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What is CDN? Content Delivery Network Explained

A content delivery network (CDN) is a group of servers set up in different locations to provide web content over a wide geographic area.

They’re also called “distribution networks,” and the idea is to offer several points of presence (PoPs) outside of the origin server. This enables websites to better manage traffic by handling user requests faster, providing an overall more satisfying experience.

You’re using a CDN every time you visit a high-traffic eCommerce website like Amazon or catch up with your friends on Facebook. These data centers keep the world connected by bringing content closer to the people who need it regardless of the geographic locations of individual users or the main website server.

By spreading the delivery systems out over a large area, websites can reduce bandwidth consumption and page load times, shaving precious seconds off the time it takes to handle multiple user requests.

Understanding Content

Before talking further about content delivery, we need to know what content is. It is any textual, auditory and visual element of a website: text, images, audio files, videos, and much more.

There are two types of content: static and dynamic. Content is called static when its original version (input) is what people actually see on the page (output). Simply put, it remains the same and unmodified. The server gives the same data to each user so that it is faster to deliver. The process is simple: a user requests a file from the web server, the server gives the file.

Dynamic content is any content that changes based on the input. It is personalized across pages, depending on user input. One example of dynamic content is a product page which consists of a product name, description, and price, including images. Another example is a web page which shows relevant information or records users’ interaction.

How Does a CDN work?

Cyberspace is a difficult enough concept for the average user to wrap their heads around. Sitting at your home in Anytown, USA, you type a request into a search engine or a web address into the URL bar, hit enter, and wait.

From some unknown location far away from you, your request is received. Billions of bits of information are distributed between to origin server and your computer or mobile device. This is hard enough to manage efficiently with static content. Most web pages contain hundreds of elements that range from plain text to interactive multimedia content.

Side by side comparison of the CDN Process

It only stands to reason that the closer you are to the source, the faster your request can be granted.

Requests are handled by whatever network server is closest to the computer making the query. By caching data and spreading multiple requests for the same information over a network rather than a single server, the traffic load is more balanced. This eliminates old school problems like slow page loads, crashed browsers, and service disruptions.

CDN Points of Presence explained, example showed on the world map

Benefits of Using a CDN

The benefits depend on the size your website, its location relative to your core traffic source, and the amount of traffic generated. For example, a local business with a physical location that serves one small geographic area won’t benefit much from a CDN.

However, if you’re an eCommerce business owner who needs a wider reach, or your website generates heavy traffic from diverse locations for whatever reason, then a fast, efficient CDN will help you retain your competitive edge and provide the kind of UX that search engines and customers reward.

There are four main benefits of using CDN servers. Each of these builds on the other to help mitigate the problems of managing complex content and servicing high-volume traffic.

Effective content distribution networks should accomplish the following four things:

  1. Reduce Bandwidth

One of the biggest expenses with some hosting services is bandwidth. Conserving the amount of bandwidth it takes to handle your traffic by multiplying your points of presence keeps your costs down.

This is achieved through optimization tools like caching, which places data into temporary storage on different computers or mobile devices for ease of access.

  1. Increase Speed

One of the biggest contributors to high bounce rates is latency. This is the increased time it takes to transfer information from user to source and back again, and it’s caused by:

  • Delays in reading files due to blocked storage
  • Delays in data processing from the server
  • Mode of data transmission, such as a fiber optic network versus coaxial cables
  • Propagation, or the speed at which data travels from one node to another

Many of these issues can be solved, or at least reduced, by using an effective delivery network.

  1. Improve Security

When all of the data transfer is conducted from a single server, it increases your vulnerability to malicious events like denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and other vulnerabilities.

These are coordinated requests for information that are conducted from multiple locations and users at an appointed time; they can also deploy automatically through bots. The purpose is to cause the server to crash due to traffic overloads in order to make a political statement or just for the sake of making mischief.

They can continue for hours or even days, making the website inaccessible to legitimate traffic. Using DDoS filters and spreading queries over several locations helps prevent artificially created traffic explosions.

You can even use your CDN to keep hackers out and protect your sensitive data. This is achievable because CDNs continually refresh TLS/SSL certificates, providing higher authentication and encryption standards. They also deflect traffic away from your original server to proxies.

  1. Improve Content Distribution

Heavy traffic loads combined with hardware malfunctions means more downtime than most websites can afford. By spreading the load over multiple content delivery systems, you’ll place less of a burden on your infrastructure and servers.

CDN Security chart, how it helps improve security.

