In this article, we’ll cover how CDNs work before diving into one of the world’s leading CDNs: Cloudflare. You’ll learn how easy Cloudflare is to use and what technologies account for its outstanding performance. Furthermore, you’ll learn what to look for in a CDN host.
And I’ll share a few personal recommendations for Cloudflare hosts to help get you started in your search.
Cloudflare is a company that provides the combined services of a Content Delivery Network and a Domain Name Server (DNS).
These two technologies working in parallel provide increased speed and performance to websites, as well as protecting them from a number of security risks such as Denial of Service (DOS) attacks
The Cloudflare CDN bills itself as the “Next Generation” of Content Delivery, because of its unique set of features.
How Does a CDN Work?
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a network of servers that are distributed geographically throughout the internet.
Its purpose is to serve static web assets (images, script files, cached pages, and media) with as much speed and availability as possible.
What’s the Difference Between Static and Dynamic Content?
To understand a CDN, you first have to understand the difference between static and dynamic content on a web page.
Static content is the content on a site that rarely changes. Examples are the header and sidebar of a social media feed.
Dynamic content is the content that is changing and moving. This content may display differently to each person viewing the web page, or it could change with the time of day.
For example, the posts from your followers on your Twitter feed would be considered dynamic content.
Why is Website Loading Speed so Important?
A CDN solves the issue of latency. This is the delay it takes for a page to load when it is requested.
Higher operational costs, lower conversions, and revenue loss are among the impacts of site loading delays. This Cloudflare video explains why even a 2-second delay can impact your venture negatively.
A website’s page load time is extremely important to its overall performance. First, research shows that most people will leave a website if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load.
Second, a faster load time will help your website rank more favorably on Google. This is because Google’s algorithm takes load time into account when ranking websites in search results.
What Factors Affect Website Loading Times?
There are many things that can affect the load time of a website. Such as, having a lot of images or multimedia files to load, or having a website full of dynamic content.
The relevant factors will vary from website to website. But, there’s one thing that affects the page load time for all websites.
This is the geographical distance between the internet user requesting the website and the location of the server that is hosting the website.
This graphic illustrates the increase in speed that is possible when a website is served from a location geographically close to a user. Image courtesy of Cloudflare.
This is where the CDN comes in. A CDN has Points of Presence (PoP) all over the world. These are datacenters that contain servers.
When you enable a CDN for your website, the static content of your site is cached in these PoPs. Then, when a web user requests your website, they receive the static content from the PoP that is closest to them.
This speeds up page load time immensely for both static and dynamic websites.
Cloudflare’s Technologies: Optimizing Speed and Performance
Several factors influence the overall speed and performance of a Content Delivery Network, and Cloudflare has taken steps to optimize each one.
Argo smart routing
1. Anycast network
Cloudflare’s edge servers, the physical machines that actually store content before delivering it to your users, are distributed across the globe, at key locations near major internet hubs.
This network, called the Anycast network, currently comprises 138 datacenters spanning 58 countries.
2. Server Hardware
Cloudflare’s physical server hardware is some of the fastest available. Instead of buying commodity server hardware, they designed their own servers from scratch, selecting each component — from solid state drives to high-performance chips — with speed in mind.
3. Server Software
They also built their own web server software, which allows Cloudflare servers to process millions of requests per second.
SPDY is an internet transfer protocol that greatly speeds up HTTP. Premium Cloudflare customers have access to SPDY with no additional setup or configuration.
5. Argo smart routing
Argo is CloudFlare’s proprietary technology for routing. It uses an algorithm to monitor and make routing decisions based on the optimal paths available.
This is a proprietary Cloudflare protocol, widely adopted by web hosts, that uses uses techniques borrowed from video compression. Railgun can compress objects down to the byte level. As Cloudflare puts it, Railgun compresses “previously uncacheable web objects up to 99.6%.”
Cloudflare reports that the websites it serves load twice as fast after joining the Cloudflare CDN and that requests decrease by 65% while bandwidth decreases by 60%, on average.
Is Cloudflare Easy to Set Up?
Content Delivery Networks have been in use for over fifteen years, but only among major websites.
One of the reasons they haven’t fully caught on among small and medium-sized websites was the issues surrounding configuration.
Cloudflare has solved that problem through its distributed domain name server technology.
Using Cloudflare is remarkably easy. This video shows just how easy it is to deploy the technologies we’ve discussed in this article.
Setup requires only a small change in your own DNS, which allows Cloudflare to act as a reverse proxy.
