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What You'll Learn
In the summer of this year — 2018 — Google will start to factor page speed in its mobile search rankings. You need to be prepared for that.
We're already in an era where one additional second in website loading speed — or site downtime due to a hack — can cost you a significant loss of sales or visitors.
In this article, you'll learn what Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are, and how they work to optimize your site's speed and availability.
We'll look at CDN-related security protections including those designed to thwart DDOS attacks.
I'll explain how to factor in speed optimization issues when you are in the design and development phases of a website project.
And I'll share a few personal recommendations for top web hosts that offer CDNs built into their plans.
What is a CDN?
What did you do last night? Did you surf the web? Did you binge-watch the new season of Stranger Things?
Did you rock out to some streaming tunes?
If you did, a Content Delivery Network was likely serving up your favorite content behind the scenes.
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a service that provides storage and hosting of static web assets (files) such as images, videos, scripts, and sometimes entire websites.
Content Delivery Networks greatly enhance the speed and availability of websites, applications, and APIs.
On the left: a site is served to individual visitors from a CloudFlare CDN datacenter geographically close to them. On the right: a traditional hosting provider serves the same site from a central location, resulting in longer site loading times. (Image courtesy of CloudFlare)
This provides a better experience to website visitors and potentially reduces costs for website owners.
If you're using popular websites like Google, you are most likely interacting with a content delivery network (CDN) on one of the company's main web servers.
How Does a CDN Work?
Whatever happens on the server, no matter what kind of Content Management System or database-driven web application is running, almost all websites provide the same thing to a web browser: an HTML file, one or more stylesheets and scripts, and media assets such as images.
The servers that actually handle user requests are known as edge servers. CDNs have vast armies of these servers.
They use load-balancing techniques to identify where a user is and direct them to a server that's close to them.
What Happens When You Go to a Website that Uses a CDN?
When a user navigates to a website, the CDN uses the user's public IP address to determine their location.
The CDN then redirects the user to the server that's closest to them. This process is transparent. As far as they're concerned, they're accessing a website directly.
These are not all sent to the web browser as one single package.
The HTML document being requested by the browser is the first thing to be sent. It contains links (URLs) to the other files which are needed to completely render the website for the end user.
Typically, even in a dynamically generated site, most of these additional files are static — that is, they are not dynamically generated, but rather are created once and stored on the server.
Should I use a CDN?
Those static files — whether they are images, stylesheets, or JS scripts — do not need the processing power or the PHP interpreter of your web hosting account.
In fact, a web server that is designed to take in requests and process them through a Content Management System may be slowing down their load time.
What are the Benefits of Using a CDN?
CDNs — Content Delivery Networks — store these files on their servers, and deliver them to web browsers as needed, without any load on your server.
This has a number of benefits:
- Faster media load times
- Faster page load times
- Reduced file sizes
- Reduced server load
- Greater SEO
- Greater user engagement
Let's look at these in more detail.
Load time of individual assets
CDNs are optimized for fast delivery of individual files.
Your hosting platform is optimized for two completely different things:
- Processing of dynamic web pages
- Ease of use for website owners.
CDNs use incredibly fast Solid State Drives (SSDs) and have very fast connections to the internet.
CDN server software is optimized for speed above all other things.
They place datacenters in geographically opportune locations to ensure the shortest network path between assets and browsers.
On a file-by-file basis, they are almost always much faster than your typical web hosting plan server.
This video from CloudFlare, a leading CDN provider, explains the top performance problems for websites, apps, and APIs.
Load time of entire page
Even if the individual asset load time was the same, CDNs would improve overall page load time because they allow multiple files to be delivered to a browser simultaneously.
On your single server, if requests for ten different pictures for a page are made, each one has to finish before the next one can begin loading.
CDNs provide parallelization of content loading, which enhances overall page load time.
Optimization of file formats: Most web assets are larger than they need to be.
Many CDNs will further speed up load times by reducing the size of files as much as possible.
Images can usually be compressed without losing any quality.
Optimization of transfer methods
Files can be zipped (Gzip) before being sent to browsers, and most CDNs take advantage of this.
Two Google webmasters explain how Gzip compression works.
Additionally, the new SPDY transfer protocol (created by Google) is much faster than traditional HTTP/HTTPS communication.
Decreased server load
HTML files don't take up a lot of bandwidth. If the only thing your web hosting server is doing is compiling HTML files from PHP or Ruby scripts, and all the other assets are being served by the CDN, your site can handle a lot more traffic. This saves you from paying for bandwidth and CPU cycles or upgrades to larger plans.
These CDNs have lots of servers placed in exchange points, colocation facilities, even in local ISP offices.
Since users are accessing these services rather than the main servers, these sites can be more reliable than if they tried to host everything on central servers.
Search Engine Optimization
The cornerstone of SEO is excellent content. However, the technical aspects of website implementation play a factor.
One of the more important things that affect a site's ranking is page load time. Google wants the internet to be as fast as possible, so that reward faster websites.
Increased User Engagement
If a user has to wait for a page to load, they might simply leave before its finished.
