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Open source versus proprietary load balancers: The three main battlegrounds in the longstanding contest between these two different approaches

 

Written by Miles Martin, CTO at Loadbalancer.org 

 

 

Battleground one: Responsiveness 

Open source communities consist of millions of skilled developers who react very quickly to emerging situations and can share new code with everyone instantly. When security threats are identified, such as the vulnerability of a popular security product identified recently by Loadbalancer.org’s own open source developer Andrew Howe, patches can be released to the community and made freely available.   

Vendors of proprietary solutions, on the other hand, are typically much slower to react and can take days or weeks to address security threats. Some commercial developers of open source software will create security patches quickly, but then release them in phases according to a hierarchy – with premium customers getting the updates first.   

 

Either way, being tied into one vendor or one commercial developer will leave you with a load balancer that is less responsive to change. 

 

As well as security threats, open source software is also more responsive to new technology trends. New open source features emerge all the time, driven by the inventiveness and collaboration of thousands of like-minded and forward-looking developers within communities.   

 

Take containerisation, for example. Proprietary solution vendors were slow to capitalise on this new way of virtualizing operating systems, while the open source community moved incredibly fast to extend and exploit open source technologies in this field, including Kubernetes. 

 

Battleground two: Flexibility 

Load balancer vendors have developed their own proprietary operating systems and are now shackled to them. Often, they are very complex and based on aging technologies. Proprietary platforms can also be cumbersome to adapt, so consequently vendors don’t have the agility to easily adapt their products to meet changes in customer requirements.  

If you need a new feature for your load balancer and it is not already in the proprietary product or in the vendor’s product road map, you won’t get it. In time, many of the world’s most well-known vendors of proprietary load balancers will need to build new, more flexible data planes from the ground-up or acquire other start-up businesses with more dynamic platforms that they can adopt to give them greater product flexibility.   

By contrast, open source load balancers already have the inherent flexibility to adjust easily to differing requirements. Organisations that offer or use load balancers based on open source technology can easily assimilate new enhancements and select from a wide variety of features to build custom solutions. One of the most mature open source load balancers, HAProxy, is constantly being expanded and enriched with new features, new programming languages and new code bases, giving users infinite possibilities for the future. 

 

Battleground three: Support 

One of the main reasons why organisations select proprietary solutions over open source is their need for professional support. They recognise that they may need help sizing and configuring their load balancer, and they want the peace-of-mind of knowing that a vendor is on hand to help them if they have any questions or encounter any issues in the future. Vendors of proprietary solutions will be able to provide the reassuring package of documentation, telephone support lines, consultancy services, demos, pre-sales support and guaranteed service level agreements (SLAs). 

Concern about support for open source solutions is often justified. If users have any questions or issues, they can ask the open source community, but if they don’t get the response they need, there is nowhere else to go.  After all, there is no SLA from an open source community. It is also worth noting that not all open source technologies will thrive.  While some, like HAProxy, are mature and have a robust future, others are embryonic and may lose the interest of developers and fade into obscurity. There is also the risk that you could inadvertently become a de facto beta tester for an open source technology, when what you really need is a proven enterprise solution. 

 

Third-party support can help 

The picture is a mixed one. There are many advantages of open source, but also some advantages of proprietary. Businesses need to look at third-party load balancing providers who can supply load balancer appliances and virtualized load balancer solutions based on well-established open source technologies; including HAProxy and LVS.  

Providers who have a proven track-record in multiple industries can supply updates quickly and regularly by incorporating new security patches and technology enhancements from open source communities. This open source platform also gives the flexibility needed to evolve solutions rapidly and customise them to meet the needs of customers and partners.   

Not being beholden to any one open source platform allows providers the flexibility to cherry-pick the best components of each open source technology and also from different technologies for their customers, in order to provide a robust, yet flexible solution.  

 

Mixing this with a strong level of support is also critical. A load balancer is a specialised product that typically requires specific skills and knowledge to configure and maintain when integrated in complex environments. Hence a reliable support team is instrumental for success.  

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