This takes less than five minutes.
Once done, requests to your website are handled by Cloudflare and their optimized Content Delivery Network.
How to Enable Cloudflare from cPanel
Most hosting providers will include a CDN with your hosting plan. You’ll often have to enable this yourself from the cPanel control panel.
Here are instructions for how to enable the CDN from cPanel:
Log into cPanel: You can get here from logging into your hosting account on your host’s website. You may log directly into cPanel or you may have to search for a link to it.
Find the CloudFlare application in your control panel: This may be under “software,” “plugins,” “services,” or another relevant tab. Its location depends on your web host’s cPanel customization.
Click on CloudFlare, and activate it: Each individual hosting provider may have a different method of doing this. But they will likely make it very simple and intuitive.
If you need help, contact a support assistant from your host. Or check your host’s knowledgebase for a specific how-to article.
How do Cloudflare Page Rules Work?
Customers of CloudFlare can use their Page Rules feature to specify, with amazing granularity, what content is cached, how, and when.
This eliminates the inconvenient “frozen cache” problem that sometimes occurs when assets are being modified more rapidly than the cache is updated.
What is the CloudFlare Optimizer?
A Content Delivery Network gets web assets to visitors faster. A WCO, or Web Content Optimizer, improves the assets themselves, as well the way they load.
CloudFlare Optimizer improves page speed through a number of automatic adjustments, including:
Local storage caching
Cache header optimization
Asynchronous resource loading
This is done on-the-fly, without caching, so it works with dynamically generated content as well.
2. Local storage caching
Local storage caching takes advantage of the local storage capabilities of modern browsers and mobile devices.
3. Cache header optimization
This lets browsers know which resources to cache, minimizing overall requests.
4. Asynchronous resource loading
Asynchronous loading allows pages to display faster by eliminating the need for the page to wait for slower scripts before rendering HTML.
6. Browser optimization
Browser optimization adjusts the way content is delivered to specific browsers, to take advantage of the particular strengths and features.
7. Gzip compression
Gzip compresses assets to half their size without losing any data.
How Does Cloudflare Improve Website Security?
CloudFlare provides advanced security against a range of attacks such as SQL-injection and distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks.
CloudFlare’s system monitors traffic patterns across a large network and is able to identify and learn from each attack attempt, improving security over time for both your website and the entire CloudFlare network.
CloudFlare Security features are quite extensive, but they are also very easy to configure and use, thanks to their dead-simple security options:
I’m under attack!
CloudFlare also provides detailed threat reports, telling you who is attacking and how (and how they were stopped).
Does Cloudflare Offer SSL Certificates?
In addition to a CDN, CloudFlare also includes free SSL certificates. You’ll be able to enable HTTPS on your website with one click from your control panel.
SSL certificates are essential for e-commerce websites and enhance your search ranking no matter what kind of website you have.
With an SSL certificate, visitors’ trust in your website security will increase when they see the secure seal in the address bar, making them feel better about entering payment information on your website.
But if you want private SSL certificate for added security, you’ll have to get a dedicated IP address and purchase a certificate separately.
What Does Cloudflare Analytics Measure?
CloudFlare Analytics works in conjunction with your existing web analytics provider (for example, Google Analytics) to provide detailed information about your traffic in real time.
Information available through Cloudflare Analytics includes:
Traffic breakdown by category
Threats and Attacks
Detailed Threat Monitoring
Detailed Search Engine Crawler statistics
Outbound Link activity.
What Type of Plans Does Cloudflare Offer?
Cloudflare provides basic access to their Content Delivery Network and Security for free.
Premium features are available through their Pro, Business, and Enterprise plans.
Cloudflare is completely free and included with most hosting plans. It can be easily enabled from your hosting account control panel. The service even allows you to save on bandwidth resources due to caching.
Websites using a CDN load at a faster speed for people all over the world. Cloudflare can also block DDoS attacks. And, their services include a free shared SSL certificate for your website.
Changes made to the static content on your website may not update instantly because Cloudflare will continue to deliver the older, cached versions to site visitors. And, Cloudflare servers can become overloaded at times due to a large number of users.
In some cases, Cloudflare may slow down page load speeds instead of speeding them up. In this case, it’s easy to disable Cloudflare from your control panel.
My Top 3 Host Picks for Cloudflare
Let’s take a look at my favourite hosting providers, taking into account the needs for Cloudflare hosting.
