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Content Delivery Networks: What They Are and Why You Need One

When it comes to putting together a killer website, speed is just as important as an attractive design and good content. Even your biggest fans will be yelling obscenities at their screens if your site takes too long to load, so it’s important to get page speed under control.

As you may already know, site load speed is determined by various factors, with a key one being server location. Simply put, the further away the server is, the longer it takes for it to process requests – and this is where content delivery networks come to the rescue.

What exactly do these services offer? We’ll answer that question in a second, then move onto why you should consider using one, before comparing three providers to help your decision.

Let’s get started!

What Are Content Delivery Networks?

Simply put, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are systems of servers distributed across the globe. These servers are capable of housing cached copies of sites, files, web applications, and virtually any other kind of content you can imagine.

By placing these data centers in strategic locations around the world, CDNs enable their customers to serve data more efficiently to end users by fulfilling their requests sooner. When a user makes a request to a site employing a CDN, it’s handled by the server based closest to them, resulting in lower latencies.

Do You Need to Use a Content Delivery Network?

A significant number of website operators would answer that question positively, since almost nine million websites currently use CDN services to optimize their performance. Furthermore, nearly 50% of the top 10,000 websites as ranked by Quantcast employ CDN solutions as of 2016.

The benefits aren’t limited to large websites or applications either, and while you don’t need to use one, virtually any site can reap the advantages of using a CDN for the following reasons:

  • CDNs can decrease loading times for end users. The folks over at KeyCDN ran a simple experiment, testing the speed of a website already optimized for speed, then deployed a CDN before running the numbers again. It resulted in a 38.24% decrease in load times.
  • Since CDNs serve (limited) cached versions of your site, they can act as a backup should you ever experience any downtimes – thereby enabling you to get your site back up and running without frustrating your visitors.
  • Implementing a CDN can help you deal with traffic surges, since your servers won’t be handling as many requests, and their infrastructure is probably better equipped for heavy loads.

While the benefits are pretty clear, it doesn’t mean you should run off and deploy the first CDN you find straight away. There are plenty of providers available out there, and you should take a little time to weigh them up against each other before making a decision.

The Best Content Delivery Networks Compared

We couldn’t possibly hope to cover all CDNs here, so we’ve settled for three solid picks that should encompass the majority of use cases.

CloudFlare (Freemium)

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CloudFlare is one of the most popular CDN services, servicing over 2,000,000 million websites. Their unique software can process millions of requests per second, and they operate out of 86 data centers located all around the globe.

Key Features

  • Easy to set up and doesn’t require any advanced configurations.
  • Their service doesn’t bill customers based on their bandwidth expenditure.
  • Enables you to customize how their network serves each page on your website.
  • Claims to be able to reduce requests to your servers by 65% on average.

CloudFlare offers a dependable service, and its unlimited free plan makes it a good option for small businesses without the budget to invest in more customized services. Furthermore, it’s by far the simplest CDN to configure.

Amazon CloudFront (Freemium)

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As you might already be aware, e-commerce giant Amazon is also a renowned provider of cloud-based services, with dozens of products under its belt. Their CloudFront CDN service operates servers in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and many major hubs in the United States.

Key Features

  • CloudFront only charges users for the bandwidth their sites or applications use, and it offers competitive pricing.
  • Provides you with the option to customize your CDN configuration from the ground up (i.e. determine expiration dates for your cached files and choose which specific server locations should be used for content delivery, among other options).
  • Includes a web application firewall service to further secure your content.

Amazon CloudFront offers a free plan that includes 50GB of monthly data transfers, and a limit of 2,000,000 million HTTP/HTTPS requests. Its configuration process isn’t necessarily straightforward, but its pay as you go system makes it a good choice for online businesses who are ready to invest in their growth, and are looking to scale upwards.

Azure CDN (Freemium)

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This offering from Microsoft provides customers with access to 22 data centers across the globe, as well as the ability to create APIs to build seamlessly scalable applications. However, their pricing is quite complex, depending on data usage and location.

Key Features

  • Azure users can select between CDNs powered by Akamai and Verizon depending on their preferences.
  • The Azure network is optimized against DDoS attacks.
  • Enables users to handle how their content is served, using specific rules.
  • Provides customers with real-time analytics.

Whereas CloudFlare makes for a good fit for small sites, and Amazon CloudFront is a good all-around solution with a high-learning curve, Microsoft’s Azure CDN is optimized for serving complex web applications with high requirements.

Conclusion

While we can’t improve the internet connection speed of our site’s visitors, we can certainly influence their loading times by taking advantage of the services that content delivery networks provide.

Aside from improving your site’s speed, employing a CDN could also save you from facing embarrassing downtimes (which shouldn’t be a problem if you pick the right host). Furthermore, it could keep your site running during traffic surges.

If you’re not quite sure where to get started, keep our three CDN recommendations in mind:

  1. CloudFlare: Suitable for small sites with a limited budget.
  2. Amazon CloudFront: For those looking for a good all-round solution, who are unfazed by a high learning curve.
  3. Azure CDN: Ideal for those with high requirements, such as serving complex web applications.

Do you have any questions about using content delivery networks? Ask away in the comments section below!

Image credit: Visualhunt.

About Corey Hammond

Corey has been directly involved in the web hosting space since 2010 and leads marketing for A2 Hosting.

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