Rebalancing Services in Docker Swarm

Learn how to manually rebalance services across nodes in your Docker Swarm cluster using the docker service update --force command, and understand the rationale behind manual rebalancing.

By Kevin McAleer,    3 Minutes

Optimizing Service Distribution in Docker Swarm

Docker Swarm is designed to manage and orchestrate containers across multiple nodes seamlessly. However, certain operations, like rebalancing services after nodes recover from an outage, require manual intervention. This lesson explores how to use the docker service update --force command to rebalance services and delves into the reasons behind Docker Swarm’s design choice for not automatically rebalancing tasks.

Understanding Service Distribution

When you deploy a service to a Docker Swarm cluster, the Swarm scheduler distributes tasks (container instances of the service) across the available nodes based on the current state of the cluster. This distribution aims to balance the load and ensure high availability.

The Need for Rebalancing

  • Node Failures and Recoveries: If a node goes offline and later comes back online, the tasks that were running on it are redistributed to other nodes in the cluster. When the node recovers, it rejoins the cluster but doesn’t automatically get its tasks back, leading to a potential imbalance.
  • Adding New Nodes: When new nodes are added to the cluster, they don’t automatically receive existing tasks, which could lead to underutilization of resources.

Rebalancing with docker service update --force

To manually rebalance services across all nodes:

  1. Identify the Service: Determine the name of the service you want to rebalance.
  2. Execute the Update Command:

    docker service update --force <servicename>

    This command forces a service update without changing the service’s configuration. Docker Swarm treats this as a trigger to redistribute tasks across the cluster, achieving a more balanced distribution.

Why Doesn’t Docker Swarm Automatically Rebalance?

  • Stability Over Constant Optimization: Docker Swarm prioritizes stability and predictability. Automatically rebalancing tasks could lead to unnecessary container restarts, potentially impacting running applications.
  • Performance Considerations: Continuous rebalancing could consume significant system resources, affecting the cluster’s overall performance.
  • Administrative Control: By requiring manual rebalancing, Docker Swarm gives administrators control over when and how rebalancing occurs, allowing them to plan for minimal impact on the cluster’s operation.

Best Practices for Rebalancing

  • Monitor Cluster State: Regularly monitor your cluster’s node utilization to identify when rebalancing might be beneficial.
  • Schedule Rebalancing: Plan rebalancing during maintenance windows or low-traffic periods to minimize impact on application performance.
  • Incremental Rebalancing: For large clusters, consider rebalancing services incrementally to avoid overwhelming the cluster.


Manual rebalancing in Docker Swarm is a powerful tool for optimizing service distribution across your cluster. While Docker Swarm’s design choice to not automatically rebalance tasks prioritizes stability and control, understanding when and how to manually rebalance services ensures that your cluster remains efficient and responsive to changes in the environment. This lesson equips you with the knowledge to maintain an optimally balanced Docker Swarm cluster, enhancing both performance and reliability.

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