Sebastian Spies, Product Director Edge Network at Gcore, takes a look at how content delivery networks (CDNs) are now available to all and are revolutionising content delivery and ecommerce
Companies today are operating in a distributed world where it has become necessary to deliver content as close to the user as possible. This ensures excellent quality of service, leading to improved user engagement and lower customer churn. For many, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) have become the delivery mechanism of choice and, where once a CDN, or multi-CDN, set-up was the preserve of video content companies streaming live video or on-demand media, this has now broadened out to include new use cases and a range of industries.
In the world of ecommerce, for example, success is measured by the speed, stability, and responsiveness of a retailer’s online platform. Customers are intolerant of even the smallest disruption in service, quickly abandoning the site and moving to a competitor who can instantly meet their needs. Loyalty is hard-won and easily lost. Which is why global eCommerce companies are turning to CDNs.
Generally, a CDN will accelerate websites and web applications by delivering cached static content from server locations that are dispersed geographically. If a customer in London sends a request to a website hosted in Washington DC, the response will be delivered from the nearest point, which might be a server in New York, for example. This helps to speed up web page loading, which, whilst it is only one factor in responding to a customer’s request, is nevertheless one of the most significant.
Protection from traffic spikes
As well as web acceleration, CDNs are also used to protect the web server from DDoS attacks or other significant spikes in web traffic. eCommerce websites can be overwhelmed by traffic, not just because of malicious cyber-crime, but due to increased customer interest during the Peak season, for example, and in the world of gaming, the risk of a surge in traffic can come when a much-hyped game is launched, or a long-anticipated patch is released to the market. A CDN with a high global network capacity will help to manage the deluge, and protect the web service from disruption, or even a full-scale outage.
Other challenges that enterprises face today in relation to security are also helped by using a CDN, including encrypting the transmission of data, securing applications through a web application firewall, access orchestration to determine how, and to whom, content is provided, and load balancing which helps to distribute incoming requests from users and manage traffic congestion.
Whether the use case is a gaming company with millions of players relying on the stability and performance of its platform; a video streaming provider responsible for delivering a global sporting event; or a retailer about to make its new collection available via eCommerce and M-Commerce, a decision needs to be taken about what CDN set-up will work best, and how much it is likely to cost.
Cost is not always an indication of quality
Shockingly, the cost of one CDN provider can be up to 10 times more than another and this doesn’t necessarily reflect a better service. What is important when selecting a CDN is knowing what it will be used for and how it might be scaled in the future.
All CDN providers can amend the cost structure of their product by limiting the features and functionalities they offer. A content delivery only CDN will focus on static asset delivery, which means that a user will pay only for the traffic that moves through the provider’s caching servers. Performance levels can also be limited according to budget, but all CDN providers should deliver an acceptable level of network monitoring, partner peering, server hardware and commutation appliances. One way that providers keep costs low is by renting virtual servers to run CDN software or by reselling the service of a larger provider. While this is standard, it does limit their ability to manage incidents or control performance. Of course, in-house customer support is expensive to provide and will add to the product cost structure, so it is not something offered by every provider.
The fact is, however, that technology is becoming more affordable and at the same time, the hardware and software needed to deliver CDN services is more readily available, allowing a greater number of providers to get involved, creating competition that is driving prices down.
Because content delivery seems relatively simple compared with other infrastructure services, CDN providers add value to enhance their offer. This can include embedded security features, free monitoring, dynamic content acceleration, advanced compression and image optimisation. The caching servers that enable CDNs to deliver static content are increasingly being used to provide supplementary software near to end-user devices, effectively transforming CDNs into edge optimisation platforms.
As this trend develops, end-users face even more complexity when it comes to deciding which CDN to select. Do they want TSL 1.3 encryption or not? How useful would an extended API be? What protection would a web application firewall provide? Will they need 24/7 technical support? What say do they have over traffic costs?
Best practice for choosing a CDN at the right price
First, it’s essential for companies to understand how much traffic their website serves every month. Knowing this provides room for negotiation with CDN providers, some of whom will include reasonable amounts of traffic in the overall cost, or even provide a free CDN plan.
If a company’s traffic is coming from one continent, Europe, for example, the cost should be very different to a company with global reach. Most CDN providers have geographically based pricing structures which means that companies can select a CDN that has the best offer to suit the location of their audience. However, if they plan to expand into a new territory, that expansion needs to be allowed for in the initial negotiation.
Checking out the features included in a CDN provider’s standard plan provides a basis on which the right feature package can be built. Companies should research features first so they know what they will need.
When it comes to security, while it is tempting to save money on some features, this can create vulnerability to DDoS attacks, other malware and incidents such as extreme weather events. Opting for a full range of security features means companies are comprehensively protected, and, if they offer web services to customers against set SLAs, they will not incur charges in the event of a disruption.
For enterprises there are benefits to opting for a multi-CDN approach, which can not only reduce overall costs but is the most effective way to ensure seamless service delivery to a globally distributed audience.
Many CDN providers have spent years honing the services they provide, and their experience allows them to provide fantastic offers to customers. Our own next-gen content delivery network, for example, will provide 1 TB of traffic and 1,000,000,000 HTTP requests for free. Why? Because we believe small businesses should be able to make use of reliable, performant CDNs as they grow. We leverage a network of servers around the world with more than 110 Tbps capacity, so we have some to spare.
To summarise, companies should do their homework and delve into what is on offer. They shouldn’t dismiss a CDN provider because they are cheap, but instead look at the features in the basic package and work out how much it would cost for add-ons. Discounts are available for companies of every size, so they should enter negotiations to get a great deal and ensure that the CDN provider ticks all the right boxes for their needs, their audience, and their growth plans.
Sebastian Spies, Product Director Edge Network at Gcore