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What Is a CDN? (And How Do They Work?)

Pixie Tan
June 17, 2024


Regardless of whether you’re an avid social media user or just an occasional online shopper, chances are, some (or even most!) of the websites you use utilize CDNs to ensure a smooth browsing experience.


Also known as Content Delivery Network, CDNs have been credited as the backbone upon which the modern internet experience has been built – but what exactly do they do, and why are they so important?


Well, here’s everything you need to know about CDNs, from what they are, to the pros and cons of using one, as well as how to choose the right service provider to speed up your website!



What Exactly Is a Content Delivery Network (CDN)?


Essentially, a CDN is a geographically distributed network of servers that cache or store website content, bringing it closer to the users’ locations and drastically reducing loading times.


Conceptualized in the 1990s, CDNs in the past were exclusively used by multi-million dollar corporations and could only load static content. However, as the internet gravitated towards dynamic content, so too did CDNs evolve, and today, they are beginning to step into the realm of autonomous networks.


Often confused with web hosts, the main function of CDNs is to reduce latency, ensuring efficient communication between users and server. On the other hand, the role of web hosts are more diverse, with the best web hosting services offering increased security measures and near-constant website uptime in addition to server space on which all your website content is stored on.


To put it simply, web content is usually stored on a single web host’s server, but speedily delivered to users through CDNs.


If you’re wondering what kind of content CDNs can deliver, here are two of the most common types:


1. Static content


True to its name, static content is content that remains ‘static’ or the same across all users and rarely requires updates. This content is comprised of brand logos, images, font types and more.


2. Dynamic content


Dynamic content, on the other hand, is data that needs regular updating and may change from user to user. This includes weather reports based on the users’ locations, social media feeds, or any personalizations made according to data given by the users.


cdns network servers send data worldwide

CDNs’ network of servers deliver content from all over the world!
(Credit: Unsplash)



How Does a CDN Work?


A CDN makes use of hundreds and thousands of interconnected physical servers located all over the world to process requests for content.


quick guide cdn

Quick guide to a CDN. (Credit: Hostinger)


Typically, when a user request is sent to a domain, it will be redirected to a point of presence (POP), which is the CDN server closest to the user. If the server has the requested content cached, the data will be directly delivered to the user without need to refer to the origin server, a.k.a. the domain’s web host server.


However, if the content was not cached, the request will be directed to the origin server, which will send the relevant data to the user. An additional copy of the requested data will be sent to the POP, which will keep it cached for the next time another user requests the same data again, speeding up the process of content delivery and lessening the load on the origin server.



What Are the Benefits of Using a CDN?


While there are many advantages to using a CDN, here are three of the core reasons why they are so popular:


1. Decrease in latency and loading times


As mentioned before, CDNs help to reduce latency and loading times, which creates a better overall user experience – but did you also know that an increase in website speed can also mean a higher conversion rate?


Studies by Google and SOASTA Research has shown that a 2-second increase in loading times can increase the number of users leaving your site by 32%, meaning that for international businesses and website owners, it is imperative that they retain their audience by using a CDN.


2. Enhanced website security


Additionally, CDNs can also improve website security and protect your site from DDoS attacks. For those who don’t know, DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks overwhelm the domain’s servers with tons of data requests, making the server vulnerable to other malicious attacks, as well as interfering with the business’s ability to process genuine requests.


With the help of a CDN, which spreads out traffic evenly across different servers, you can be assured that your origin server will keep functioning as usual – even in your sleep!


3. Save on bandwidth costs


For many businesses, high bandwidth is required to handle all their customers’ requests, which can then lead to sky-high expenses. But, with a CDN, website owners would be able to scale down on unnecessary bandwidth costs, as the CDN reduces the number of requests the origin server would need to handle.


Of course, there are many other advantages to using a CDN, which include being able to have more simultaneous users on your site, increase international coverage, and also allow websites to publish a larger amount of data.



What are the Disadvantages of Using a CDN?


On the flip side to its many advantages, using a CDN can also produce some challenges that might not make it the best fit for your website:


1. Additional costs


While you may save on bandwidth costs, using a CDN service will also increase your operation costs. Depending on the service provider as well as the package you choose, this expense may not be worthwhile, especially if you’re on a tight budget or if you’re a small company just starting out.


2. Location, location, location


Despite being an old real estate adage, the location of your CDN servers are instrumental to ensuring that your CDN works for you. Depending on your target audience and the direction of your company, if the locations of the CDN servers are too far away from your customers, your business will still suffer from low latency and longer loading times.


To prevent this from happening, make sure to do sufficient research on where your CDN servers are located so as to fully utilize your CDN.


Some of the other possible disadvantages could be an unreliable support and service, as well as restrictions related to the countries your CDN operates out of.



What to Consider Before Using a CDN


consider carefully when choosing cdn

There are many aspects to consider before choosing a CDN, including your audience and the type of content you have. (Credit: Unsplash)


With so many aspects to consider, it might be overwhelming at first to come to a decision as to whether a CDN is right for you. But worry not! Here are a few quick questions you can ask yourself to figure out if you need a CDN.

Where are the majority of your customers & target audiences located?


For companies with an international clientele, the answer to this question would be a no-brainer. Without the help of CDNs, companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, and many more would have taken much longer to amass a global audience, with many local companies winning out instead.


But, for businesses and websites catering to a more local audience, it’s important to take note of how important your online presence is and the direction your company is headed towards. If you aim to expand your client base beyond local demands within a short period of time, it might be worth investing in a CDN beforehand to build good customer relations later on.


If not, another option for local businesses would be to choose a web host that offers servers in the general geographic area that your target customers are in.


Do you have more static or dynamic content on your website?


For websites with more static content, the use of CDNs would be perfect, as they can cache unchanging data and deliver them flawlessly.


On the flip side, for sites with more dynamic content, the answer becomes trickier, because only some CDNs are able to deliver both static and dynamic content. That being said, it may be prudent to take a closer look at what the respective CDN providers offer, as working with a CDN for dynamic content may require an in-house developer.



How Do I Get a CDN For My Website?


Many web hosts nowadays offer CDNs as part of their services, which can come with all sorts of helpful and user-friendly features. It’s also common for web hosts to offer easy CDN integration via CloudFlare, for no additional cost.


But, if you’d like to be more hands-on, you can also find independent CDN service providers such as Google Cloud CDN, StackPath, and CDN77, then follow the set-up instructions to integrate it into your website. Though if you are going this route, do keep in mind that this may cause some issues if the CDN is not fully compatible with your web host provider.



How to Choose the Right Web Host CDN for Me?


If you’re looking for a simple and free CDN – Cloudflare is one of the most popular options that has great features and protection against DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial-of-service Attacks).


Many web hosts will throw in free and easy integration to set up Cloudflare in a few seconds via your web host control panel. For example – BlueHost offers free Cloudflare CDN integration with a purchase of any of their plans – a great deal when you consider the formidable reputation Cloudflare has, especially since they offer both static and dynamic content delivery.


Kinsta is another host that now leverages off the Cloudflare network to provide KinstaCDN – operating out of Cloudflare’s global network of 275+ data centers. If you choose Kinsta as your web host, you will be able to use their CDN at no extra cost, and select a region that would work best for you and your clients.


Last but not least, ScalaHosting also offers a CDN, with superb 24/7 customer support if you ever need assistance.



So, CDNs – Yay or Nay?


While it is largely dependent on your target audience and your location, CDNs are definitely a good investment to make when it comes to increasing site security and speeds.


From the wide range of CDNs online, do make sure to do your research on which provider will suit your needs best, location and reliability-wise!



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