What Is a CDN? How Does it Work?

Mohammed Emran /
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In the early 2000s, it was common for users to wait a long time for a website page to load. The Internet was slow and not advanced enough yet to run on faster speeds. 

In fact, unless it was absolutely necessary to view a particular website, most people would tire of waiting and walk away from their computer monitors altogether. 

Though Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) existed back in the 90s, they were not common enough for people to know how to use them or to know they existed. 

CDNs were created to alleviate all the server traffic that makes the loading of website pages slow. 

During the late 90s, there was an increase of users on the web. More people were buying their own desktop computers and teenagers couldn’t wait to log on to AOL Instant Messenger to talk with their friends.

All these factors started making the Internet work slow. Even now, despite the fact that people can enjoy Internet speeds surpassing 100Mbps, the need for CDNs is still prevalent in today’s digital age. 

If you’re a business owner and you’re worried about potential customers not being able to view your web content because it’s slow to load, is it worth looking into getting a CDN for a little extra boost?

How much will this extra service cost? 

Here’s all you need to know about CDNs to help you make the best decision for your business.

What Is a CDN?

As previously mentioned, CDNs started popping up in the late 90s. Business websites were becoming a thing and business owners were using them more to promote their products. Needless to say, the loading time of a website became critical. 

In simple terms, a CDN is a group of network servers distributed along different geographical locations to help ease Internet traffic. A CDN is helpful because it aids content distribution, which decreases latency issues when loading a website. 

The location of a CDN is crucial to this entire process because it’s basically bringing the content closer to strategically placed Points of Presence (PoPs), accelerating loading times of webpages and being able to reduce bandwidth consumption. 

The other reason a CDN helps with loading times is because they help with transferring assets that are needed in order for a web page to load. For example, they help with transferring HTML pages, JavaScript files, images, and videos. 

Believe it or not, most of the websites that you probably frequent, like Netflix or Amazon, have a CDN in place to help facilitate browsing and streaming. Not only have CDNs grown in popularity, they’re also pretty cool. 

Are CDNs the Same as a Web Host?

No, they are not. 

While CDNs can help deliver content, they cannot replace actual web hosting. 

A CDN is there to improve the performance that’s already in place. They help deliver whatever information you are trying to convey through your website, therefore enhancing the experience of the user that’s on it. 

Remember, CDNs help reduce the hosting bandwidth, which greatly helps reduce interruptions to the content and can also help with the security of the website. Think of a CDN as the Advil to your web host—it’s there to relieve all pain associated with it. 

Benefits of Using a CDN

Now that you have a better understanding of what a CDN is, it’s time to understand what the benefits are of incorporating one into your life. 

  • Better Loading Times
    This is probably the most common reason to have a CDN—to help websites load content faster. Because CDNs are geographically sensitive, one of their primary goals is to bring in the content closer to a nearby CDN center.
    Remember, when a customer visits a website and the website takes too long to load, they’re likely to visit other websites that will load faster. Incorporating a CDN into your business can help establish better connections with customers and reinforce your reliability. A faster website always means that you’ll have more visitors that are likely to stay on it for longer periods of time.
  • Website Security
    Though this is only a small part of what a CDN does, they can enhance security features on your website. CDNs provide DDoS mitigation, which is a fancy way of saying that they will optimize security protocols already in place and improve security certificates that help keep your website safe from cyber attacks.
  • Improve Website Traffic
    Depending on your business, the amount of traffic that passes through your website might be a lot for a regular web host server to handle on its own. Traffic is a big factor in slowing down the loading times of website content.
    The amount of traffic on a website can sometimes cause hardware failures that will make the website freeze and interrupt its normal functions. A CDN can help distribute the traffic better and withstand hardware failure better than other origin servers.
  • Reduction in Bandwidth Costs
    As a business owner, you already have a lot of costs to worry about. Of course, website and content creation are also up there with the things you have to add to your budget. Bandwidth consumption is an expense that is essential to the functionality of your website, and ultimately, the product you are promoting or selling.
    Bandwidth works by helping provide the data that can be sent and received at one time. Think of the concept of bandwidth as a water pipe—the wider the pipe, the more water that can pass through it.
    The problem is that in order for the bandwidth pipe to maximize its purpose; it requires the origin server to provide large amounts of data to pass through, which increases the costs of bandwidth consumption.
    A CDN helps optimize data through caching, which reduces the amount of data the origin server must provide. This automatically reduces bandwidth costs and increases efficiency. 

What Happens if You Don’t Use a CDN?

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you’d like to use a CDN to improve website loading times. However, without the help of a CDN, instead of the user establishing a faster connection with the CDN, it will establish a connection to an IP address that’s using the local domain name system, or DNS.

If the DNS cannot resolve the IP address, then it has to pass to the authoritative DNS server where it’s hosted, resolve the IP address, and then connect the user’s browser to download the web content. All of this takes time, which is one factor that slows down the loading of a website. 

Because the IP address has to go through so many channels in order to establish a connection with the DNS, it creates latency issues and adds delays whenever the origin is far from the user. The experience of a user on a website means everything to your business. 

If the users cannot even browse or click around on the page, chances are that you’re losing customers and largely decreasing the traffic that passes through your website. 

Top CDN Providers

If you’ve made the choice to go with a CDN to enhance your website experience, there are plenty of providers to choose from. 

  1. Cloudfare
    Cloudfare is popular among customers because it is so user friendly. Overall, they offer excellent performance, web security (which allows users to block bots and limit spam), and protects web applications from hackers.
    They have 180 data centers around the world, making it one of the fastest CDN service providers available on the market today.
  2. Fastly
    Fastly is a popular CDN service in the United States, Brazil, Europe, and Australia. However, it doesn’t seem to have a strong market in Asia. Though Fastly offers its users with support for caching different videos, it’s also a little complicated for users to adjust settings.
    It’s an innovative CDN solution that offers a lot of configuration options to personalize how you want your CDN to work. Unfortunately, if you’re not super tech savvy, it might be difficult to understand how to make changes and maximize everything this CDN service can do for you.
  3. CloudFront
    CloudFront is popular among users because it is easy to configure and it offers a lot more features than Cloudfar and Fastly. Owned by Amazon, CloudFront offers advanced features, and it provides an impressive array of analytics data.
    Some downsides to this service is that, even with all that it offers, users sometimes find the service to be difficult to navigate and it’s also pricier than others. This service might be better suited for users that are familiar with CDN and know the ins and outs of its uses. 

Though choosing the best CDN service is a big decision, try not to get overwhelmed by how advanced the program may seem. There are plenty of user-friendly CDN services out there that can make your experience easy to set up. 

Remember, the end goal of adding a CDN is to enhance customers’ experience on your website. The longer a customer stays on your website, the more likely they are to purchase your product or services. A CDN can enhance both your experience and theirs.