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Save on hosting with Content Delivery Networks

When people start talking about site speed a popular recommendation is a Content Delivery Network or CDN, this leads to a fairly popular question, what is a CDN and when should you consider using one?

What Is A Content Delivery Network?

A content delivery network is a way to host your static files such as images, javascript and stylesheets on a distributed network of servers (otherwise known as a cloud) to speed up the delivery of the content and in turn speed up the experience for users of your site. You should consider using a CDN if you display a large number of medium to large images or other items of content on your site and want the fastest experience possible for your users. A popular CDN is Amazon Cloudfront which has a distributed network of servers around the world, picks the closest server to the visitor of the site and seamlessly renders the latest possible content item from your site within reason.

Setup of a CDN account is process whereby you point the CDN to the static locations on your webserver (so it knows where to source the original images/stylsheets/javascript files) then change the paths within your content management system so that instead of looking on your local server for the content they instead attempt to fetch the files from the CDN. When the first user visits your site after the CDN is setup the CDN will realise it doesn’t have a local copy of the file and fetch the copy of the file from your server, then it will show the file to the visitor.

Advantages

Your first visitor will see no noticeable speed increase as the CDN needs to fetch and display the images just as the visitor would have. The second time they or anyone else loads the page however the CDN will instead of fetching the content from your site, display the content which it has locally. If someone visits from an alternate country at the same time the CDN will pass the image from the initial server across to a server which is geographically closer to the visitor within its own distributed network so that the fastest possible download times are available for all users.

This doesn’t effect dynamically generated content e.g. the words you type into your content management system will still be fetched directly from your webserver, however if properly setup all images you upload will automatically have their links updated so that every image you upload within the article is automatically setup to be pulled from the CDN rather than from your webserver.

Disadvantages

There are some downsides to CDNs which make them restrictive to smaller sites without much traffic, namely;

  • A CDN will charge a minimal amount for each file downloaded. This amount is usually cheaper than actual bandwidth costs incurred by your hosting provider, however most hosting providers will not charge additional amounts for data downloaded (unless you exceed bandwidth quotas) and even though this is a very minimal amount there will still be a bill of around 1 to 2 dollars a month for a low traffic site.
  • There is a chance a user may see an out of date image. This is due to the way the CDN holds onto a local copy of the image, so you may change an image with a printed price on it for example and not all users will instantly see that change.

These downsides are quite minimal however and should not discourage anyone from implementing a CDN on any site receiving a moderate number of views. Larger sites should also consider using a CDN to reduce bandwidth costs since a majority of the bandwidth used by a site is in the delivery of static content in the form of images.

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