Understanding Content Delivery Networks (CDN)

Content Delivery Networks (CDN) have been around for years, and as long as they’ve been around, there has been some confusion as to what they are and their purpose.

In this post, we’ll show you how a CDN can help your business by looking into how Cloudflare implemented this technology.

What Is a Content Delivery Network?

A Content Delivery Network, also known as a CDN, is a network of geographically distributed devices (nodes) which are used to deliver content across the globe more quickly.

Let’s start with the basics.

When a client pulls up your website, they’re making a connection to your server and downloading the content. Their web browser then displays this downloaded content. This process means our client is downloading every word, every image, every video, everything rendered in their browser.

As you have likely witnessed when trying to load content-heavy web pages, this can quickly get out of hand. What’s worse, a web page whose content has stretched too far can easily cause the dreaded long load times, one of the worst mistakes a site owner can make. This situation is exasperated when a client is hundreds or thousands of miles away.

There are several ways to help combat this, like minimizing your front page or using thumbnails or lower resolution images on content-heavy pages. Another way is to employ a Content Delivery Network.

The CDN’s network of devices, called nodes, are used to cache your content, so it’s geographically closer to your end user. Because these nodes are located all over the globe, your client’s request has a much shorter distance to travel. This shorter distance makes for quicker load times and a better experience for your user, and hopefully more engaged prospects and customers for you!

How Does the Content Delivery Network Work?

Despite its appearance, the steps for this super technical function are pretty straightforward. The process relies on a master/copy relationship, referred to as Origin/node.

Your server is the Origin. It holds all your content for your website. Employing the Cloudflare Content Delivery Network will never change this fact. Once you start using the CDN, its network grabs a copy of your content while it’s en route to customers. A request for your website from a client in, say, Australia is directed to the geographically closest node. If the content is not on that node, the node allows the request to process as usual. The Origin server, hosted on AlpineWeb’s network, receives the request for content. The node then serves that content to the requester, but now that content is cached on the requesting node. That means any subsequent requests for that content will no longer have to traverse the ocean. It automatically learns how to best serve your clients wherever they are!

Your content is now half-a-globe closer to your end user, which dramatically shortens this transaction and lowers your page load time. This could translate into lower bounce rates, more engagement with content, and hopefully more sales!

Also, because of this Origin/node relationship, your site’s management never changes. You manage your site’s content on your server the same way you always have, so there’s no need to learn a whole new content management interface.

How Does the CDN Know How to Serve My Content?

The request, caching, and delivery of your content rely on DNS. To start using the Content Delivery Network, you have to point your DNS at Cloudflare Name Servers, making them the Authoritative Name Servers for your website’s DNS.

You’ll make this change at your registrar, in the registration configuration portal. Under the Authoritative Nameservers, you’ll state that Cloudflare’s Name Servers are authoritative and so they have the most accurate IP information for that domain name.

If you’ve used AlpineWeb to maintain your domain registrations, one of our Helpful Humans can handle this part for you.

Again, this doesn’t change any aspects of your website or your domain name registration. You’re still using AlpineWeb as your host, and you’ll still be using your same registrar. All you’re doing is announcing to the internet that Cloudflare’s CDN is now the means to request content, not via the Origin directly.

What Kind of Content Is Cached in the nodes?

The Cloudflare Content Delivery Network is configured to cache requests for static content. Static Content is just a fancy way to say content that doesn’t change. All manner of file extensions are cached including images (.gif, .jpg, .ico, .bmp, and more), several types of document files (.pdf, .doc, .docx, .ppt, .pptx) as well as most of your site’s style controllers (.css, .class).

Some of these file types can be pretty weighty, so you can start to see how caching these types of files can help with serving content more quickly and, thereby, speed your page’s load times. If you’re curious you can find a full list of cached extensions. These are only the extensions cached on the free account type. If you’d like more file types cached, they’re available, but it may require upgrading your account. One of our Sales Team Members can easily help with that.

Are there Any Other Perks of the Service?

Of course! Cloudflare has built an impressive application on a remarkable network and has worked hard to protect it from much of the malicious traffic across the internet. That protection is built into the network itself, and because the CDN is part of their network, you get to reap those same benefits.

Even before traffic hits the nodes of the CDN, they’ve started inspecting and reporting. Cloudflare has their network configured to block traffic based on several types of identifiers. Identifiers such as:

  • Known malicious IP addresses
  • Types of requests that are historically known to cause server issues
  • Malicious payloads included with the traffic
  • Frequency the client is causing the request matches malicious patterns

These are all dropped at the initiation of the request which helps keep your site safe. These safeguards are in place for every request that comes through, which helps to protect you from probing attacks and crawlers that are looking for a security flaw but allows well known and legitimate traffic and crawlers through.

Cloudflare’s CDN service also offers a free SSL encryption service that keeps your traffic secured and encrypted end-to-end.

The configuration for Cloudflare’s free SSL encryption is pretty simple via their interface. Once accessed, under the “Crypto” menu, you’ll just select the “Flexible” Certificate and select to activate it.

There’s a twenty-four hour waiting period before the SSL is active, but that’s a short period of waiting given the advantages and security you get from using an SSL.

Ready to Start Seeing More Engagement on Your Site?

Handle traffic spikes globally, reduce load-times and see more engagement with Cloudflare Content Delivery Network. Try it today or contact our Sales Team to get more information.