Load Balancing / RSS

Processing traffic from the network adapter using a single stream requires a single CPU core to be able to keep up with the ingress rate. At high rates this becames a bottleneck even with lightweight traffic processing due to the limited amount of CPU cycles available per packet. Evenly distribute traffic from a single interface across multiple streams (aka channels or queues) while maintaining flow continuity is usually the best option for scaling the performance, as long as our application is designed to work with multiple threads or processes and run on multiple CPU cores.

RSS (Receive Side Scaling)

Almost all Intel (and other vendors) NICs have RSS support, this means they are able to hash packets in hardware in order to distribute the load across multiple RX queues. In some cases RSS is not available or not flexible enough (e.g. a custom distribution function is needed) and it can be replaced by software distribution using ZC.

In order to configure the number of queues, you can use the RSS parameter at insmod time (if you are installing PF_RING ZC drivers from packages you can use the configuration file as explained in README.apt_rpm_packages), passing a comma-separated list (one per interface) of numbers (number of queues per interface). Examples:

Enable as many queues as the number of processors, per interface:

insmod ixgbe.ko RSS=0,0,0,0

Enable 4 RX queues per interface:

insmod ixgbe.ko RSS=4,4,4,4

Disable multiqueue (1 RX queue per interface):

insmod ixgbe.ko RSS=1,1,1,1

Alternatively it is possible to configure the number of RX queues at runtime using ethtool:

ethtool --set-channels <if> combined 1

RSS distributes the load across the specified number of RX queues based on an hash function which is IP-based (or IP/Port-based in case of TCP), in combination with an indirection table: queue = indirection_table[hash(packet)] You can see the content of the indirection table with:

ethtool -x <if>

It is possible to configure the indirection table by simply applying weights to each RX queue using ethtool. For instance if we want all traffic to go to queue 0, and we configured the card with 4 RX queues, we can use the command below:

ethtool -X <if> weight 1 0 0 0

Naming convention

In order to open a specific interface queue, you have to specify the queue ID using the “@<ID>” suffix. Example:

pfcount -i zc:eth1@0

Please note that if you configure an interface with multiple RSS queues, and you open it using ZC with zc:eth1, this is the same as opening zc:eth1@0. This does not apply in standard kernel mode, where kernel abstracts the interface and capturing from eth1 means capturing from all the queues. This happens because ZC is a kernel-bypass technology, thus there is no abstraction, and the application directly opens an interface queue, which corresponds to the full interface only when RSS=1.

PF_RING Cluster (Kernel)

Since not all network adapters feature RSS support to distribute the load across multiple RX queues in hardware, the PF_RING kernel module implements a mechanisms named clustering to partition and load-balance traffic across processes. This means that different applications opening PF_RING sockets can bind them to a specific cluster ID (via pfring_set_cluster) for joining the forces and each analyze a portion of the packets. The way packets are partitioned across cluster sockets is specified in the cluster policy. The default policy is per-flow (i.e. all the packets belonging to the same 5-tuple <proto, ip src/dst, port src/dst>), however there are a few options. This way all packets belonging to the same flow will go to the same application, preserving the application logic as traffic will be consistent. An example of kernel clustering is provided by pfcount:

pfcount -i eth1 -c 10 -H 5


  • -c 10 specifies the Cluster ID
  • -H 5 specifies the load-balancing policy:
    • 1 - round-robin
    • 2 - src ip, dst ip
    • 3 - src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port
    • 4 - src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port, proto (default)
    • 0 - src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port, proto, vlan
    • 5 - src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port, proto for TCP, src ip, dst ip otherwise
    • 7 - tunneled src ip, dst ip
    • 8 - tunneled src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port
    • 9 - tunneled src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port, proto (default)
    • 6 - tunneled src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port, proto, vlan
    • 10 - tunneled src ip, src port, dst ip, dst port, proto for TCP, src ip, dst ip otherwise

Note: kernel clustering cannot be used in combination with ZC driver as ZC is a kernel-bypass technology.

ZC Cluster (zbalance_ipc)

There are cases where RSS cannot be used for traffic load-balancing, because:

  • it is not always available (e.g. if you are not using an Intel adapter)
  • for some use case it is not flexible enough and a custom distribution function is needed (e.g. tunneled traffic like GTP)
  • when the same traffic needs to be delivered to different application, but we are using ZC that locks the network interface (we cannot have multiple applications capturing traffic from the same interface at the same time)
  • when the same traffic needs to be delivered to different application, but we need a different number of streams per application (e.g. we want to load-balance traffic to 4 nProbe instances for Netflow generation, and 1 n2disk instance for traffic recording)

In the above situations, RSS can be replaced by software distribution using ZC, either writing a custom application on top of the ZC API, or leveraging on the zbalance_ipc application distributed with PF_RING. zbalance_ipc is a process that can be used for capturing traffic from one or more interfaces, and load-balancing packets to multiple consumer processes. Please note that in order to use zbalance_ipc, RSS should be disabled.

Example of traffic aggregation from 2 interfaces, and load-balancing to 2 processes using an IP-based hash:

zbalance_ipc -i zc:eth1,zc:eth2 -n 2 -m 1 -c 10 -g 1


  • -n specifies the number of egress queues
  • -m selects the hash function (there are a few options available, or it is possible to write a custom one)
    • 0: Round-Robin (default)
    • 1: IP hash
    • 2: Fan-out
    • 3: Fan-out (1st) + Round-Robin (2nd, 3rd, ..)
    • 4: GTP hash (Inner IP/Port or GTP-C Seq-Num)
    • 5: GRE hash (Inner or Outer IP)
    • 6: Interface X to queue X
  • -g is the core affinity for the capture/distribution thread
  • -c specifies the ZC cluster ID

The example above creates 2 streams, that can be opened by a consumer application as standard PF_RING interfaces (zc:10@0 and zc:10@1). Example:

nprobe -i zc:10@0
nprobe -i zc:10@1

In a similar way, it is possible to load-balance the traffic to multiple applications, each having multiple threads/processes:

zbalance_ipc -i zc:eth1,zc:eth2 -n 2,1 -m 1 -c 10 -g 1

Where -n 2,1 means:

  • load-balance the traffic to 2 queues
  • send a full copy of the traffic to 1 more queue

This is the case for instance of nProbe and n2disk processing the same traffic:

nprobe -i zc:10@0
nprobe -i zc:10@1
n2disk -i zc:10@2 -o /storage

Using ZC Cluster with systemd

zbalance_ipc can be controlled using systemctl on operating systems and distributions that use the systemd service manager, configuring the cluster service shipped with the pfring package.

Since multiple clusters are often required, multiple instances of the cluster service may run on the same host. To manage a particular cluster <instance> append @<instance> to the cluster service name. Typically, <instance> corresponds to the cluster ID (e.g., 10 in the examples above). The <instance> uniquely identifies a service and its corresponding configuration file that is located under /etc/cluster/cluster-<instance>.conf.

For example, to start a cluster instance, one can create the following configuration file containing all the command line options (see -h) one per line. Example:

cat /etc/cluster/cluster-10.conf

And then start the services with:

systemctl start cluster@10

Optionally, one may want to enable the service to start at boot with:

systemctl enable cluster@10

The status of the service can be controlled with:

systemctl status cluster@10