Load Balancing With Nginx


Nginx, the web server, is a fantastically simple and inexpensive front-end load balancer for web applications – large and small. Its ability to handle high loads of concurrency and simply forwarding settings make it an excellent choice.

Although it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of enterprise solutions from Citrix or F5, it is very capable of doing the job, and doing it very well. The biggest down fall, depending on your team’s skill set, is it won’t have a friendly GUI to guide you. The configurations will have to be done in the Nginx configuration files using a text editor.

Don’t let that stop you from deploying Nginx. Many start-ups and relatively large technology companies rely on Nginx for load balancing their web applications.


There are many alternatives, but what follows is my experience of:

  • Deploying an Nginx server on CentOS 6
  • Load balance 3 Apache web servers
  • Web server 1 and 2 are new, powerful servers and should receive most of the connections.
  • Web server 3 is old and should not receive too many connections.
  • Connections should be persistent. This is required to ensure users remain on the same server when they log in, as session information isn’t replicated to other servers.

Server Configuration

Internal HostnameOSRoleIP Address
slloadbal01.example.comCentOS 6.5Nginx Load Balancer172.30.0.35
mywebapp01.example.comCentOS 6.5Apache Web Server172.30.0.50
mywebapp02.example.comCentOS 6.5Apache Web Server172.30.0.51
mywebapp03.example.comCentOS 6.5Apache Web Server172.30.0.52
TABLE1 – Frontend load balancers and backend web servers


Application Configuration

Each web application server’s IP address will be assigned the same public hostname, in addition to their real hostnames as listed above. They will each have WordPress installed, with exact same configuration and content.

Website HostnameApplicationDatabase Server
TABLE2 – DNS information for balanced web service and database

Listing the database isn’t really that relevant to this tutorial, other than to illustrate that the WordPress database is not hosted on any of the web servers.

Installing Nginx

  1. Create a YUM repo file for Nginx.

vi /etc/yum.repos.d/nginx.repo

  1. Add the following lines to it.


name=nginx repo




  1. Save the file and exit the text editor.
  2. Install Nginx.

yum install nginx

Configure Nginx

  1. Open the default site configuration file into a text editor.

vi /etc/nginx/conf.d/default.conf

  1. Add the upstream module to the top of the configuration file. The name back-endcan be replaced with a name of your choosing. All three back-end servers are defined by their internal DNS hostnames. You may use IP addresses instead.

upstream website1 {

server mywebapp01.example.com;

server mywebapp02.example.com;

server mywebapp03.example.com;


  1. Assign weight values to the servers. The lower the value, the more traffic the server will receive relative to the other servers. Both mywebapp01 and mywebapp02 will be assigned a weigh value of 1 to spread load evenly between them. Mywebapp03 will, however, be assigned a higher weight of 5 to minimize its load. It will receive every 7th (1+1+5) connection.

upstream website1 {

server mywebapp01.example.com weight=1;

server mywebapp02.example.com weight=1;

server mywebapp03.example.com weight=5;


  1. We need our users logged into the WordPress CMS to always connect to the same server. If they don’t, the will be shuffled around the servers and constantly having to log in. We use the hash directive to force users to always communicate with the same server.

upstream website1 {


server mywebapp01.example.com weight=1;

server mywebapp02.example.com weight=1;

server mywebapp03.example.com weight=5;


  1. Now we configure the server directive to listen for incoming connections, and then forward them to one of the backend servers. Below the upstream directive, configure the server directive.

server {

listen 80; # Listen on the external interface

server_name www.tctest.com;

location / {

proxy_pass http://website1;



  1. Save the configuration file and exit the text editor.
  2. Reload the default configuration into Nginx.

service nginx reload

Additional Options and Directives

Marking a Server as Down (offline)

You may need to bring one of the servers down for emergency maintenance. And you want to be able to do this without impacting your users. The Down directive will allow you to do this.

upstream website1 {


server mywebapp01.example.com weight=1 down;

server mywebapp02.example.com weight=1;

server mywebapp03.example.com weight=5;


Health Checks

Enable health checks to automatically check the health of each server in an upstream group. By default, each server is checked every 5 seconds by sending an http connection. If the server doesn’t return a 2XX or 3XX status, it is flagged as unhealthy and will no longer have connections forwarded to it.

upstream website1 {

server mywebapp01.example.com;

server mywebapp02.example.com;

server mywebapp03.example.com;




Upstream Server Ports

Unless a port is specified, all requests will be forwarded to port 80. If your back-end web servers are hosting the application on another port, you may specify it at the end of the server name/ip address.

upstream website1 {

server mywebapp01.example.com:8080;

server mywebapp02.example.com:8080;

server mywebapp03.example.com:9000;



Backup Servers

You have a requirement for having a server as a hot backup for when a node unexpectedly goes down. The backup server will only handle traffic when a node goes down, and will remain idle when all nodes are healthy.

upstream website1 {

server mywebapp01.example.com;

server mywebapp02.example.com;

server mywebapp03.example.com;


server mywebbkup01.example.com backup;



More Options and Directives

There are so many different directives to manage Nginx load balancers that it doesn’t make sense to list them all here. I’ve kept is short to highlight popular options. I do recommend that you read through the upstream documentation for a complete list of capabilities.


You now have a functional load balancer for your website, spreading load among three nodes. It may not have all of the bells and whistles of enterprise balancers, but it is very fast and very efficient, and it can balance connections with minimal hardware resources. It certain gives typical hardware load balancers a run for their money, which is why it is used by large Internet web sites all over the world.

If you do need a simple and lightning fast balancer for a web application, I would definitely recommend using Nginx.