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Etherchannel and IP Hash or Load Based Teaming?

Etherchannel or Load Based Teaming has been a popular topic of conversation ever since Load Based Teaming was introduced in vSphere 4.1. Generally the consideration for Etherchannel starts because people are not aware that Load Based Teaming exists as an option, they are not familiar with how virtual networking in vSphere works, or they’ve just always used it. It is quite common for non VMware Admins to think the virtual networking in vSphere acts just like a normal server in which one uplink is active and the others are strictly for failover with no load balancing capability. This is not the case with vSphere and of the five available teaming options only one provides failover only without any load balancing, the four other options all provide load balancing of multiple host uplinks. If you want to know if you should use Etherchannel or Load Based Teaming, and why, keep reading.

vSphere Network Teaming Options

This article assumes vSphere 4.1 or above, but even in previous versions Etherchannel may not be a good choice. The first thing you should know about vSphere Networking is that the out of the box vNetwork Distributed Switch (vDS) support 5 different teaming options, but does not support LACP (802.3ad) or Dynamic Etherchannel. Static Etherchannel is the only form of Etherchannel currently supported (and static link aggregation 802.3ad). You can utilize LACP only if you deploy the Cisco Nexus 1000v or another add on vDS to you environment. This article will not discuss LACP in any detail for this reason.

The five teaming options are:

Route based on originating virtual port
Route based on IP Hash (only one supported with Static Etherchannel and Static 802.3ad)
Route based on Source MAC address
Route based on physical NIC load (Load Based Teaming or LBT)
Use explicit failover order (Not a load balancing algorithm)

All of the choices except “Use explicit failover order” offers uplink load balancing for the vSphere hosts. So you have four options if you are primarily concerned with load balancing the vSphere host uplinks. This however is not the same as a single virtual machine with a single IP address load balancing multiple uplinks and in most cases even this has very little real benefit. I won’t explain all of the various options here as they are covered in the VMware Product Documentation and the purpose of this article is to discuss Etherchannel and Load Based Teaming.

Etherchannel and IP Hash Load Balancing

IP Hash Load Balancing, which requires Static Etherchannel or static 802.3ad be configured on the switching infrastructure, uses a hashing algorithm based on source and destination IP address to determine which host uplink egress traffic should be routed through.  VMware’s support and configuration of Etherchannel is explained in VMware KB 1004048. Frank Denneman explains the mechanics of how this works in his article IP-Hash versus LBT, and Ken Cline wrote a good explanation in his article The Great vSwitch Debate – Part 3.

It is possible for some workloads to load balance multiple host uplinks, but in reality the use cases for this are few. To be able to load balance multiple links a workload would have to be sending large amounts of traffic to many destinations (each unlikely to be the same pattern). Each traffic flow will only ever go over a single host uplink, and therefore an individual flow is limited to a single host uplink. The load balancing is calculated on egress traffic only and is not utilization aware.

Etherchannel and IP Hash Load Balancing is technically very complex to implement and has a number of prerequisites and limitations such as:

  • Switching infrastructure mush support static Etherchannel or static 802.3ad link aggregation and this must be configured for each hosts uplinks.
  • To enable network switch redundancy the network switches must support stacking or functionality similar to Virtual Port Channel.
  • Can’t use beacon probing.
  • Can’t configure standby or unused uplinks.
  • Only support one Etherchannel per vNetwork Distributed Switch (vDS).
  • vSwitch can be configured with between 1 and 8 uplinks.
  • To get effective load balancing requires many source/destination combinations.

Configuring Etherchannel and IP Hash Load balancing is a very technically complex process that can be error prone if the correct process is not followed. It is easy to knock a hosts management interfaces off the network during configuration (Refer to VMware KB 1022751). It is very hard to achieve an even balance and very easy that one or more uplink become congested while others are more lightly loaded due to the nature of the IP hashing. In many cases there may be no performance gains, even through there are additional overheads to calculate the IP Hashes for every conversation.

The best use case I can think of for IP Hash Load Balancing is for a download server or very high traffic single web server where no other load balancers are involved and it is not possible to deploy multiple VM’s and load balancers for the purpose (which presents a single point of failure). In this cases you may achieve good load balance and utilization of multiple links, even if this load balancing is not dynamic, and there is little control of congestion. But is the additional technical complexity for such a small use case really worth it? Do you truly need to be able to achieve more throughput from a single VM than a single uplink can sustain? In an environment with many VM’s consolidated onto the host do you want a single VM to be able to monopolize host networking to the detriment of others?

