What are Content Delivery Networks?

March 23rd, 2012 @ 11:02 am

We’ve talked about how important it is to speed up your website in a previous post, but we only briefly mentioned one of the best methods of doing so: Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). CDNs are networks of servers that supplement the power and resources of your host and serve data faster than normal, resulting in a more fluid and responsive user experience.

How does CDN Technology work?

Content delivery networks are more efficient at serving content than traditional servers alone because they operate on a large infrastructure with many nodes, servers, and access points in a variety of different locations. When a user requests data from your website, the CDN chooses the most opportune server and node to serve the information as efficiently as possible depending on a variety of factors (geographical location, server load, content type) as opposed to serving everyone from the same central server. Think of it as sort of a ‘cloud’ implementation to your hosting server- your content is being distributed by a more nebulous and widespread network of servers that improve your site’s reliability as well as its speed and efficiency.

CDNs make use of the cache feature that many web developers are familiar with- while caching can be done on your own host server to speed up load times it can also be implemented with a CDN so that your most popular pages have copies stored on the whole network. This means that the requested data hops through fewer nodes than it normally would and is served directly from the CDN to the user instead of referencing your host server first.

CDNs operate in different ways depending on the provider and the client’s needs, one site may only need a CDN for their heavy bandwidth usage content like multimedia and games while another might want a more general setup that covers all their content- other users might want a CDN to handle downloads from a virtual goods store (Apple uses one for the iTunes marketplace). You’ll need to assess your needs and decide what setup is best for you- chances are if you just want to make your site snappier you can go with one the popular CDNs on their basic service.

CDN’s reduce the load on your own host server, meaning you’ll be using less of your own bandwidth and data. On the flip side, most CDNs will have you pay depending on the amount of bandwidth you use, which works out for most webmasters because more traffic means more income- so paying the CDN and hosting bills should be no problem.

CDN Providers

Assuming you don’t have any specialized needs and you just want to make your website faster (which you do- Google likes efficient sites) your best bet is probably to go with one of the more popular and established CDNs. Here are a few that you can’t go wrong with:

Cloudflare – Cloudflare is extremely popular and a very well performing CDN, they offer a free plan that’s super easy to set up and has impressive results so there’s really no excuse to not at least run Cloudflare if you don’t want to spend any extra each month apart from your hosting bill.

Amazon Cloudfront – This CDN provided by Amazon is known for its reliability and flexibility. It’s very easy to set up and understand and you are only billed for the data that you use. The performance is what you’d expect from a network as big as Amazons and it’s suitable for almost any type of content.

NetDNA – Some very big and recognizable brands are powered by NetDNA CDN such as Facebook, Garmin, Mashable, and Sitepoint. This is a great service especially for users who need to handle lots of traffic and big data loads, which is great if you are running web applications for your audience.

Which Hosting does it work with?

The great thing about CDNs is that they work with almost anything, you can set it up to work with shared, reseller, or VPS hosting and enable it for almost any web assets you plan on serving to visitors.

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