Cloud-Powered Crowd: Cloudflare vs MaxCDN
The modern Internet moves at a breakneck pace; we live in an always-on, streaming-everything world that brings the World Wide Web not only to our PCs but our phones, tablets and televisions. Even as Internet connections grow faster and the content we consume becomes bigger, louder, and more richly-featured, so too do our expectations swell with regard to the speed of the ‘Net. “Yes, it’s fast,” we say, “but it could be faster.” For small business owners, these expectations can mean lost customers and revenue should customers decide their site is too slow and move on to speedier options.
Consequently, many business owners have opted to enhance their websites with a Content Delivery Network (CDN), a bolt-on service for existing websites that improves speed and site response for viewers by caching static (i.e., non-interactive) content in the cloud and delivering it as needed. CDNs are based on the idea that, online and off, distance affects speed. Let’s say (for example) you wanted to borrow a book from a friend who lived three states away. Your friend is willing to send you the book, but tells you his sister (who lives down the street from you) also has a copy you can borrow. You could wait for the book to wend its way through the mail to reach you, or you could have your book the same day.
“Wait” Loss: The Mechanics of CDN
Most folks would rather have their book the same day. That’s what a CDN does. Using the diffuse cloud network of machines all over the world, your content delivery network stores copies of information on your site that’s not likely to change (static content, e.g. archived media files or your “About” page), and then serves up the copy that’s geographically closest to the visitor requesting it. So if you’re selling widgets on your website in Washington but have customers in Warsaw, your Polish clients won’t have to wait for large parts of your site to load from across the Atlantic; they’ll receive a copy of compressed and cached content from a local server instead. Any interactive or customized content will still need to make the trek, but by preloading the static elements, you’ve a better chance of keeping the customer engaged and happily browsing your site.
All of this is accomplished by changing the Domain Name Server (DNS) settings of your website to those provided by your CDN (you’ll need to contact your domain registrar to do this). During the initial setup, your new CDN will parse your site for static content, and then begin compressing and caching it on servers all over its chain of servers in the cloud. Instead of accessing your site directly, visitors to your site are instead routed (invisibly) through the CDN, which instantaneously analyzes their request to determine their location and serves up the preloaded, cached content from the server nearest to them.
CDNs also provide an extra layer of security for your site by creating a “cushion” against denial of service attacks and other Web chicanery. Some even offer an additional Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificate to improve encryption and provide another layer of security for sensitive information such as customer financial data.
CDNs are not hosting providers, but many do offer both free and commercial plans that scale services and features in a manner similar to providers. Cloudflare and MaxCDN are two of the most popular CDN solutions on the market today.
With servers spread across North America, Europe and Asia, and currently boasting more than a trillion all-time hits, Cloudflare is an extremely popular CDN that didn’t set out to be one. Originally conceived as a security product, Cloudflare quickly became a de facto CDN when its clients discovered their websites were loading up to 40% faster a few days after they’d subscribed.
While known primarily for its free plan, the company also has Pro, Business and Enterprise plans available for a monthly fee. All four levels feature basic security enhancements and speed improvements, but starting at the “Pro” level, the feature set grows more robust.
Free Plan Features
- Improved site performance/load times
- Better site security via caching and filtering for email and Web traffic
- Visitor location information
- Traffic and threat monitoring
- Search enging crawler activity
- Outbound links
- Free email-based tech support
Pro Plan Features
The Pro plan ($20 a month for your first site, $5 for each site after) builds on the features of the free plan, adding:
- More robust security options
- Nearly real-time stats
- Mobile optimization
- SPDY acceleration
- SPDY (“speedy”) is a protocol that accelerates HTTP response and transport speed.
- Resource pre-loading
Business Plan Features
The Business plan ($200 a month, per site) adds:
- Advanced security options
- Railgun™ Web optimization
- Railgun is Cloudflare’s proprietary compression technology that allows for piecemeal caching and compression of hitherto “uncacheable” content
- 100% uptime guarantee for your site
Enterprise Plan Features
The Enterprise plan starts at $3,000 a month and adds:
- Totally customized server config with leading-edge security options (with consultation)
- A dedicated account manager and 24/7 support via phone and email
Cloudflare also offers (starting with its “Pro” plan) a service it calls “Cloudflare Apps.” Similar to the Fantastico or Softaculous installers included with many Web hosting packages, Cloudflare apps lets you add functions and features to your site (e.g., contextual search, games, advanced analytics) with a single click.
You can mix and match different plans for different sites you own and manage them all under a single Cloudflare account. If, for example, you had a personal blog, a hobby site and a site for your business, you could add the free plan to your blog and invest in the more advanced Pro and Business plans for your other sites while managing them all from your Cloudflare control panel (and paying only a single bill each month). Cloudflare does not charge for the bandwidth consumed by your site’s traffic.
While Cloudflare has grown to become one of the world’s most popular “accidental” CDNs, Max CDN has achieved similar success in a very intentional way. This commercial CDN (no free version is available) spans 90 countries and boasts 13,000 businesses around the world as clients, including heavy hitters like Garmin, StumbleUpon and Disqus.
Like Cloudflare, MaxCDN has multiple tiers of hosting, each one building on the features available in the tiers below it. Unlike Cloudflare, however, MaxCDN’s billing structure is based on total bandwidth handled by its servers for your site. While this does create an additional monthly cost, the expense is mitigated by the reduced bandwidth required by your site due to caching and compression. Also unlike Cloudflare, MaxCDN is promoted as both a standalone CDN solution and a support product for other speed enhancements and CDNs (in fact, many business owners choose to install both services on their sites for optimal performance).
All of MaxCDN’s plans feature a 30-day money-back guarantee, real-time analytic reports, and 24/7 support via phone, email and chat.
Start Plan Features
The “Start” plan ($9 a month) is MaxCDN’s most basic option.
- 100 GB of monthly bandwidth
- Support for two websites
- Bandwidth overage fee: $.08/GB
Plus Plan Features
The “Plus” plan ($39 a month) builds on the Start plan.
- 500 GB of monthly bandwidth
- Support for three websites
- Bandwidth overage fee: $.07/GB
Business Plan Features
The “Business” plan ($79 a month) adds:
- 1 TB of monthly bandwidth
- Support for five websites
- Bandwidth overage fee: $.06/GB
Premium Plan Features
The “Premium” plan ($499 a month) is the most robust standard plan and features:
- 10 TB of monthly bandwidth
- Support for ten websites
- Bandwidth overage fee: $.05/GB
All of these packages can be upgraded with Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and other advanced security options for a fee. Additional monthly bandwidth can be purchased in chunks of five or ten terabytes for $225 and $425, respectively.
In addition to their standard packages, MaxCDN also offers high-volume and enterprise packages that are “pay as you go” and have capacities up to three petabytes (that’s three million gigabytes, or roughly enough bandwidth to transmit forty years of HD video). Additional setup fees do apply, so be sure to get all the details before taking the plunge.
Whether you’re running a small online storefront or serving thousands of customers a day through your enterprise-level site, adding a CDN is a great way to boost performance, strengthen security, and improve customer retention. And regardless of which product (or combination of products) you choose, connecting with the cloud just might make for some very sunny days ahead.