If your only reason for wanting to use Etherchannel and IP Hash Load Balancing is to distribute load over multiple host uplinks and provide redundancy and failover then it is most likely not the best choice. In fact if this is your only objective any other of the teaming methods would be a better choice (excluding explicit failover order). The complexity and limitations, when in most cases there will be no performance gain, doesn’t seem to make it worthwhile. This brings us nicely onto Load Based Teaming.

Load Based Teaming

Load Based Teaming, or Route based on Physical NIC Load is an option on the vDS that has been available since vSphere 4.1. It is a more dynamic load teaming algorithm that evaluates uplink utilization every 30 seconds and if utilization exceeds 75% will move VM’s between host uplink ports. LBT will work on standard access or trunk port, and does not require any special switch configuration, such as stacking or Virtual Port Channels. Each VM will be limited to the bandwidth of a single host uplink. LBT works on both ingress and egress traffic flows. It is incredibly simple to set up and use. Frank Denneman has wrote about LBT when it was first released and then followed up with IP-Hash versus LBT as previously mentioned.

The advantages of LBT are:

  • It’s simplicity to set up and use on both the hosts and the network switches.
  • Greatly reduced configuration.
  • Significantly easier troubleshooting.
  • The dynamic utilization aware nature of the load balancing.
  • Works on both egress and ingress traffic.
  • Lower overheads than IP Hash Load balancing.
  • Reduce the chances of Network IO Control (NIOC) having to take action to control traffic congestion, whereas NIOC may have to play a more active part when IP Hash is being used.
  • None of the limitations of IP Hash Load Balancing and Etherchannel.

The only downside is a single VM vNIC is limited to the bandwidth of a single host uplink. For a VM to effectively utilize multiple host uplinks it would need to be multi-homed by configuring it with multiple vNIC’s. This is a very small downside when the benefits are so great for the majority of workloads and situations and the sheer simplicity of the configuration and use.

What about LACP?

If you have the Nexus 1000v vDS in your environment and you have switching infrastructure capable of supporting Virtual Port Channels then you may benefit from using LACP. LACP with the Nexus 1000v has 19 different hashing algorithms. LACP still suffers from the technical complexity as Etherchannel and some of the same limitations, such as not being able to span switches without special configuration and support. However if you are using Nexus 1000v you have chosen a somewhat more complex configuration in addition to the other features and benefits provided. The additional load balancing methods offer a much greater chance to gain even load balance from many more situations than with static Etherchannel, even though a single conversation is still limited to a single host uplink. If you have the Nexus 1000v and infrastructure capable of supporting LACP across multiple switches so the switch is not a single point of failure then this would be a superior choice than using mac pinning.

Final Word

Use Load Based Teaming unless you have no other option, and even then you should seriously consider not using Etherchannel and IP Hash Load Balancing. The complexity, increased overheads and lack of probable real world benefits make IP Hash a poor choice for most use cases. Remember LACP is not currently supported on the native VMware vDS and I think even if VMware decided to support LACP in future the case for LBT in preference to LACP would still be strong. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this topic.

This post first appeared on the Long White Virtual Clouds blog at longwhiteclouds.com, by Michael Webster +. Copyright © 2012 – IT Solutions 2000 Ltd and Michael Webster +. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission.

  1. Paul Kelly
    April 10, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Nice article. I’ve been thinking about this topic quite a bit lately, but you wrote about the concept better than I could. Almost all network engineers I come across want to use Etherchannel or LACP by default and it can be quite a task helping them to understand the issues around that design decision.

  2. OddAngry
    April 11, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Is etherchannel that complex? For me, it’s been the network guy doing the work and grouping them while setting them up as trunk ports.

    We’ve only had 1 problem when the network guy missed one of the ports,

    If vDS is already in use it makes sense, but In an environment still using vSS with etherchannel, is it worth implementing vDS for LBT? (besides other advantages with vDS).

  3. April 11, 2012 at 1:37 am

    While I’m not sure I would classify a static Etherchannel as technically complex, I do agree that its uses with VMware vSphere are rather limited. It is a shame that you have to purchase Ent+ to experience LB teaming.