Cloudflare is a company that provides traffic optimization and security services to websites.
The range of services offered by Cloudflare includes a content delivery network (CDN), website resource delivery optimization tools, protection against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, SSL certificates, firewalls, threat detection and blocking, DNS services, and more.
Will Cloudflare speed up my website?
Yes. Cloudflare will store static copies of your site on their CDN – a technique referred to as caching — which will speed up your website in two ways.
First, the stored files are static, so your visitors won’t have to wait while your web server creates them dynamically.
Second, the files will be hosted on Cloudflare’s global CDN – meaning customers will be sent the files from the server location nearest to their physical location.
Is Cloudflare free?
Cloudflare does offer a free plan with limited access to its most valuable features. For full access to all Cloudflare features, you’ll have to sign up for a premium account.
Is the free plan worth using?
Yes. The free plan offers access to the Cloudflare CDN, basic DDoS protection, and can be used to add a free SSL to your site – all valuable services that will speed up your site, improve site security, and improve your site visitors’ experience.
What is a content delivery network (CDN)?
Without a CDN, when a visitor reaches your website the website files are generated and delivered by your web server to the visitor’s browser. The farther the visitor is located from the physical location of your web server, the longer the files will take to be delivered.
A CDN hosts static copies of your website on many servers around the globe. That way, when a visitor reaches your site, the files are delivered from the nearest CDN server, meaning that the files are delivered more quickly.
What is a DDoS attack and how does Cloudflare help stop them?
A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack occurs when someone maliciously sends lots of fake traffic to your site to try and overwhelm your web server.
Cloudflare protects against this by spreading out the requests between all of the CDN servers and by also blocking hits from known sources of malicious traffic.
Should I use Cloudflare?
If you want to improve your website’s speed and deflect malicious traffic, then you should seriously consider using Cloudflare. For most websites, there’s simply no downside to using Cloudflare.
Why might I not want to use Cloudflare?
Since Cloudflare stores static copies of your website, if your website is updated on a very regular basis (many times per day) there may be issues where some visitors see cached (stored) copies of your site that do not contain the latest updates.
Although there are ways to work around this, and Cloudflare is designed to make this possible, you will probably need to hire a developer and possibly purchase a premium plan to get things properly sorted out.
Dynamic websites that are updated all the time may find it more beneficial to invest in premium hosting, DNS services, and specialized DDoS protection rather than a catchall CDN service such as Cloudflare.
How do I start using Cloudflare?
Cloudflare is integrated into the hosting control panels offered by many web hosts. The easiest way to set up Cloudflare is to use the Cloudflare setup tool included in your hosting account control panel.
Cloudflare isn’t integrated with my hosting control plan, can I still use it?
Yes. However, you’ll need to sign up by going directly to Cloudflare, and then follow along with their site setup instructions.
While manual setup is a bit more challenging that automatic setup through your hosting account control panel, as long as you have basic website and domain management experience you should be able to follow along just fine.
The final step in the process will be to point your domain at Cloudflare’s nameservers. That way, all traffic to your site will funnel through Cloudflare’s CDN.
Should I upgrade to a premium plan?
If you need access to features that aren’t included in the free plan, then you should consider a premium plan.
For instance, if you already have an SSL installed on your site that you’d like to keep using, then you’ll need a premium plan to integrate with your existing SSL.
Access to advanced DDoS protection, premium support, and web application firewalls are a few of the features you’ll get with an upgraded plan.
Can I use Cloudflare over HTTPS (with an SSL certificate)?
Cloudflare offers a free SSL to all customers. If you already have an SSL then you can set up Cloudflare to work with your existing certificate, but you’ll need to sign up for a premium plan to do so.
If you already have an SSL and want to switch to a Cloudflare SSL you will need to uninstall your existing SSL before setting up Cloudflare.
Will Cloudflare reduce the load on my web server?
Yes. Since Cloudflare stores copies of your site on its CDN, many visitors will be able to view your site without your web server doing a thing.
The visitors will simply see the static copies of your site that are stored on the CDN. Your web server will only have to process a request and send out a resource if a visitor requests a resource that is not stored on the CDN or anytime you update your site.
If your web server is struggling to handle the traffic to your site, setting up Cloudflare will reduce the load on the server and allow your site to handle more traffic.
About Ji Guo
Ji's background is in journalism, digital marketing, and internet startups. He has studied at various places, including Yale University. His work focuses on digital marketing, growth, and internet startups. He has written widely for publications including Newsweek.
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