what is a cdn content delivery network

In today’s fast-paced world, everyone is in a hurry, web surfers’ attention spans are diminished, and website owners have to keep up with this new state of affairs, especially if they don’t want to get into what would probably be the most counter-intuitive way of making business ever: increasing bounce rates on their websites. Indeed, users want a hassle-free browsing experience, quick response times and that includes fast webpage loading times as well. If your website’s load time leaves a lot to be desired, using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) can go a long way to fix this issue.

What is a CDN?

CDNs or Content Delivery Networks are a globally dispersed platform of servers that are responsible for delivering a large portion of all Internet traffic worldwide. Essentially, CDNs are a “hosting for static content” (CSS, images, JavaScript, etc.), which also make up most webpages. By taking on the burden of serving static content, a CDN allows your website to serve dynamic content much faster given that its capacity isn’t throttled by serving static content.

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The globally dispersed and interconnected servers of CDNs serve end users based on the principle of proximity, that is, the server located closest to the end user (this server is called the edge node server) will be the one delivering the original cached static content. For example, if a user wants to reach your website from Canada, a cached copy of your website’s original static content will be delivered to the user from a CDN server located closest to Canada. This “fast-lane” mechanism is not the only thing that singles out CDNs. Their capability to handle a great number of simultaneous requests of this nature is another key factor that can be crucial in a website’s ability to handle massive data requests especially in high-stress situations such as server outages or traffic surges.

What are the benefits of using a CDN?

Compared to other page speed improvement solutions, CDNs are viewed as the “low-hanging fruit” of page optimization as they are an easy step in improving a website’s performance in terms of speed. But why is website speed so important? Apart from improving user experience and leading to lower bounce rates, website speed is also an element that factors into your website’s Google ranking. Google is highly focused on user experience and speed is undoubtedly a marker of a quality user experience. Page speed can make a difference in Google rankings especially in highly competitive areas.

A CDN also saves bandwidth on the host server and increases your website’s availability by making your content accessible to end users even in the event of excessive user traffic, server outages or other similar events. This means that you don’t run the risk of users having a terrible user experience or losing business as a result.

Using a CDN will usually result in a cleaner HTML markup. A further advantage of integrating a CDN on your website is that CDNs support the latest and greatest HTTP Protocols (e.g. SPDY, HTTP2) just to squeeze out that extra juice and speed.

How to integrate a CDN on your site

Integrating a CDN on your site is pretty straightforward if you’re using a CMS (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla!). Once you’ve signed up with a CDN provider, you essentially need to identify the static content on your website, which you want your CDN to mirror. If you’re using a popular CMS, integration can be done via a plugin, without much difficulty. Some CDN implementations may require you to modify your DNS records and name servers on your domain.

If you’re using a custom website or web-app, implementation can be a bit of a hassle and it’s best to consult with your developer before attempting implementation on your own.

Once you’ve done all the necessary modifications on your site, you need to test them and check any mixed content issues and even SSL related issues if you intend to support low-end devices. Setting up caching rules with respect to the frequency of the cache update done by the CDN is also important.

There may be times when you will need to modify your website or add new things to it like an order form or a call to action button, which oftentimes imply making some modifications in HTML CSS and JavaScript files. However, if these changes are not synchronous there is a risk for new modifications in the HTML part of your site to be visible, while the CSS and JavaScript files that style and add functionality to them to not be there because the CDN still serves the old content. For these cases you need to make sure that you have a reliable purging mechanism in place that will force your CDN to grab the latest files from your server. This can be done either in the CDN’s user interface or, more conveniently, via an API call in your CMS. Most CMS plugins for CDNs already have this functionality built-in.

Top 3 CDN providers

Max CDN

Quick overview: Max CDN is one of the most widely used CDN providers for WordPress users, and can be easily integrated within a few minutes either with the help of the W3 Total Cache or the WP Super Cache plugin. Max CDN offers you a marked improvement in speed, better crash resistance, and an ultimately better user experience and Google ranking. With 19 global edge locations and 55 global peering partners, Max CDN has a good worldwide coverage.

Edge rules: 4 rules (default, regex, literal, exact)  

Pricing: Subscription plans range from 100GB bandwidth/month for $9 to 25TB bandwidth/month for $1,199.

Cloudflare

Quick overview: Snappy loads, enhanced security and seamless integration are Cloudflare’s main selling points. Cloudflare can be integrated with a CMS by using a special plugin (e.g. Cloudflare WordPress Plugin, Cloudflare Drupal Plugin, W3TC Plugin, etc.). 86 data centers around the world ensure the speedy delivery of your static content.

Page Rules: 3, 20, 50 or custom, depending on your subscription.

Pricing: Subscription plans range from Free to Enterprise. Cloudflare doesn’t charge for bandwidth usage, and instead charges a flat rate per plan.

Amazon Cloudfront

Quick overview: With 55 edge locations on five continents, Amazon Cloudfront has an extensive geographical coverage. You can integrate Amazon Cloudfront through the W3 Total Chache Plugin. This CDN also supports dynamic content, including streaming, not just static content.

There are no page rules per se, however, you can control every aspect of caching via cache headers.

Pricing: You can get started with an AWS Free Usage Tier and you will receive 50 GB of data transfer and 2,000,000 HTTP and HTTPS requests / month for a year. Given that Cloudfront has a pay-as-you-go pricing system, you can cancel your subscription at any time.

Conclusion

Determining which is the best CDN depends on your particular needs. Ideally, you want your CDN to have server locations in the area where your visitors are, to deliver the performance you are looking for, and to be easy to integrate and customize.

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