based. The BIG-IP is based on a gigabit switch with 16 10/100/1000 copper Ethernet ports and four SFP (small form-factor pluggable) GBIC (gigabit interface converter) optical ports; the ZXTM is a dual-Opteron server that has four 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports (plus an additional management-only port).

Switch-based systems were originally harder to configure and less extensible than the router-based systems that ran a full operating system, but those days are past. The BIG-IP runs a full-fledged operating system and has many optional components available for added functionality. The biggest differences these days are the number of Ethernet ports available and the cost.

A big part of your buying decision will hinge on whether you are supporting clustered Web applications for internal use -- there are still very few businesses with multiple gigabit Internet connections. If you are supporting multiple internal Web applications or a complex cluster architecture, the BIG-IP can make life easier because it easily supports multiple subnets and clusters.

Many vendors publish performance statistics that are essentially meaningless, such as hundreds of thousands of simultaneous connections. These statistics are often generated using zero-byte packet sizes, which never occur in the real world. In real life, you’re more likely to saturate your network connection before you see performance degradation based on hardware limitations. The possible exception to this is when you are doing operations that require substantial processing. Operations such as SSL encryption, header rewriting, sticky sessions for e-commerce, cluster routing based on URL, content, or cookies, and parsing requests for out-of-bounds information can bog down a load balancer fairly quickly.

In my testing with these two systems, however, using real-world type traffic, I found that a single gigabit pipeline became saturated before the systems slowed due to performance limitations -- even with processor-intensive operations. So although you might bog down one of these systems by using small packets to set up a lot of simultaneous connections, if the connections are actually doing something, you’re more likely to saturate your Internet connection than to see utilization hit a wall on either of these load balancers.

My testing involved setting up several servers with the same Web site, a demo version of an e-commerce application. Each load balancer was used to create a virtual cluster of the servers, which varied in processor number and power. I then used an Ixia 400T traffic generator and IxLoad software to simulate a large number of users accessing the site. Both load balancers were able to keep actual loads on the servers consistent even though the servers’ processing capabilities varied considerably. I then enabled a number of features such as SSL sessions and application security, and attempted to overload the load balancers by simulating many simultaneous users. In both cases, overloading these systems was possible only with artificially small sessions. When simulating traffic, the gigabit connection became saturated before the limitations of the BIG-IP 6800 or ZXTM 7000 were reached.

Both products offer a wide array of features, including service-level management and bandwidth shaping, DoS (denial of service) protection, session persistence based on URL, cookies, header information, and other methods, and support for Web services as well as XML, XPath, and XSLT. Their application acceleration capabilities include compression for many Web applications, not just HTML, and both units can balance loads across multiple sites as well as multiple servers at a single site. F5 and Zeus both supply scripting languages and APIs for integration with corporate applications.

Some of these features are options that cost extra. Zeus has an advantage here, as more features are included in the base price (see table), although F5’s versions of the features are usually more sophisticated and easier to deploy. For instance, the ZXTM 7000 includes HTTP filtering to protect against exploits, but you must download a definitions file from the Zeus Web site and add definitions manually. F5’s ASM (Application Security Module) protects against more kinds of attacks and has an automatic update service. On the other hand, the ASM costs an additional $12,500.

F5 BIG-IP 6800

F5 Networks has been making load balancers for a decade, as long as any company in the business. The company’s product has evolved over those years into a sophisticated, feature-rich, and easy-to-use appliance. Given the wide array of complex tasks that the BIG-IP can perform, the product is no more complicated than necessary. The management interface is clean and easy to navigate, and shortcuts take the tedium out of tasks that require repetitive data entry, such as adding servers to a virtual cluster.

Packed with plenty of switch ports, the BIG-IP is not only suitable for Internet applications, but for internal Web-based applications that may require multiple gigabit links for optimum performance. My test device was limited to eight gigabit Ethernet ports, so I wasn’t able to determine whether the BIG-IP is non-blocking across all ports, but it certainly can handle eight gigabits of Web traffic without introducing much overhead or latency.

The BIG-IP’s huge feature set doesn’t come cheap. It would be easy to spend upwards of $150,000 for a two-unit fail-over configuration with all the features enabled, plus a substantial yearly subscription to updates and support. On the other hand, a pair of BIG-IP’s should be able to support even the largest commercial sites without a hiccup.

The application security option deserves special mention. The ASM is the newest offering for the BIG-IP platform. Based on F5’s TrafficShield application firewall, ASM adds sophisticated application security features that go far beyond HTTP filtering. Like a good firewall, the application is automatically updated by F5 as new threats are identified, and the included rule sets cover many Web applications.

The BIG-IP is an extremely capable and sophisticated load balancer and Web application delivery appliance, with high capacity and great ease of use. You may not need the capacity unless you have a large intranet with lots of Web apps, but many companies are heading in that direction.

Zeus ZXTM 7000

The ZXTM 7000 is based on a 2U server chassis with dual Opteron CPUs, running a hardened version of Linux. This means that you can easily add additional Ethernet ports or an SSL acceleration board if desired. Although the four 10/100/1000 ports may look paltry compared with the 20 ports of the BIG-IP, most organizations don’t have even one gigabit of throughput on their Internet connection yet. The ZXTM 7000 is also considerably less expensive than the BIG-IP, with more features included in the base price.

Installation is simple. There are wizards to enable the beginner to get running quickly with a simple virtual server configuration, as well as command-line access for hardened admins who prefer scripting things.

The ZXTM has an extensive feature set. In addition to load balancing, you get SSL off-load, compression, TCP optimization, HTML rewriting, application-aware persistence, HTTP filtering for application security, and support for XML/SOAP traffic in the base package. Options include service-level monitoring, bandwidth management, content caching, and a FIPS Level 3-certified SSL acceleration card.

The ZXTM 7000 offers excellent performance and a strong feature set. Because it can be clustered up easily to 64 appliances, it also offers a way to start relatively small and scale as your application grows. 

BIG-IP or Little Zeus

The BIG-IP has some sophisticated features, such as the security module, that offer more capability and easier configuration than the corresponding features in the Zeus product, but this sophistication comes at a higher cost. If you’re willing to trod the slightly rougher path to getting the Zeus system configured, it will do most of the things the BIG-IP will do. If you already have an application firewall appliance, both products offer comparable performance up to the limit of their number of ports. The BIG-IP will be a better choice if you have a large intranet with lots of users accessing Web-based applications. For a company that has maxed out its single Web server and is looking to get started, the ZXTM offers a lower starting price, but with the capability to scale out in the future.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Management (25.0%)
Performance (25.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
F5 Networks BIG-IP 6800 8.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.5
Zeus ZXTM 7000 4.0r1 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.4