Now, who really needs a content delivery network (CDN)? Here are the businesses that need a CDN:

  • E-Commerce
    Talking about E-commerce is talking about massive traffic from all around the world. The products are in a large variety, but the customers only have limited time. If the website fails to provide the information needed at a glance, countless opportunities can be missed. E-Commerce needs CDN to handle requests from many different locations. This is where CDN can show its advantage. By storing the content in the closest server and delivering a faster response, CDN can also prevent any spikes in web traffic so there will be no crash on the server.
  • Advertising
    When adapting to the digital world, advertising business uses multimedia-based ads. They are more attractive, informative and engaging. But, the problem emerges: multimedia needs more resources. The worst case scenario would be, a website with multimedia-based ads loading very slow. The slower the website, the more customers abandon it. Advertising businesses need CDN to solve this problem. As CDN stores cache content in the nearest server to the user, the content will load faster. The minimum load time can be maintained, and the performance of the website will be better.
  • Online Games
    If advertising needs high resources for content, online games need even more resources. This is the biggest challenge for the game industry: to keep delivering the best content but, at the same time, avoid poor gaming performance. CDN technology enables online games to have ‘push zones’ – a place where the developers can host the whole game on a CDN server. In this scenario, the need to request directly from the origin server is put at its lowest.
  • Entertainment
    Content is the heart of the media and entertainment industry. From downloading to streaming, entertainment content attracts millions of people around the world. Website owners provide such content to have a solid strategy to keep their websites running perfectly. Again, the CDN cached content is the savior helping to avoid disaster. The copies of the content stored in the multiple servers will be ready to requests from users based on their location. It will surely accelerate the handling of a content-based service.

Frequently Asked Questions About CDNs

If you’re a skimmer like many people these days, here is some condensed info in the form of an FAQ about CDNs.

How Does a CDN Make My Website Faster?

There are three ways that a solid CDN can increase your load times and overall speed.

  1. By distributing and storing diverse content types like images, text, and rich media files for faster access.
  2. By conserving bandwidth by serving content from several locations rather than pushing it all out from one server.
  3. By handling traffic spikes during peaks times like holidays or during national emergencies without disrupting service.

What Types of Websites Would Benefit from a CDN?

Any B2B or B2C website that has a user base outside of their immediate geographic location could benefit from a CDN. They’re also helpful for bloggers and websites that have a high traffic volume.

Are CDNs Secure?

Yes. Because they’re deployed at the edge of a wider network, they provide a secure buffer between your website, traffic, and any hostile actors. Think of your CDN as a security fence that surrounds the perimeter of your server network.

What’s the Difference Between a CDN and a VPN?

Content delivery networks speed delivery of information by sending and/or storing website content over a network of servers, allowing website visitors to access web pages from the closest available source.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) shield the user’s identity and use a range of servers in different locations to circumvent geographical and other restrictions on certain types of content. Both provide extra security and improve access, but for different purposes.

Are CDNs the Same as Hosting Services?

CDNs don’t host websites per se, but they can improve the performance of hosted servers by utilizing caching and other optimization methods to conserve bandwidth. They also improve speed and prevent problems like connection disruptions, lax security, and slow content delivery.

Content distribution networks can even work with your server because the hosting service provides you with a platform to host your main website, and a CDN provides the proxies to distribute it more efficiently. This serves visitors better while decreasing your cost of doing business.

Do CDNs Work with Mobile Devices?

They work with any desktop, laptop, or mobile device that can be connected to the internet. All of the processes are conducted from the source, not on the user end.

Are all CDNs the Same?

The popularity of CDNs and need for speed have caused a boom in the content delivery business. Like other types of service providers, not all CDNs offer the same level of service, benefits, or functionality.

Some CDNs are free, others are subscriber-based, and some offer both paid and premium service. Look into what larger providers like CloudFare have to offer.

What Should I Look for in a CDN?

A few things to consider are your budget and requirements, and that includes anticipated needs in the case of future growth.

Outside of these considerations, here is a list of features any good CDN should have:

  • Push/pull functionality
  • An origin shield
  • Logging
  • Cache control
  • Customization capabilities
  • DDoS protection
  • HTTP/2 support
  • Diagnostics, analytics, and reporting
  • Geo-filtering

The Bottom Line

Website ownership is all about gaining more traffic and managing it efficiently.

Research indicates that even a one-second delay leads to a 7 percent drop in conversions, an 11 percent drop in page views, and up to a 16 percent reduction in customer satisfaction (just ask Amazon.)

If you want to maintain your level of service as you grow your web presence, a reliable, scalable content delivery network is a worthy investment.

It will reduce the problem caused by latency and give your visitors the kind of speed, performance, and consistency they expect from a website in the 21st century.

The Author

Author

Suryadi K. / @suryadi

Suryadi, an avid content writer with years of IT experience, keeps on pursuing opportunities to engage with more people through articles about WordPress and other issues. During his free time, he enjoys playing Clash Royale.

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