API gateway vs. load balancer: what is the actual difference between the two? We’re back yet again with another deeper look at some common network hardware and their use. Both of these devices serve as intermediaries between a server’s resources and its intended destination. That said, their actual deployment is far different in scope.
So, if you’ve been curious as to what the actual difference is between these two devices, you’re in the right place. This guide is going to go into the nuts and bolts of how these devices function, what they’re used for, and where you would use one over the other. The world of computer networking is always a fascinating subject, and these two device types have plenty to explore.
API Gateway vs. Load Balancer: Side-By-Side Comparison
|API Gateway||Load Balancer|
|What It Is Used For||An intermediary between a server and a client, allowing for automated authorization and authentication processes||To effectively route traffic between multiple web servers to avoid full bandwidth saturation|
|Device Functions||Provides secure access to client-facing applications and resources.||Provides high availability for critical resources, allowing redundancy due to server failure, and distributing network traffic to increase performance.|
|Client-Facing?||Yes||In a sense, yes, but that isn’t its primary function.|
|Can It Scale?||Yes||Yes|
|Ease of Installation||Fairly simple overall, it does require some networking know-how to get up and running effectively.||You need a good understanding of network mechanics and routing principles to install and use these complex devices.|
|Authentication||Yes||Yes, through the SSL and HTTPS protocols.|
|Routing||For authentication, authorization, and access protocols. May rate-limit traffic but that’s not its function.||Designed to route traffic between two or more servers.|
API Gateway vs. Load Balancer: What’s the Difference?
Let’s take a closer look at the primary differences between these two devices.
The overall use case of both these devices greatly differs. While they serve as a midpoint between a server and other devices, their overall deployment is quite different as a whole. API gateways are intended to provide a way to rate-limit, authenticate, and provide authorization to clients looking to access an application or other resources.
While you typically will have some form of authentication and encryption in place for users, the API gateway offloads this to the device itself. An API gateway allows administrators to spend more time on making sure their clients have high availability and access to resources, rather than being concerned with security performance.
Load balancers function about how you’d expect. When you look at a network load, these devices evenly distribute incoming traffic between two or more servers. You’ll typically see this deployed with web servers, especially in high-traffic environments. Availability and uptime are paramount for online services, and a load balancer helps to make sure that continues to be the case.
There is some security functionality installed on a load balancer, but not to the same extent as you might find on an API gateway. When it gets down to it, that isn’t the primary focus of its use. You aren’t looking to authorize every user, but you’re making sure the bandwidth to a given server isn’t getting throttled by over-saturation.
Security is one of the major concerns of any network engineer. Both of these devices do have some provisions for security. When it gets down to it, the API gateway is going to be a more security-oriented device. It is built for that purpose and should be used as such.
Various functions of the REST API are handled by the API gateway, as the name implies. This means you can handle things like encrypted credential transmissions with ease.
A load balancer also has security measures. However, you aren’t going to deploy one with this as the predominant thought in mind. There is some level of security in making sure servers stay up. That said, load balancers aren’t a crucial cornerstone of cybersecurity.
Advantages to Their Use
Both of these devices have their own advantages when employed. First up is the API gateway. As previously stated, this device helps to streamline the authentication process. While it seems unnecessary given that many web applications can use the REST API for authentication, it does have a use.
You’re offloading vital processing resources to a dedicated device that has these functions implemented natively. API gateways also allow you to throttle the amount of requests a client can make. This goes a long way in preventing things like denial-of-service attacks, as you can time out a user easily.
Load balancers are a crucial element of the modern web. It is hard to imagine a web service doing without a load balancer. Availability and access are crucial to any web service, and a load balancer facilitates those needs with ease.
Concerns to Keep in Mind
These devices aren’t without their faults and drawbacks. You can readily see longer processing times with a massive influx of users on an API gateway for example. API failure is also another real and valid concern. What this means is you’ll want to include redundancy in your configuration of any API gateway.
You should also be monitoring performance regularly. It just takes a spike of users to cause unnecessary load times and congestion, after all. That said, the disadvantages of an API gateway aren’t nearly as pronounced as a load balancer.
A load balancer going down can wipe out availability to all servers. Since they share the load between a variety of servers, component failure can lead to system-wide outages. If one is poorly implemented it can also lead to an overall decrease in performance. As such, you’ll want to make sure these devices are set up with performance in mind.
Having backup units in place is also heavily recommended, as it could enable your services to remain up. Finally, a load balancer is a complex and expensive device to implement. These aren’t for the faint of heart. Even the simplest setup is going to require a good degree of technical expertise.
That isn’t even getting into the overall cost of a load balancer. These are expensive devices to install on a network, both from a price and time perspective. However, you might find the benefits far outweigh the negatives with a load balancer.
API Gateway vs. Load Balancer: 5 Must-Know Facts
- API gateways are designed to offload some of the strain of REST requests to client-facing applications.
- API gateways cannot route traffic to different servers by default.
- Load balancers are designed to efficiently distribute traffic to multiple servers.
- Load balancers are intended to be deployed in environments where high availability is key.
- When properly set up, a load balancer should increase the overall performance of a web service.
API Gateway vs. Load Balancer: Which One is Better? Which One Should You Choose?
So, is there a better choice between these two? Honestly, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. At the end of the day, these are vastly different devices. While the overall intent might be similar in scope, their usage is very different.
As such, you might find yourself using both of these devices. When properly used, they should only increase the overall availability and performance of any web services you might be hosting. Home users can steer well clear of these, thankfully.