    • April 11, 2012 at 8:53 am

      The additional complexity comes in when you have to configure VPC or equivalent across two switches and the additional configuration settings that are required and an additional layer to troubleshoot. But if you’re already running Etherchannel with vSS and then moving to vDS you would be better off sticking with what you’ve got as introducing more change will add risk. But there is still room for error and knocking your hosts of the network, which you have to be careful of. If you’re building a new environment or starting fresh LBT is a much simpler option and far easier to implement.

  4. April 12, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Good write up. I really enjoyed this article. I am reviewing FCOE on our environments and using this type of configuration on 10GB infratstructure makes a lot of sense. 1 uplink to a host? If that host has nothing but 10GB then open’er up and let it rip B)

    • April 12, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      I have a customer considering FCoE in a UCS environment, they have Nexus 1000v vDS and will be using LACP on their 2 x 10G Uplinks with VPC’s configured on the back end Nexus 5K switches. This is a valid and useful use case as LACP with source/dest ip and port will balance the traffic well and LBT isn’t an option in this environment due to the Nexus 1000v anyway. The good thing is they can run LACP on the vmnic’s and it won’t impact the FCoE to the blades, which are still physically pinned to fabric A and B respectively. As far as the hypervisor is concerned though it’s all just FC.

      • April 12, 2012 at 2:17 pm

        Yea, there are so many consideration to be made with FCoE and alot of them are really valid. I still see a lot of “silos” in todays IT departments were people don’t want to play in each others sand box. Cisco UCS is great for referenced architectures. We use a similar set up with Cisco UCS Manager but I really believe its under utilized. I just never even considered LBT before and this was just a fresh view on that. I will have to write some of my thoughts on my blog when I get some time.
        One of the things I find a bit challenging is whenever networking guys (or others) seem to think Cisco UCS is just like any other Nexus/Rack server solution… The misconceptions I sometimes deal with or huge but I try to take it in steps at a time… Sorry for the long reply, this is just a hot topic for me now. Thanks for the follow-up!

      • April 27, 2012 at 9:35 am

        Yeah, I prefer to keep it simple in most implementations but we all know design is the key and use case. We thought about using LAC-P but really the expertise isn’t there for our side or the resource for that matter. Sometimes keeping it KISS can mean a lot. Personally though I like it when networking can keep up with that stuff 🙂

  5. Laurent Metzger
    May 24, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    My opinion is not that radical as the one exposed in this article. Load-based load balancing will well use all the link in the ESX outgoing direction but the switch will stil have only one link for entering the ESX for a given MAC address so I would not say that this limitation is small.
    Other comment: It was already tried in the networking protocol area to base the traffic distribution on load. It is the EIGRP routing protocol. This protocol was not that successfull because what sounds a good idea turns out to be a bad idea. Traffic was always going to the least loaded path which became suddenly the most loaded path and back and forth. This lead to traffic constantly changing path.

    • May 25, 2012 at 8:55 am

      Hi Laurent, the limitation you mention is exactly the same for IP Hash load balancing and Ether Channel. That is egress only. At least with Load Based Teaming after the monitoring period (30s) both inbound and outbound (egress and ingress) traffic will have the effect of being balanced across the team. This is a significant advantage over Ether Channel. One of the reasons EIGRP never took off was because it was proprietary and didn’t handle unequal paths very well. But we are not talking about only layer 3 load balancing, but layer 2 also. It is the way that Load Based Teaming has been designed that limits the possibility of flapping, which was a traditional problem of EIGRP. LBT is by far the easiest, least complex, and most effective way of load balancing a NIC team from an ESXi host, provided you have Enterprise Plus licensing.

  6. June 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Nice post Michael. I agree, LBT is a simple and effective load balancing option which suits most environments.

  7. June 11, 2012 at 4:17 am

    I had an architect just the other talk about how he would like to use LAC-P your right in that it still has the same problem. He asked me some questions about the ESX teaming method and how it works (LBT). I essentially told him that unless we are willing to go back and configure this on ALL host that it would not be ideal. That changed his mind because for him it wouldn’t really be worth the head ache. I really like this solution especially when working with 10GB FCOE nfrastructures.

  8. Jack Scagnetti
    June 27, 2012 at 9:38 am

    LBT is great but is not technically feasible in some cases. A great example is vCloud Director. When using a LBT backed portgroup with a routed network in vCD, it will cause a lot of network anomalies such as dropped packets or even complete loss of networking.

