So if you are doing something online you would have heard about CDN or Content Delivery Network (or Content Distribution Network). Not everyone knows what a content delivery network is. Some bloggers think that it is a technical term and stay away from taking the pain of knowing about it.
In this post I answer the question “What is a CDN?” in simple terms, so you can easily understand what that means and you also decide whether you need a CDN for your blog or not. I also discuss the difference between a CDN and caching.
You usually come across content delivery network when people discuss about site’s loading speed. It is because using a CDN improves your site’s loading speed!
Now THAT should have kindled interest in you, right? Let’s dive in.
What is a CDN and how does it work?
CDN is the abbreviation for Content Delivery Network. As the name implies, a CDN will deliver your content and it is a network – to be precise, a network of data centres (you might read it as “computers”).
A CDN is essentially a network of connected computers/data centres. When you set up CDN on your website, your website’s static content (images, static files etc.) is copied to all those computers in the different data centres – and these data centres are present in various geographical regions across the globe. Now when someone accesses your site, the information is served from one of the nearest data centres.
The number of data centres distributed across the globe depends on the company that offers the CDN service. A good CDN service should have a good coverage in order to be able to serve the files to viewers from various parts of the globe.
Without a CDN, no matter where your hosting server is located, when the visitor loads your website (no matter where he/she is accessing your site from), the request to serve your files will go through your hosting server and then the files are served to the reader. On the other hand, with a CDN the reader accesses your website from one of the servers that is nearest to him/her. However, this doesn’t mean that the entire website is served from a nearest data centre – only the static content is loaded from there.
Nevertheless, this increases the loading speed of your website because the static files are served from a nearest location. Not only that, but it also reduces the number of pings on your hosting server. In addition, since a good number of files are served from a different server (in one of the data centres), the bandwidth through your server is reduced substantially.
So if you are hosting your website with any of the hosting companies that charge you based on the bandwidth you use, then your CDN should take much of the load off your shoulders. This is a great benefit for you in terms of the money you spend on hosting.
Now that you know the answer to the question “What is a CDN?”, let’s move on to discuss its benefits.
So what are the benefits of using a Content Delivery Network?
Knowing the benefits of using a CDN will help you decide whether you need a CDN or not. So let’s discuss that bit in detail.
A CDN will speed up your website
We all know that the loading speed of your website plays a crucial role in Google rankings. Recently Google is giving more importance to a website’s loading speed as a measure to keep its customers happy.
So if someone does a search in Google and clicks on one of the websites that Google lists on the first page, the search user will only be happy if that website loads fast and also provides the relevant, useful information that he/she searched for. So in order to keep its customers happy Google would only aim to list sites that load fast on top of its search results.
As a webmaster/website owner you should therefore take the necessary steps to speed up your website. One of the ways that helps you to boost your website loading speed is to use a CDN. Since all the static content will be served to your visitors from one of the closest data centres, the number of requests to your server and the load are reduced substantially and hence you will get a boost in loading speed, naturally.
A CDN indirectly helps with rankings
I say “indirectly” because I am not going to give you a SEO tip here that says – Go buy a CDN service and you will rank #1 Google! It is not that straightforward (and it is stupid too!).
Having said that, it is quite evident that Google is favouring sites that load fast in their search results. So indirectly you are increasing your chance of ranking higher in search engines if you have a fast loading website. And a CDN helps with that.
Traffic spike? No problem! Overnight traffic boost that keeps growing? No problem!
With a CDN you don’t have to be restless in your bed at night after your guest post has been published in that BIG blog. If you have had a spike in traffic, without a CDN, your site might end up showing database error; that is because, your site would have exceeded its bandwidth limit or your server is unable to handle the substantially increased number of requests. A CDN can handle such a situation well.
Having said that, it doesn’t mean you can have a site with tens of thousands of monthly views and you still stay on a cheap shared server hoping your CDN will save you. That won’t happen!
