Two weeks ago I announced that I had moved my personal blog over to CloudFlare, a CDN and site-caching service that works through your domain’s DNS to avoid the need for installation or configuration.
While my earlier writeup was a good overview of what CloudFlare does, it was very thin in terms of actual performance. I’d only been with CloudFlare for 24 hours and, though the potential was clear, I didn’t have any anecdotal experience.
However, after two weeks of constant use, I have a more even-keeled picture of CloudFlare; although the potential of the service stills shines bright, the reality of using it has dampened my enthusiasm a little.
A Quick Recap
To quickly reiterate: CloudFlare is a CDN and caching service that sits between a visitor and one’s server. To set it up, a webmaster simply creates an account at CloudFlare, points their DNS to the service and then waits as CloudFlare starts serving the site’s content.
CloudFlare does three things to help improve a site’s stability and security.
- Filters Threats: CloudFlare blocks malicious attempts to visit your site, preventing them from actually accessing your site.
- Passes on Requests to Your Server: CloudFlare passes any requests it can’t fill on to your server (eg. dynamic content or any form submissions). This greatly reduces the number of requests made of your server.
Best of all, CloudFlare is free for a basic account and only $20 for a pro account, which includes more advanced security features, more frequently updated statistics and a webpage preloader that prefetches common pages on your site for visitors to make subsequent page loads almost instantaneous.
So how well has it worked? The answer is kind of a mixed bag. Though I still have a lot of great things to say about CloudFlare, my opinions are tempered by a few weeks of usage.
Positives of CloudFlare
For the most part, CloudFlare has been working very well. There has been a marked speed improvement on my site and, 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.
All in all, the caching works well, is completely invisible and hasn’t required any maintenance on my part.
More interesting though is the amount of bandwidth and number of server requests that CloudFlare has saved me. We’re looking at about 60% of my requests and 40% of my bandwidth – making it a great tool for taking a load off of my server.
However, although CloudFlare has worked for the most part, it hasn’t been all easy riding. CloudFlare has a few problems and hiccups, and many are issues one would expect from a service still technically in beta.
The Problems With CloudFlare
As useful as CloudFlare has been for me over the two weeks, there’s no denying that it has had a rough past few days. On the 15th, the service experienced an extended period of downtime that lasted, as far as I could tell, for most of the day.
Of course, CloudFlare simply defaulted to passing through the traffic to the original servers, meaning that none of the sites that use it actually went down, even though I did notice a slowdown in my site’s loading time.
Though they were able to get the actual service back up, the statistics, as of this writing, remain offline despite what is now over three days of downtime. Considering I paid for the pro version primarily for the more frequently updated statistics, this has been disheartening, especially as various estimates times of restoration have come and gone without results.
Lastly, in a much more minor problem, on several occasions I wasn’t able to test my site with Pingdom Tools because CloudFlare treats the service as a spammer and blocks it from accessing my images. Though this issue now seems to be resolved, it was an intermittent problem for a while. Other site testing tools would likely have the same problem, especially if the user enabled the browser integrity check feature.
For the most part, these are minor problems haven’t damaged my site. The worst problems simply made my site perform the same as if CloudFront wasn’t there. This makes it a true “nothing lost” situation and that seems to pretty much be the case for the whole service.
So is CloudFlare worthwhile? A resounding ‘YES’ from me.
I notice the speed improvement on my site and Pingdom backs up my belief. However, my previous success with Google Webmaster tools has disappeared and a retest with Which Loads Faster didn’t show any improvements.
Though I have noticed a slight increase in pageviews, indicating visitors may be sticking around longer, it’s too early to tell if that is a seasonal change or the result of CloudFlare. All of this combines to make me wary of saying that the real-world effect of CloudFlare is that great, but it certainly hasn’t had any detrimental effect and the service, at the very least, has taken a large load off of my server.
CloudFlare is a worthwhile service, even if it may not be as revolutionary as it first seemed. I went ahead and signed up for a pro account, though I will reevaluate it in a few weeks to see if it is worth paying for another month. The CloudFlare team provides a great tool and, considering the power of the free service, it seemed worthwhile to support their efforts.
Right now though, it’s still too early to tell how great CloudFlare will be over the long term and the impact it will have. Though I am optimistic and excited, I’m also more realistic than I was a few weeks ago.
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