Reverse proxy servers and load balancers are components in a client-server computing architecture. Both act as intermediaries in the communication between the clients and servers, performing functions that improve efficiency. They can be implemented as dedicated, purpose-built devices, but increasingly in modern web architectures they are software applications that run on commodity hardware.

The basic definitions are simple:

  • A reverse proxy accepts a request from a client, forwards it to a server that can fulfill it, and returns the server’s response to the client.
  • A load balancer distributes incoming client requests among a group of servers, in each case returning the response from the selected server to the appropriate client.

But they sound pretty similar, right? Both types of application sit between clients and servers, accepting requests from the former and delivering responses from the latter. No wonder there’s confusion about what’s a reverse proxy vs. load balancer. To help tease them apart, let’s explore when and why they’re typically deployed at a website.

Load Balancing

Load balancers are most commonly deployed when a site needs multiple servers because the volume of requests is too much for a single server to handle efficiently. Deploying multiple servers also eliminates a single point of failure, making the website more reliable. Most commonly, the servers all host the same content, and the load balancer’s job is to distribute the workload in a way that makes the best use of each server’s capacity, prevents overload on any server, and results in the fastest possible response to the client.

A load balancer can also enhance the user experience by reducing the number of error responses the client sees. It does this by detecting when servers go down, and diverting requests away from them to the other servers in the group. In the simplest implementation, the load balancer detects server health by intercepting error responses to regular requests. Application health checks are a more flexible and sophisticated method in which the load balancer sends separate health-check requests and requires a specified type of response to consider the server healthy.

Another useful function provided by some load balancers is session persistence, which means sending all requests from a particular client to the same server. Even though HTTP is stateless in theory, many applications must store state information just to provide their core functionality – think of the shopping basket on an e-commerce site. Such applications underperform or can even fail in a load-balanced environment, if the load balancer distributes requests in a user session to different servers instead of directing them all to the server that responded to the initial request.

Reverse Proxy

Whereas deploying a load balancer makes sense only when you have multiple servers, it often makes sense to deploy a reverse proxy even with just one web server or application server. You can think of the reverse proxy as a website’s “public face.” Its address is the one advertised for the website, and it sits at the edge of the site’s network to accept requests from web browsers and mobile apps for the content hosted at the website. The benefits are two-fold:

  • Increased security – No information about your backend servers is visible outside your internal network, so malicious clients cannot access them directly to exploit any vulnerabilities. Many reverse proxy servers include features that help protect backend servers from distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, for example by rejecting traffic from particular client IP addresses (blacklisting), or limiting the number of connections accepted from each client.
  • Increased scalability and flexibility – Because clients see only the reverse proxy’s IP address, you are free to change the configuration of your backend infrastructure. This is particularly useful In a load-balanced environment, where you can scale the number of servers up and down to match fluctuations in traffic volume.

Another reason to deploy a reverse proxy is for web acceleration – reducing the time it takes to generate a response and return it to the client. Techniques for web acceleration include the following:

  • Compression – Compressing server responses before returning them to the client (for instance, with gzip) reduces the amount of bandwidth they require, which speeds their transit over the network.
  • SSL termination – Encrypting the traffic between clients and servers protects it as it crosses a public network like the Internet. But decryption and encryption can be computationally expensive. By decrypting incoming requests and encrypting server responses, the reverse proxy frees up resources on backend servers which they can then devote to their main purpose, serving content.
  • Caching – Before returning the backend server’s response to the client, the reverse proxy stores a copy of it locally. When the client (or any client) makes the same request, the reverse proxy can provide the response itself from the cache instead of forwarding the request to the backend server. This both decreases response time to the client and reduces the load on the backend server.

How Can NGINX Plus Help?

NGINX Plus and NGINX are the best-in-class reverse proxy and load balancing solutions used by high-traffic websites such as Dropbox, Netflix, and Zynga. More than 266 million websites worldwide, including the majority of the 100,000 busiest websites, rely on NGINX Plus and NGINX to deliver their content quickly, reliably, and securely.

NGINX Plus performs all the load-balancing and reverse proxy functions discussed above and more, improving website performance, reliability, security, and scale. As a software-based load balancer, NGINX Plus is much less expensive than hardware-based solutions with similar capabilities. The comprehensive load-balancing and reverse-proxy capabilities in NGINX Plus enable you to build a highly optimized application delivery network.

For details about how NGINX Plus implements the features described here, check out these resources: