What Is A CDN? The Beginner’s Guide To Content Delivery Networks

Small business owners use content delivery websites to improve website speed and reduce cost. But there are dozens of providers. To choose the right one, you need real user opinions that show you how each company performs. Digital.com compiles genuine feedback from CDN users on Twitter. We provide ratings that help you decide on the right content delivery network for the most affordable price.

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Picking the Best CDN – Is There One?

If you’re running a small business, you need to purchase the right solution first time around so you can avoid the disruption of picking the wrong provider and having to switch. The table below shows you some of the best providers.

For more information about CDNs and how they can help your business, scroll down or use the navigation links to the left.

OrderCompanyMain featuresPriceMore
1CDN77 logo
CDN77
45 points of presence (POPs) spread across
North and South America, Europe, Australia & Asia
Seamlessly easy 3rd-party CMS integration e.g.
WordPress, Magento, Drupal etc.
Origin-pull, push, purge & SSL support
14-day "access all features" free trial
More features at cdn77.com
From 199.00
/month
Visit website
Read reviews
2MaxCDN logo
StackPath
(formerly  MaxCDN)
44 points of presence (POPs) & over 500 peering
partners & direct reach into over 90 countries
3rd party plugins for popular CMS like
WordPress, Joomla & Magento
Origin-pull, push, purge & SSL support
30-day money-back guarantee
More features at maxcdn.com
From 20.00
/month
Visit website
Read reviews
3KeyCDN logo
KeyCDN
187 global data center locations
Free Let's Encrypt SSL & custom SSL
100% SSD optimized edge servers
Free 30-day trial
More features at keycdn.com
From 4.00
/month
Visit website
Read reviews
4CloudFlare logo
CloudFlare
Operates out of 76 data centers around the world
Propriety technology Anycast route visitors to the
nearest data center
No charge for bandwidth usage
Free version of CloudFlare is available
More features at cloudflare.com
From 20.00
/month
Visit website
Read reviews
5CacheFly logo
CacheFly
35 points of presence (POPs) in 6 continents,
including 3 in Australia & 2 in the Middle-East
Created the worlds first TCP Anycast based
content delivery network
Origin-pull, push, purge & SSL support
14-day 2TB free trial & 100% SLA
More features at cachefly.com
From 245.00
/month
Visit website
Read reviews
6CloudFront logo
Amazon CloudFront
155+ ultra-fast edge locations worldwide
Integration with other Amazon Web Services
Simple pay-as-you-go pricing, only for usage
Origin-pull, push & SSL support
More features at cloudfront.com
Pay for what you use
Visit website
Read reviews
7incapsula cdn review
Incapsula CDN
45 global data center locations
Self-healing mesh network
Dynamic caching, machine learning-based
Free trial
More features at Incapsula CDN
Contact company for quote Visit website
Read reviews

What is a Content Delivery Network?

A content delivery network, or CDN, consists of a network of servers. Each server holds a cached copy of the media and files that are required to display your website.

For example, the network will hold copies of all of the images, videos, documents, and scripts that are loaded by a visitor’s web browser. That might include your product images and walkthrough videos; an essential part of the customer experience.

CDN Server Locations and Advantages

The servers in the network are spread around across different countries. Some CDNs have more than 100 datacenters working in tandem. When a user loads a page on your website, the CDN supplies the media from the server closest to them geographically.

Map showing CDNs

A CDN offers many advantages, but what does it really do to make your website’s job easier?. It will:

  • Reduce loading times for your small business website
  • Reduce demand on your web hosting account
  • Reduce the impact of traffic spikes on your site
  • Allows you to save money due to less strain on hosting plan
  • Secure servers to hold your data
  • The ability for your website to comfortably deal with dynamic or uncachable content
  • A lower possibility of downtime due to strain from high traffic volumes
  • CDNs mitigate against some of the most dangerous cyber attacks online
  • User monitoring to measure engagement

Any small business can sign up with a CDN and benefit from the speed and resource advantages. The price you pay for the service is usually much lower than the overage charge for bandwidth from your host. And in some cases, you can sign up free.

Using CDNs and Web Hosting Together

Many small businesses start off using shared hosting with ‘unlimited’ bandwidth. This sounds like a great deal. But check the fine print. Unlimited bandwidth may not be all that it seems.

Hosting providers have fair-use clauses that allow for ‘normal’ usage. If one of your products or blog posts goes viral, your blog is going to exceed those limits. The more people that are loading content from your server, the more your host will struggle with the load. Your site may be taken offline for exceeding the host’s fair usage clause.

Preventing An Overload With Charges

This is just one example of a scenario where a CDN could help. If you implemented a CDN before the viral post or product went live, the scripts and media associated with it would be distributed globally to many servers, instead of just one.

So as users hit your website, the CDN serves the content, lightening the load on your web hosting provider.

Sure, you may still incur overage charges for the increased bandwidth during the spike. But the CDN will help to keep your website online for longer, and maximize the bandwidth your host has provided.

Hosting Server Speed

Another factor is the speed of your web hosting server. A customer located close to your host’s datacenter will likely see fast load times. But a visitor located on another continent will see it load slower.

Again, the CDN steps in to help, because it can intelligently serve content from the closest location, making load times faster.

For small business owners, this is important, because a few seconds can make the difference between a completed purchase and an abandoned cart.

Types of Content

There are a number of different types of content that you can use a CDN to host or access. The two main types are static content and dynamic content.

Let’s compare the two in a simple format, before going into more detail:

The State of Content  Where is the Data Stored?  Editing Content  Examples 
Static Content  Non-changing On the page Easy-to-edit ‘About’ page of a company or organization
Dynamic Content  Constantly changing Usually in a database Development knowledge recommended Product Page of an E-commerce store

Static Content

Static content is information that can be sent over a CDN to the end user without the need for processing or modification. It doesn’t change and therefore, it is one of the most efficient types of content to send over a Content Delivery Network.

It can include your company’s images, CSS files, Javascript files and others.

Dynamic Content

On the other hand, dynamic content is information that changes regularly or content that changes depending on the end-user.

Dynamic Content
A blog post is another great example of dynamic content, due to some of the changing data. Screenshot via Digital.com

It is more power hungry, and more difficult to cache than static content. An example of dynamic content is a blog or an event listings page. It is important that your CDN handles dynamic content effectively so that users can view changing web pages at top speed.

What is An Origin Server?

An origin server is designed to respond to incoming Internet requests from clients. it is often used alongside an edge server or caching server.

This server can take on all the responsibility of serving up the content of a website, provided that latency is not a huge factor for your website. It is important that this functions well because it is the primary source of your website’s data

What is Round-Trip Time?

Round-trip time is a key factor for measuring network latency and the page loading times on your website. It is important to keep this figure low in order to ensure rapid responses between your website and other users on the internet.

Battle of the CDNs: MaxCDN vs. Akami vs. CloudFlare

CloudFlare, MaxCDN, and Akami are some of the market leaders in the Content Delivery Network field.

Each has unique attributes and the one that’s right for you depends on your business’s financial situation and the location of your website and your customer base. Important factors to bear in mind include server locations, pricing, and performance.

Without going into a biased comparison of all three, let’s just re-establish the 10 of most important advanced features of a functioning CDN for your website:

  1. Push functionality
  2. Pull functionality
  3. Origin shield
  4. Logging
  5. Cache control
  6. HTTP/2 support
  7. DDoS protection
  8. Customizability
  9. Diagnostics/Analytics logs of some sort
  10. Geo-filtering

So, Should I Use a CDN?

Yes. Every small business website will benefit from a CDN.

CDNs really do offer small businesses massive benefits. They improve customers’ experience. They give your search engine rankings a boost. They help to protect your website, and they can reduce overage fees at your web host.

And let’s not forget that fast loading speeds are essential when working on conversion optimization. With so many free options, signing up is a no-brainer. And if you need more support, you can choose a paid plan. Our genuine user ratings should help you to avoid the hassle of making the wrong choice.

Further CDN Benefits

We briefly looked at the benefits of a CDN at the beginning of this article. In truth, there are some more hidden benefits that we haven’t yet discussed.

Search Engine Rankings

All business owners need to rank well for the keywords they want to focus on. Faster load times are just one of the factors that Google takes into account.

So the faster you can load your site, the more likely it is that your rankings will be good.

Anyhow, to wrap things up, some key additional factors you may want to consider when selecting a CDN are:

  • Conversions
  • Streaming media
  • Mirroring
  • Security

Conversions

Customers want sites to load fast. This applies on regular small business sites just as much as it does on an ecommerce site.

If pages load fast, there’s less chance the customer will be frustrated. You really want to avoid having a site that crawls, because when a shopper becomes frustrated, they’re going to try a competitor’s website to see if it offers a better experience.

Streaming Media

If you serve audio or video on your website, a CDN will help that content to load quicker.

For example, if you’ve invested in recording product walk-throughs, your customers will be able to load them without delay.

Better load times also tend to reduce buffering and ensure video quality is the best it can be. That gives the user a better experience, and it shows off products in a much more positive light.

Mirroring

CDNs distribute the same files over multiple servers in different locations. This is a built-in defense against downtime because one server outage shouldn’t bring down your entire website.

In fact, some CDNs mirror your entire site so that they can serve a cached copy during hosting downtime.

When taking this factor into consideration, ensure you do your research about the company’s datacenters, locations, and specifications. Most of this information is often available on their respective website.

Security

Many CDNs can protect your site against security risks from hackers and cybercriminals.

For example, they can automatically block suspicious traffic or limit access to IP addresses that you type in manually. Further threats include DDoS attacks, which your CDN provider can and most definitely should be prepared against, otherwise, you may want to re-evaluate your choice.

Are There Any CDN Risks?

Yes. The main downside of a CDN is that it creates a new point of failure. But don’t panic, as bad as this sounds, the explanation is really quite simple.

Your site needs both your host and your CDN to be online and functional (unless you have advanced caching in place.

Remember that CDNs are built for availability. So this isn’t likely to be an issue with a good provider. But it’s worth bearing in mind when you’re comparing one provider’s track record with another.

Reducing Load Time

The other disadvantage is a reduced loading time when the CDN doesn’t have enough servers in the most important places. For example, a CDN with lots of servers in Europe can’t improve load times for someone in Australia.

The only solution to this is to have a server in the target location – there is simply no way around it.

To negate this risk, you can compare CDNs and find one with servers in the locations where your customers are most likely to be located.

Feature Overview and Costs

By now, you’ll be getting a feel for the features that you’ll need from a CDN. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that will be right for every small business.

Review this list, and pick out the CDN features that are most important to you:

  • Support for high definition video streaming
  • Mobile delivery optimization, including AMP support
  • Analytics and reporting
  • Firewalls, security, and DDoS protection
  • Integration with rights management services
  • Free plans or trial periods

As we covered advanced feature lists and functionalities previously, there is a vast range of specifications to take into account.

How Much Should I Pay?

For a small business, a free CDN can be more than adequate for basic usage. As your site grows, you could always upgrade to a paid package. But many sites get by just fine with the basics.

Cloudflare Pricing
Cloudflare offer a variety of premium plans. Screenshot via Digital.com

If you want to skip right to the free CDN providers, take a look at CloudFlare. Or, if you feel you need more capacity and advanced features, look at these paid providers to get a feel for what they offer:

Of course, you may find a better option in our comparison table. So don’t hesitate to explore other CDN providers if you see a better fit for your business.

Frequently Asked Questions

Talking about CDNs is an incredibly broad topic, so we can’t possibly answer every question you have in a single page. Anyhow, we will attempt to cover the most obvious ones in the below section.

What problems do CDNs solve?

Often looked over by those who are unaware of their functionalities, CDNs are responsible for a variety of problem-solving tasks behind the scenes. In layman terms, some of them being are:

  • Reducing bandwidth
  • Improving availability
  • Processing times of receipt and delivery of data

In other words, CDNs are responsible for a huge part of your website’s overall efficiency.

Are CDNs helpful for mobile users?

Yes, CDNs are helpful for mobile users. Lag times can frustrate mobile users in particular, causing them to bounce away. According to research by Think with Google, “Fifty-three percent of visits are abandoned if a mobile site takes longer than 3 seconds to load.” Visits that bounce can translate into lost sales, lower engagement, fewer return visitors,  and can contribute to lower search engine rankings.

What is the best CDN for me?

There is no best CDN as a whole, although there is the best choice for YOU. It is entirely down to your website’s structure, as well as the host you’re with. Most importantly, however, the server locations of the CDN provider are paramount to assuring that your users have a seamless browsing experience.