CloudFlare: Two Week Review Of the Free CDN

Personal skills
Two weeks ago I blogged about my move to CloudFlare.

CloudFlare is a CDN and site-caching service that you trigger by changing your DNS settings.

After two weeks of use, I can still the potential of the service, but the reality has failed to live up to my (admittedly very high) expectations.

Despite that, I still think CloudFlare has potential.

CloudFlare: a Quick Summary

CloudFlare is a CDN and caching service that acts as an intermediary between the site’s server and the visitor.

Setup is simple: create an account, point your DNS to CloudFlare and wait for it to propagate. CloudFlare starts to serve the site’s content with minimal demand on the server.

It also offers a few other benefits:

  • It blocks malicious attempts to visit your site, preventing those users from actually accessing your site at all.
  • It serves static content (such as images, JavaScript and CSS files) from its content delivery network: five datacenters on three continents.
  • It can also serve cached copies of pages should the original site go down.
  • It passes any requests it can’t fill on to your server. This might include requests for dynamic content or the results of form submissions.

The basic CloudFlare is free, and a Pro account costs $20. Pro includes more advanced security features, more frequently updated statistics and a webpage pre-loader for common page requests.

Positives of CloudFlare

In my small trial, CloudFlare has been working very well. There has been a marked speed improvement on my site. According to Pingdom Tools, the site loads in under two seconds on most tests. This is a respectable time for a very image-heavy site. The caching works well. CloudFlare is invisible and hasn’t required any maintenance on my part.

I haven’t had a server outage to test the site caching feature, but I found the CloudFlare statistics package to be impressive. Its figures are high compared to Google Analytics and WordPress Stats, but CloudFlare says its statistics are tied to actual traffic, not JavaScript loads, making them more accurate. (I’m guessing the true number lies somewhere in the middle.)

CloudFlare has saved me a lot of bandwidth, too. It’s taken over about 60% of requests and 40% bandwidth, so it has definitely lightened the load.

Negatives of CloudFlare

On the 15th of December, the service experienced an extended period of downtime. As far as I could tell, CloudFlare was down for most of the day. It did what it was supposed to do: it re-routed traffic to the original server. None of the sites that use it actually went down. As you’d expect, I did notice a slowdown in my site’s loading time.

But the statistics side of CloudFlare remains offline after three days of downtime. Estimated times for fixes have come and gone.

I paid for the Pro package because of the promise of better stats, so this is disappointing.

There’s also a minor problem relating to Pingdom. On several occasions, I wasn’t able to test my site with Pingdom Tools because CloudFlare treats the service as it would treat a spammer. Other site testing tools would likely have the same problem, especially if the user enabled the browser integrity check feature.

Finally, looking at speed tests, my proof in Google Webmaster tools has disappeared. A retest with Which Loads Faster didn’t show any improvements either.

But nothing catastrophic happened during the downtime, which is a good sign.

Is CloudFlare Worthwhile?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

I’ve noticed an improvement in speed, and Pingdom backs up my findings even if other tools don’t.

My statistics also indicate visitors may be visiting the site for longer periods, but it’s too early to say if CloudFlare is the reason.

Perhaps it hasn’t made a massive difference, but it certainly hasn’t had any detrimental effect. The service, at the very least, has taken a load off of my server, but it’s important to be realistic about what it can do.

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Discussion

One Comment to “CloudFlare: Two Week Review Of the Free CDN”

  1. Thanks for the very candid review!

    I do apologize for the issue with stats, something that should be getting better over the next week (a recent hardware upgrade is taking much longer than expected – so some of the data will slowly trickle in).

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