But most websites aren't so slow that this is a serious problem. However, a slight lag in load times — even a few hundred milliseconds — will cause a user to click on fewer links and explore less of your website.
The slowness has a subconscious effect that limits how much of your site the user wants to wait for. Increased speed increases a user's willingness to see more pages of your site — it lowers the cost of each individual click.
DDOS is a Distributed Denial of Service attack.
It happens when hundreds or thousands of requests for are sent to a web server all at once, with the intention to overwhelm the server.
This short non-technical video will help you understand how CDNs boost the security and availability of your website.
Some CDNs actually act as your front-line DNS record, which means that all requests go through the CDN before being sent to your hosting server.
In this case, the CDN can also monitor traffic and assess threats like DDOS attacks and then deny requests associated with those attacks.
Not all CDNs provide this service, but many do.
Content Delivery Network Providers
There are several major CDN providers, each with a specialization.
Some focus on the content itself, while others try to keep a site up in the face of DDoS attacks.
Instantly provisioning and purging content
Content delivery, cloud computing
High-performance content delivery
Use An Existing CDN or Build a Private CDN?
If you want to build a network, you're going to have to choose between building out a CDN of your own or choosing a CDN from an existing company.
You can get the can the kind of network you want by placing servers where you want them, but you have the expense of building these servers, configuring them, placing them and maintaining them.
There are several reasons why you'd want to go with an existing provider:
- It's a lot cheaper to hire a CDN provider
- Servers placed around the world make them more effective
- They negotiate with major players, like ISPs, to place their servers
- It is impossible to establish this kind of network easily, quickly, or cheaply
In addition to the existing CDNs, telcos are constantly building their own CDNs.
Since this is where most people get their internet access from, it makes a lot of sense for telcos to implement their own CDNs. They have the resources and money to build out their own networks.
The bottom line is that with all the preexisting networks available, it doesn't make as much sense to build a private CDN unless you're like Netflix and move a lot of bandwidth-heavy content.
Designing Sites for CDNs
At the design and code level, you should be thinking about whether you'll need a CDN.
Other tools available over CDNs include Telerik RadScriptManager.
Using jQuery with a CDN
It's possible to use jQuery with a CDN.
A web developer simply includes a version of CDN hosted by the provider instead of in the main page.
This short video from Women's Coding Collective shows how easy it is to run jQuery from the Google CDN.
The obvious advantage is that developers don't have to worry if a particular server has the right version of jQuery is installed.
With so many different servers, you can see how problems can arise from requesting data.
Push VS Pull Content Caching
There are two major strategies for caching content on a CDN. A CDN can simply cache content that's popular, known as "pull," or it can be preloaded with content popular in a region, or "push."
This is the approach that Netflix takes with its Open Connect appliance that it places with ISPs.
What Content Should You Cache?
The biggest candidate for a CDN is content that doesn't change much, like the design of the web page itself.
Even though a site like Wikipedia will still have a lot of access to its central database servers, having the initial entry through a CDN still substantially speeds up loading times.
Choosing a CDN Hosting Provider
So, what CDN host should you choose? More hosting providers are advertising CDNs as a feature.
The simple reason is that they want to keep websites loading efficiently.
They either build a CDN or partner with a free CDN like CloudFlare to offer this service.
Some CDNs are included in the price of the hosting service or as an add-on.
The CDN is only one part of web hosting, even though it's an important one.
Since you're likely concerned about reliability if you're thinking about a CDN, you should look at what kind of support they offer. Also look for uptime guarantees.
The greatest CDN in the world is no good if your site is down.
With the vast amounts of traffic that major modern websites deal with, CDNs are an increasingly essential part of internet infrastructure. Since a business's reputation depends on its website, any downtime is unacceptable.
A CDN, by spreading the server load across the world, will keep your website up even under heavier-than-expected loads.
Points to Remember When Choosing Hosting for a CDN
Wherever you go on the web, a CDN is usually behind the scenes giving you your favorite content.
Whether an established provider like Akamai, or whether a company like Netflix is building out its own network, CDNs bear much of the load of serving up content that increasingly media-hungry customers want.
There are several reasons for this:
- CDNs deliver content quickly and reliably
- They reduce the load on your servers
- They offer a measure of protection against DDoS attackers
- They encourage greater user engagement by reducing load times
- Faster sites get higher rankings in Google search results
Top Hosts for CDNs
Even though it's easy for customers to pair up with a CDN on their own, hosting providers are increasingly offering CDNs as a feature for their websites, from basic shared hosting plans all the way up to advanced cloud plans.
The CDN is either included in the price of service or available as an extra.
Here are my top picks for hosts that offer CDNs.
Siteground is an example of a hosting provider that offers a CDN with its plan. The CDN is powered by CloudFlare and integrated into its hosting panel
Image via Siteground website
Plans start at only $3.95 per month for shared hosting. The company also claims 99.9% uptime.
Bluehost also offers CloudFlare protection.
Image via Bluehost website
iPage is another host that has a CDN thrown in. Their CDN is handled through Sitelock.
Image via iPage website
The company also has two monitored datacenters with 24/7 support. iPage is geared toward less experienced web developers. Shared hosting plans start at $1.99 a month.