    • June 27, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Hi Jack, That sounds like a configuration error to me. LBT is not supported with VCD-NI, but will work fine with Port Group Backed Network Pools, it’ll also work fine on the external networks in vCD and the other networks defined on the vSwitch. But IP-Hash doesn’t work so well with VCD-NI either, so your options with that are pretty much active/standby only anyway. Even route based on virtual port ID is superior in many cases to using IP hash, especially in a VCD environment.

  9. VMguru
    August 18, 2012 at 4:01 am


    Is it possible to use both? Assume you have both storage vmkernel and vm traffic port groups on two 10GB nics. Can you set up an etherchannel for these two nics, IP hash on the vDs and VMkernel port group, and then override the port group teaming policy for the VM traffic port groups to use LBT instead of IP Hash? What would be the implications of doing this?

    • August 18, 2012 at 8:03 am

      When using Etherchannel, IP Hash is the only supported teaming policy for all port groups connected to the vSwitch. So you can’t mix and match. it’s one or the other.

      • VME
        August 19, 2012 at 1:54 am

        Hi Mike,
        So will there be an issue having the VM network port group use IP hash on the vSwitch? Besides is it best to use LBT on a vmkernel port group used for NFS traffic on vDs?

      • August 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm

        The issue will the configuration is more restrictive as all port groups must use IP Hash on the vSwitch. It is not dynamic and doesn’t take account of ingress traffic. You can’t mix and match. The physical network configuration is also more complex. But provided you have followed the correct configuration at all points and all port groups are set to IP Hash it should work fine. Just be mindful of the restrictions and limitations. It’s more error prone than other methods and you will more often get better overall balance and throughput with LBT.

  10. will
    August 29, 2012 at 3:46 am

    LACP is availble on VMWare’s VDS since 5.1. Always use LACP to prevent data center outages.

    • August 29, 2012 at 4:06 am

      LACP does not prevent or reduce the probability of data center outages and due to its complexity could actually increase the probability. LACP has a number of restrictions that make it not appropriate in lots of cases. All of my arguments in the article still apply.

  11. huh?
    November 30, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Too bad there is no multi-link PPP option for the L2 datacenter.

    All src/dest/hash based algo’s are crap. Err, legacy.

  12. VME
    December 15, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Can i mix 2 different NICs with nic teaming like (Broadcom & Intel)? I haven’t seen any docs that specify that is not supported.

    • December 15, 2012 at 8:34 am

      Yes, that is fine. Provided they are the same speed. You can’t have two NIC’s of different speeds in the same team. Also make sure you stick to the vSphere Config Maximums. You will have trouble if you don’t.

  13. December 30, 2012 at 4:26 am

    Nice article and write up on the NIC teaming policies. I agree that LBT is often the best and simplest to setup. The default Port ID second best if not having the Enterprise + licence for vDS and LBT.

  14. Wally
    January 8, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Great article! I think all of these points are being considered in VMware’s development. At least I hope so. There seems to be more possibilities with a more evolved version.

    I’m running 4 nics per ESXi server with 2 port ether-channel going to two separate switches(non-stacked) and one pair in standby that are on a different pnics. I seem to be balancing fine according to the usage reports. The only scenario that bothers me is if one link goes down and a standby takes its place that goes to a different switch. I would get mac flap. I wish vmware would put some intelligence there to make both standby active. Does anyone know a way to accomplish this? I have monitoring in place and would have to manually intervene in the scenario I described. I am considering stacking so i do not have to worry about it and can make all 4 nics active. Anyone else running like this successfully?

    I wish vmware would put out a comprehensive design guide. It seems like the community is the place to go for design questions. which is great too. I see lots of folks going through pain to get there.

    Keep up the great info!

    • January 9, 2013 at 3:01 am

      Hi Wally,

      In your scenario the best option is to either stack or not use Etherchannel at all. In fact your scenario isn’t a supported configuration. I’d suggest it’s probably very unlikely to be taken into account during any development plans as a result of this. Many of the other load balancing options however would be supported. Depending of course on your licensing level. If your switches supported link state tracking there might be a way to automatically shutdown one port if another port goes offline, but stacking, or not using Etherchannel would still be far simpler. IP Hash load balancing is still only egress not ingress, so you have pretty much as good a chance of getting load balance by using route based on virtual port id in a lot of cases and this has the advantage of being supported in your type of setup.

  1. April 20, 2012 at 9:23 am
  2. December 15, 2012 at 10:27 pm

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