What Is a CDN?

cdn network visualization

Time runs differently on the internet. A minute seems like an eternity, and website owners know that a lag that takes more than three seconds can be fatal to website traffic. It can kill conversion rates and ad revenue. In the early 2000s, people tried to improve loading times, strengthen website reliability, and heighten the level of security against hackers by making improvements to web hosting providers.

However, a new solution came to the market: A CDN, or a content delivery network. So what is a CDN, and how does it work?

A content delivery network refers to servers scattered worldwide, which work in unison to deliver website assets like scripts, videos, images, and stylesheets to people who access them at home. Even more than 20 years after its inception, the CDN remains one of the most popular content distribution tools available today, delivering data from websites like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

How CDNs Work

With many new terms added to the vocabulary of website building every day, it can be confusing which words refer to what. CDNs and web hosts both provide website owners with networks they can use, but they couldn’t be more different. CDNs don’t host content in the way that a web host does, although it does help cache content at the network edge, speeding up website loading speeds and stability.

Many businesses that struggle with slow-loading webpages attempt to expand their bandwidth allowances with their web hosts or sign up for a plan with better data transfer speeds. However, data from a distant server still needs to travel across continents, bounce off satellites, and go through underwater cables before reaching their international customers.

A CDN brings website resources geographically closer to the visitors through caches. Many web hosting providers, like Sitegroud, offer CDN with their mid-tier and high-end plans.

Why Use a CDN?

The benefits of using a CDN are fourfold: It shortens the loading times for your website, cuts down the cost of bandwidth, increases how much content you can push to your customers, and tightens up your website security. You may or may not experience all these benefits depending on your website’s location and where the nearest CDN server is to the customer accessing your content. You can host your website in Australia and still provide fast speed to your visitors in Canada for example.

  • A CDN can cache data that is most popular among users geographically. For example, if you run a car shop and sedans are popular in India and SUVs are favored in the U.S., a CDN can cache test drive videos, expert reviews, and customer ratings of sedans from a location in India. Another CDN server can cache SUV data from the United States.
  • A CDN will cut down on bandwidth costs by reducing the amount of data that an origin server will need to provide to customers. Content is cached, meaning people can access from a different server without the origin server doing anything. If your hosting plan has metered bandwidth, a CDN feature is heaven-sent.
  • A CDN will allow your website to push richer content onto your customers as it distributes your website’s load onto many nearby servers. Origin servers can host different websites at one time, putting massive stress on its bandwidth capacity. If all those websites use 4K videos, high-quality GIFs, and image-heavy webpages, origin servers can overload and crash without a CDN.
  • A CDN can bolster your website security by breaking up the traffic brought on by a DDoS attack into pieces and then routing them efficiently through many caches around the world. It also offers optimizations to your existing security certificates and much, much more.

What Are the Top Three CDNs?

Top 1: Cloudflare

Cloudflare is ubiquitous in the world of website hosting, as many web hosting providers bundle them with even their low-tier offerings. However, the level of performance and features Cloudflare provides is anything but plain.

Cloudflare is user-friendly and feature-rich, with a no-frills setup that requires no technical knowledge of coding or CDNs. After configuring your DNS to use Cloudflare, it will automatically cache your website resources onto the nearest servers. It also has a ton of other added features:

  • Support for HTTP/2, IPv6, and REST API
  • Vulnerability scanner
  • Smart image optimization
  • Bot and spam blocker

Top 2: Fastly

Cloudflare edges out Fastly just because of its user-friendly interface. Fastly has most of the features Cloudflare offers, but it’s much more configurable. You’ll need a working knowledge of CDNs and a bit of coding experience to utilize all of its features.

  • SSD storage of 24 terabytes
  • Image optimizer that reduces the size of images, allowing webpages to load faster
  • Varnish Configuration Language allows expansive control over content delivery

Top 3: KeyCDN

KeyCDN is a budget player that punches above its weight class. Its setup process is simpler and more streamlined than Cloudflare’s, and you can enjoy a free 25 GB plan if you want to test it out. KeyCDN doesn’t promise bleeding-edge performance, but at less than half the price of premium CDNs subscriptions, you’ll get what you pay for and more.

  • IPv6 support
  • Origin Shield, which helps you configure which server caches what type of data
  • Block Referrer that blacklists spam websites

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