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What is Railgun by CloudFlare?
Railgun is part of a host of tools and services offered by CloudFlare that are designed to protect and improve the performance of websites. Webmasters looking to reduce load times for their websites, even those with dynamic content previously deemed "uncacheable," need to take a look at CloudFlare and Railgun.
Before getting into what Railgun is, and how it works, it would be prudent to first talk about who CloudFlare is.
Who is CloudFlare?
CloudFlare is an organization that aims to increase the speed and security of member websites by acting as a content delivery network (CDN) and distributed domain name server (DNS). CloudFlare owns a global network of servers. When your add your site to CloudFlare your website’s DNS is changed to point at the CloudFlare CDN, and the static contents of your site are cached on the CloudFlare CDN. When a visitor attempts to view your page the CloudFlare network serves up the webpage from the server that is geographically nearest to the visitor. By doing this CloudFlare saves the light-speed delays between your web server, and the visitor and serves up the website faster than it would have been served by your web server.
CloudFlare’s network also discriminates against certain kinds of traffic, and in doing so helps protect your site from spammers, SQL injection attacks, and DDOS attacks. By protecting your site from questionable traffic CloudFlare clears up additional bandwidth for unique visitors - the folks you are actually trying to reach - and provides them the snappiest performance possible.
CloudFlare doesn’t stop there. Since all of your traffic is routed through the CloudFlare CDN they are also able to provide detailed statistics about your site’s visitors. In addition, CloudFlare can install add-ons to your site code and implement apps like Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools, CodeGuard, Infolinks, and many more.
Now that we have a sense for who CloudFlare is we’re ready to talk about how Railgun fits into the picture.
What does Railgun by CloudFlare do?
As we mentioned, one component of the CloudFlare protection and optimization strategy is to route all website traffic through the CloudFlare CDN prior to reaching your web server. When you use CloudFlare all of the static content that makes up your website is stored on the CloudFlare network. This is how they’re able to speed up delivery of your website to users a long way from your web server. But what about the dynamic content? What about the content that has to be retrieved from your web server? That’s where Railgun comes in.
Railgun is an optimization technique that can be applied to the connection between the CloudFlare CDN and your web server. Railgun accelerates the HTTP connection between the CloudFlare server and your web server. When Railgun is enabled a permanent connection is opened between the CloudFlare CDN and your web server, and the web server only serves up changed content to the CloudFlare CDN. In doing so the vast majority of a dynamic website can be cached on the CloudFlare CDN while only the changes have to be retrieved from the web server, and since Railgun establishes a permanent, secured, and optimized connection, those changes are served up much faster than they would be over a standard TCP/IP and HTTP connection.
Sounds great right? So how do you get Railgun? Read on.
How do I get my website on the CloudFlare network, and how do I get Railgun?
In order to get Railgun you have to register for an account with CloudFlare and add your website to their network. The first step is to register with CloudFlare. There are two ways to do this:
- Go to the CloudFlare website and register, then add your website to your account.
- Go to your hosting account cPanel and check to see if they offer CloudFlare integration. If they do, register for an account through the CloudFlare interface and enable CloudFlare service to your website.
CloudFlare offers four levels of service. CloudFlare’s free plan will speed up your site using CloudFlare’s CDN, provide in-depth analytics, and offer lots of other great features. The next level of service, is the Pro level account. Pro accounts offer enhanced optimization compared to the free plan, as well as additional security features, more in-depth analytics details, and many more features.
In order to get Railgun you’ll have to skip over the free and Pro CloudFlare accounts in favor of a Business or Enterprise level account. At the Business and Enterprises levels you get Railgun along with many additional optimization and security enhancements.
As of May 2015 CloudFlare’s Pro account was $20 per month, the Business account was $200 a month, and the Enterprise account was $5,000 per month (on average, but a custom quote is required to purchase an Enterprise account). So if it’s Railgun you’re after, the starting price is $200 per month.
Alternatives to CloudFlare
If you like the idea of using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) to speed up delivery of your website to visitors, but aren’t ready to sign on the dotted line with CloudFlare, here are a few alternatives to consider:
- MaxCDN: A CDN focused on speeding up delivery, and it does that very well, but does not offer the security enhancements that CloudFlare does.
- Akamai: A CDN focused on delivering industry-leading performance and customer service with a focus on large businesses. Akamai has more Fortune 1000 customers than any other CDN, but does not have an offering for smaller customers.
- Incapsula: The CDN that most closely resembles CloudFlare. Incapsula offers both performance and security enhancements at price points that small and medium sized organizations can appreciate.
There are many other CDN’s out there, and if none of these seem to be exactly what you’re looking for there’s undoubtedly more options out there for you to consider.
Railgun Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
How do I add my website to CloudFlare’s network?
There are two ways to do this. The easiest way is to enable CloudFlare in your hosting account cPanel if integration with CloudFlare is offered by your hosting provider. If this isn’t an option just register for a CloudFlare account and they will walk you through the steps to get your site on CloudFlare’s network.
Can I use CloudFlare with my existing hosting provider?
Yes. CloudFlare basically acts as a gateway between a website visitor and your web server. If your current hosting provider doesn’t offer CloudFlare integration you can still use CloudFlare by manually adjusting the DNS settings in your hosting account. If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. CloudFlare will provide instructions on exactly what to do.
Can I get Railgun as a stand-alone service?
Railgun is a way of enhancing the connection between your web server and CloudFlare’s CDN. So Railgun wouldn’t offer any benefit as a stand alone service. In any case, Railgun isn’t offered as a stand alone product or service, it is only offered bundled with a CloudFlare Business or Enterprise account.
If I add my site to CloudFlare and then change my mind can I remove my site without too much trouble?
Removing your site from CloudFlare is not difficult. If your hosting provider offers CloudFlare integration you can remove your site using the CloudFlare interface in your hosting account cPanel. If your hosting provider does not offer CloudFlare integration you’ll have to manually change DNS settings, and your hosting provider should be able to help you with that. Make sure to wait at least 24 hours after changing your DNS settings prior to removing your website from your CloudFlare account to make sure your website is never unavailable during the transition from CloudFlare’s CDN back to your hosting provider.
Are there any concerns with using CloudFlare?
One concern you’ll see expressed online from time to time with regard to CloudFlare is concern that the way it chooses to control and limit site access in the interest of minimizing security risks could potentially cause an issue for a limited number of legitimate users. If CloudFlare misidentifies a legitimate user as a spammer or part of an attempt to circumvent site security it could block access to the site. These concerns do not appear to be widespread, and will present themselves with any sort of service that aims to cut down on DDOS and SQL injection attacks, but they are worth being aware of in the event that a website visitor contacts you about a problem.