Sessions, Sessions Everywhere

If you’re replicating session state across application servers you probably need to rethink your strategy. There’s other options – more efficient options – than wasting RAM and, ultimately, money.  

Although the discussion of Oracle’scloud in a box” announcement at OpenWorld dominated much of the tweet-stream this week there were other   discussions going on that proved to not only interesting but a good reminder of how cloud computing has brought to the fore the importance of architecture.

Foremost in my mind was what started as a lamentation on the fact that Amazon EC2 does not support multicasting that evolved into a discussion on why that would cause grief for those deploying applications in the environment.

Remember that multicast is essentially spraying the same data to a group of endpoints and is usually leveraged for streaming media topologies:

In computer networking, multicast is the delivery of a message or information to a group of destination computers simultaneously in a single transmission from the source creating copies automatically in other network elements, such as routers, only when the topology of the network requires it.  -- Wikipedia, multicast

As it turns out, a primary reason behind the need for multicasting in the application architecture revolves around the mirroring of session state across a pool of application servers. Yeah, you heard that right – mirroring session state across a pool of application servers.

The first question has to be: why? What is it about an application that requires this level of duplication?


There are three reasons why someone would want to use multicasting to mirror session state across a pool of application servers. There may be additional reasons that aren’t as common and if so, feel free to share. 

The application relies on session state and, when deployed in a load balanced environment, broke because the tight-coupling between user and session state was not respected by the Load balancer. This is a common problem when moving from dev/qa to production and is generally caused by using a load balancing algorithm without enabling persistence, a.k.a. sticky sessions.


The application requires high-availability that necessitates architecting a stateful-failover architecture. By mirroring sessions to all application servers if one fails (or is decommissioned in an elastic environment) another can easily re-establish the coupling between the user and their session. This is not peculiar to application architecture – load balancers and application delivery controllers mirror their own “session” state across redundant pairs to achieve a stateful failover architecture as well.  

Some applications, particularly those that are collaborative in nature (think white-boarding and online conferences) “spray” data across a number of sessions in order to enable the sharing in real time aspect of the application. There are other architectural choices that can achieve this functionality, but there are tradeoffs to all of them and in this case it is simply one of several options.



With the exception of addressing the needs of collaborative applications (and even then there are better options from an architectural point of view) there are much more efficient ways to handle the tight-coupling of user and session state in an elastic or scaled-out environment. The arguments image against multicasting session state are primarily around resource consumption, which is particularly important in a cloud computing environment. Consider that the typical session state is 3-200 KB in size (Session State: Beyond Soft State ). Remember that if you’re mirroring every session across an entire cluster (pool) of application servers, that each server must use memory to store that session. 

Each mirrored session, then, is going to consume resources on every application server. Every application server has, of course, a limited amount of memory it can utilize. It needs that memory for more than just storing session state – it must also store connection tables, its own configuration data, and of course it needs memory in which to execute application logic.

If you consume a lot of the available memory storing the session state from every other application server, you are necessarily reducing the amount of memory available to perform other important tasks. This reduces the capacity of the server in terms of users and connections, it reduces the speed with which it can execute application logic (which translates into reduced response times for users), and it operates on a diminishing returns principle. The more application servers you need to scale – and you’ll need more, more frequently, using this technique – the less efficient each added application server becomes because a good portion of its memory is required simply to maintain session state of all the other servers in the pool.

It is exceedingly inefficient and, when leveraging a public cloud computing environment, more expensive. It’s a very good example of the diseconomy of scale associated with traditional architectures – it results in a “throw more ‘hardware’ at the problem, faster” approach to scalability.


There are better architectural solutions to maintaining session state for every user.


Storing session state in a shared database is a much more efficient means of mirroring session state and allows for the same guarantees of consistency when experiencing a failure. If session state is stored in a database then regardless of which application server instance a user is directed to that application server has access to its session state.

The interaction between the user and application becomes:

  1. User sends request
  2. Clustering/load balancing solution routes to application server
  3. Application server receives request, looks up session in database
  4. Application server processes request, creates response
  5. Application server stores updated session in database
  6. Application server returns response

If a single database is problematic (because it is a single point of failure) then multicasting or other replication techniques can be used to implement a dual-database architecture. This is somewhat inefficient, but far less so than doing the same at the application server layer.


It is often the case that the replication of session state is implemented in response to wonky application behavior occurring only when the application is deployed in a scalable environment, a.k.a a load balancing solution is introduced into the architecture. This is almost always because the application requires tight-coupling between user and session and the load balancing is incorrectly configured to support this requirement. Almost every load balancing solution – hardware, software, virtual network appliance, infrastructure service – is capable of supporting persistence, a.k.a. sticky sessions.

This solution requires, however, that the load balancing solution of choice be configured to support the persistence. Persistence (also sometimes referred to as “server affinity” when implemented by a clustering solution) can be configured in a number of ways. The most common configuration is to leverage the automated session IDs generated by application servers, e.g. PHPSESSIONID, ASPSESSIONID. These ids are contained in the HTTP headers and are, as a matter of fact, how the application server “finds” the appropriate session for any given user’s request. The load balancer intercepts every request (it does anyway) and performs the same type of lookup on its own session table (which is much, much higher capacity than an application server and leverages the same high-performance lookups used to store connection and network session tables) and routes the user to the appropriate application server based on the session ID.

The interaction between the user and application becomes:

  1. User sends request
  2. Clustering/load balancing solution finds, if existing, the session-app server mapping. If it does not, it chooses the application server based on the load balancing algorithm and configured parameters
  3. Application server receives request,
  4. Application server processes request, creates response
  5. Application server returns response
  6. Clustering/load balancing solution creates the session-app server mapping if it did not already exist

Persistence can generally be based on any data in the HTTP header or payload, but using the automatically generated session ids tends to be the most common implementation.


Now, it may be the case when the multicasting architecture is the right one. It is impossible to say it’s never the right solution because there are always applications and specific scenarios in which an architecture that may not be a good idea in general is, in fact, the right solution.

It is likely the case, however, in most situations that it is not the right solution and has more than likely been implemented as a workaround in response to problems with application behavior when moving through a staged development environment. This is one of the best reasons why the use of a virtual edition of your production load balancing solution should be encouraged in development environments. The earlier a holistic strategy to application design and architecture can be employed the fewer complications will be experienced when the application moves into the production environment. Leveraging a virtual version of your load balancing solution during the early stages of the development lifecycle can also enable developers to become familiar with production-level infrastructure services such that they can employ a holistic, architectural approach to solving application issues.

See, it’s not always because developers don’t have the know how, it’s because they don’t have access to the tools during development and therefore can’t architect a complete solution. I recall a developer’s plaintive query after a keynote at [the now defunct] SD West conference a few years ago that clearly indicated a reluctance to even ask the network team for access to their load balancing solution to learn how to leverage its services in application development because he knew he would likely be denied. Network and application delivery network pros should encourage the use of and tinkering with virtual versions of application delivery controllers/load balancers in the application development environment as much as possible if they want to reduce infrastructure and application architectural-related issues from cropping up during production deployment.

A greater understanding of application-infrastructure interaction will enable more efficient, higher performing applications in general and reduce the operational expenses associated with deploying applications that use inefficient methods such as replication of session state to address application architectural constraints.

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Published Sep 22, 2010
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