Web Hosting 101: An Intro to CDN Services

CDN. You might have heard the term from your hosting provider, or run across it while looking up ways to improve your site’s performance. CDN stands for Content Delivery (or Distribution) Network, and it’s widely endorsed as a tool for speeding up your website and shoring up its reliability.

Many web hosts don’t bundle CDN services with their plans by default, though. If you want the promised benefits of CDN, you’ll often have to pay extra. The question is: Are CDN services worth your money?

Most marketing blurbs would have you saying yes immediately. Here at Comparakeet, we want to help you be a more discerning web user. In this handy guide, we’ll walk you through the basics of CDN and help you figure out whether or not CDN services are the best move for your website–and your wallet.

How a CDN Works

Have you ever sat in front of your computer, tapping an impatient dent into your desk as you wait for a webpage to load? That delay is called latency, and that’s what CDNs were built to reduce.

Why Latency Matters

If enough users encounter delays when loading your website, you’re bound to lose customers. Many studies point to page loading speed as a main cause of page abandonment. Customers want a website to load in a snap–so much so that, as early as 2012, Google started using page speed as a factor in its search result rankings. The Aberdeen Group released a popular study around the same time that noted how a 1-second delay in page loading time “equals 11% fewer page views, a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction, and 7% loss in conversions.”

The bottom line: Speed matters.

CDNs in a Nutshell

If you’ve read through our previous web hosting articles, you know that visiting a website entails data transfers from the website’s server to your computer. The speed of that transfer depends on many factors. A big one? Geographical distance between the server and your computer.

CDNs “reduce” that distance by synchronizing and storing copies of your data on multiple servers housed at strategic points across the globe. In short, CDNs solve the latency problem by making sure a visitor’s content comes from a server that’s closer to them.

Those servers are based in strategic locations called “points of presence,” or PoPs. (Sometimes, you’ll hear the term “edge locations” used as well.) For best results, most PoPs are data centers linked with large Internet service providers (ISPs), which in turn, tap directly into the Internet’s connective backbone. Since CDNs work by replicating your data, the PoP servers that house those data copies are often called “caching servers” or “edge servers.”

CDN providers operate networks of these PoPs. Signing up for a CDN service grants you access to use that network to distribute your website’s data. If a visitor from China tries to visit your US website, for example, a CDN service can transfer a copy of your site data from an Asia-based server. This shaves precious seconds off the page loading time that you’d have gotten if the data had been pulled from your US servers instead.

The Benefits of CDN

So what can a CDN do for you specifically? You already know that CDNs help speed up your website for visitors. Is that all you’d be paying for?

Short answer: No.

Consider the CDN’s networked nature. Having multiple copies of your data opens up a lot of possibilities. Since you’ve got numerous servers capable of serving up your website as needed, you can divide your site traffic across multiple points for more balanced work distribution. European visitors will pull data from EU-based servers, while a Singapore-based server might handle requests from Asian visitors. No one server will have to take requests from all over the globe.

This reduces your site’s risk of succumbing to the strain of heavy traffic, or even from DDoS attacks. You can even set your CDN to do this dynamically — adjusting the flow of traffic between servers, so that visitors don’t have to pull data from a busy source.

Given proper configurations, your CDN can also execute security measures that can filter out spammers, bots, and other requests that might otherwise clutter the load that your servers have to process. That, in turn, can save you precious bandwidth.

Should You Get a CDN Service?

In many cases, the answer is: Yes. Unless your websites caters to a narrow local audience, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of a CDN service.

There are tons of options out there, with prices running the gamut from hundreds of dollars per month to absolutely free. Many web hosts these days offer CDN services, often as paid add-ons for your hosting plan. For example, Bluehost, our top-reviewed web host, now offers CloudFlare CDN services free with every account. Other top choices like A2 Hosting offer CDN hosting plans, as well as basic CDN services bundled into their regular hosting plans.

With the rapid growth of the internet, most websites will cater to audiences from all over the world by default. Why not get a CDN to communicate faster and better?