CloudFlare, the Free CDN: First Impressions

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A content delivery network (CDN) can speed up your site and help to protect it against traffic spikes.

On WhoIsHostingThis, we’ve also looked at types of CDNs, easy integration in WordPress with W3 Total Cache, and we’ve compared some of the larger content delivery networks.

CloudFlare is a new CDN that won the “Most Innovative Company” award at a recent TechCrunch Disrupt. It accepts all of the traffic to your site and queries your server just for dynamic content. This reduces the traffic that your server has to deal with.

It’s a win-win: your site loads faster, hogs less processing power and is more secure. Best of all, it’s free.

What Makes CloudFlare Special?

CloudFlare is a unique CDN service. It provides critical features of which none of the other major providers currently match.

  • It increases security by blocking some types of hacking attempts.
  • There’s no need to change code or upload content.
  • If your server should go down, CloudFlare can keep a cached copy of your site online for visitors to read. Functionality is limited, but it is much better than having your site go down completely.
  • It offers a good analytics package that provides accurate traffic data.

CloudFlare’s basic account is free. A Pro account costs $20 per month.

Pro users get additional security layers, a website pre-loader and more frequently updated statistics.

Any website can use CloudFlare without plugins or coding changes. It isn’t a service that your site links out to. It’s a service that sits between your server and your visitors.

How to Set Up CloudFlare

Setting up CloudFlare is easy and can be accomplished quickly.

  1. Create a CloudFlare account and add a site.
  2. Fix your DNS. CloudFlare will scan your site’s DNS settings and attempt to save existing records. This takes about a minute and works for most sites without complex DNS. CloudFlare lets you verify the results.
  3. Enable or disable CloudFlare’s service on any of your site’s subdomains. You should disable it on subdomains where you aren’t hosting a public-facing site, such as your cPanel subdomain
  4. Log into your domain registrar’s control panel and change the nameservers to the ones it provides.
  5. Wait for the DNS changes to propagate.

If you use Google Apps, take care during setup and ensure CloudFlare doesn’t make any unwanted changes.

How Well Does it Work?

In an informal trial, my site was running without any caching. Only a few elements hardcoded into the template were being pulled from a CDN. According to Pingdom Tools, if you discard outliers, the site was loading in an average 3.5-4 seconds. A respectable time, but not great.

After switching to CloudFlare, my loading time improved to an average of 1.7-2 seconds, cutting load times in half. Google Webmaster Tools recognized this too, estimating that the change shaved about 2 seconds off of my site’s loading time.

I’ve also noticed a drop in my server load, even though my other traffic statistics have held steady through the transition.

Should You Use CloudFlare?

CloudFlare sounds great on paper. But consider the downsides:

  • You must edit your DNS to point to CloudFlare’s servers. Some users won’t feel comfortable using servers not under their direct control.
  • Putting a third party between you and your server can add an extra layer of unreliability. CloudFlare can limit damage if your server goes down; what happens if it’s CloudFlare that has the outage? It should route traffic directly to your server – but will it?
  • CloudFlare launched less than two months ago, so it could eventually ditch its free accounts.
  • Trusting a new service is a bit of a gamble when it comes to uptime.

But if you decide CloudFlare is no longer for you, a simple DNS change reverses your decision painlessly. We think it’s worth a shot.

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