Save bandwidth and save money
With a CDN, your hosting server is going through much lesser bandwidth (transfer of information) than without a CDN. There are some hosting companies whose hosting plans are based on the bandwidth – that is, there is a charge based on how much bandwidth your site is consuming.
If you are boasting about your shared hosting server where you have “unlimited” everything, I must give you a word of warning here! You cannot have unlimited disk space and unlimited bandwidth for $5/mo. Do you REALLY believe those hype sales pitches by popular hosting companies?
Do you REALLY think you can have unlimited everything for just 5 or 10 bucks a month? If so, there won’t be a need for any webmaster to spend anything more than $5-$10 per month as hosting expense for their website for the rest of their lives! But it is not actually the case, right? You know that already.
Most hosting companies that promise you unlimited everything for $10/month later on force you to upgrade to a higher plan (or usually they recommend a dedicated server), when your site grows – both in terms of usage space (called as disk space) and bandwidth.
If you could get unlimited of those for $10, then why are you asked to upgrade when your site begins to consume more bandwidth?
This is the main reason here at Best Hosting And Design, we clearly specify what you get for what you pay – we don’t make unrealistic “unlimited” promises (you can check out our hosting plans here).
OK, that’s not the main focus of this post – but a CDN can certainly save you a lot of money and keep you under the limit (assuming you are on the appropriate hosting plan according to your consumption/usage).
With a CDN you can reduce your hosting bill if your hosting provider charges you based on bandwidth since quite a decent percent of bandwidth will go through your CDN.
What is the difference between a CDN and caching?
OK I get this asked a lot. I have also been very blind about these two terminologies in my earlier days of blogging. I used to think that CDN and caching are both different terminologies for the same concept. But I was wrong!
They are similar in some ways, though. For instance both CDN and caching technology will help with increasing site speed. However, the difference is this:
With caching, your site’s static files are temporarily stored in a web cache and those files are served from the cache for subsequent visitors. The cache retrieves the files from your hosting server via http requests and then stores them temporarily to serve them when visitors request them (that is, when they access your site).
However unlike a CDN the storage here is temporary. Depending upon when the time set for cache expiration, the files stored there will be flushed and the cache once again retrieves the files from the server and stores them for serving.
Cache is great for small or lite files, whereas heavy files will slow down its performance.
Having said that, a combination of CDN and a cache will usually rock. You just have to make sure you have done the settings right.
Recommendations for CDN and caching?
Some people argue that Cloudflare’s technology is not a CDN and that it simply caches the files. But as far as I’ve seen (I’m using Cloudflare heavily), I find it to be a CDN – correct me if I am wrong. Of the three I’d certainly recommend Cloudflare because its free option would be more than enough for a lot of bloggers – especially for those who are starting up and are on a tight budget. And if you need more, professional features you can always upgrade (just when you need it!).
For caching I’d recommend using WordPress plugins like W3 Total Cache or WP Super Cache. Both of them do the job just fine as far as I tested them. If you are going to choose one over the other, it could be a matter of preference (depends on what features you like best)! But I’ve seen people preferring W3 Total Cache over WP Super Cache most commonly!
Here’s a useful post from WP Beginner about how to configure W3 Total Cache properly (and in connection with MaxCDN).
Wrapping up (What is a CDN and do you need one?)
I hope this post gave you the information regarding what a CDN is, and how it differs from caching technology.
To answer the question: Do you need a CDN? I’d say yes! Anything that improves your site’s speed and performance is something you should opt for. Not just to improve your search engine rankings (of course that’s important too) but also to give your users a great experience. No one likes a slow loading website.
Check out the CDN recommendations I’ve made in the post. To start with, you might go with Cloudflare, which is free, and then you might either upgrade to Cloudflare’s premium plans or go for MaxCDN – a comparison of MaxCDN and Cloudflare is out of scope of this post; so I haven’t touched that topic.
I hope you got the answers to the questions: What is a CDN? and Do you need a CDN? Let me know your views in the comments below.