Have you noticed your website slowing down? Videos continually buffering? Blank stretches of downtime? It may be time to consider choosing a content delivery network (CDN) to keep your content dashing swiftly across the internet. Most large websites, even small ones who are looking to grow, need a CDN to ensure fast and reliable content delivery.
A CDN provides a service that your tech team can’t. (Well, unless you’re Netflix.) Its system of distributed servers delivers website content to your users; it considers geographic locations as well as the origin of the website host itself to deliver content in the fastest, most reliable way possible. CDNs have infrastructure to support content delivery worldwide and have whole teams dedicated to managing both predictable and unpredictable crises, like spikes in traffic when the big game goes into overtime. In short, they are there to take the performance of your website to the next level.
But picking the right CDN for your business can feel more complicated than starting your website in the first place. Below are a few tips for making sense of the jargon to pick a CDN that’s right for you.
First, consider your own needs
Before you start Googling “choosing the best CDN” take a closer look at your website. Identify its most prominent characteristics. Consider your goals for the future. Different CDNs can have different specialities, and it’s important to pick one, or several, that will meet your specific needs. (Yes, that’s right: you can actually use many different CDNs at once, if no single provider can serve all your needs.)
For instance: if you’re a commerce website looking to make checkout secure and fast, you’ll have different needs than a website delivering live, long-form video. You should also consider whether you’re targeting a regional or a global audience and if you might expand in the future. Finally, think about whether you want to deal with a single, one-size-fits-all CDN, or work with several best-of-breed players to get more specialized services.
Next, look for what makes a CDN not just good, but great
Now that you’ve considered your needs, let’s talk about what makes a great CDN, period.
Speed and reliability:
Response time, latency and throughput are three of the most important ways to measure the speed and reliability of a CDN. Response time is exactly what it sounds like: the metric of how long it takes for a server to answer a browser request. In other words, you don’t want your visitors left with a slow-loading page when they try to click on your “About” tab.
A related speed concept is response time: the amount of time it takes the host server to receive and process a request for an object, like a CSS file or an image. When a visitor clicks on your page, the number of objects that need to load will affect the total response time. So let’s say your web page is full of 300 objects (including text, HTML pages, images and videos), and each one has a latency of about 100 milliseconds (under 100 is generally considered good). Add all that up, and you’re looking at a response time of several seconds.
Throughput is also what it sounds like: how steadily the content is delivered. Let’s say your website will be hosting a livestream of the big game at 5pm EST. When your visitor shows up ready to watch, does the content play quickly and consistently, or are there interruptions and slowdowns? You and your users need a CDN you can depend on to deliver consistent results, especially at peak times. And throughput is an important measure of this reliability.
Collaboration and partnership:
A great CDN isn’t just a service provider, it’s a partner. Look for a CDN whose staff collaborates actively with yours, not just to solve problems, but to proactively address them before they happen. As your website grows, your CDN should grow with you, offering advice on how to build capacity and keep things running smoothly for all users.
It goes without saying that such a CDN will have stellar tech support. Even in the darkest hours of the early morning, your call will be answered by a knowledgeable engineer who can start working on the issue immediately; you’ll never have to talk to a call-center employee reading off a script. And you’ll never have a tech support hotline refer you to Github or blog posts for help, instead of just answering your question themselves.
Pricing should be upfront and transparent, too. Too many CDNs require clients to sign exploitative click-through agreements that tack on extra fees for anything beyond the most basic tech support requests. A great CDN partner won’t place such restrictions on the relationship; they’re in it for the long haul.
Strong security protocols:
Last but not least, you want to feel like your CDN truly has your back, and that means keeping out the bad guys. Look for a CDN that allows your data to be sent securely over the web by using Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificates to create secure HTTP connections. For video, look for one that offers Protected HTTP live streaming video support. Make sure they protect the data that’s whizzing from your customers to the CDN itself. And guarantee that they offer high-end authentication options, like a two-step authentication login process or token-based authentication.
Yes, it’s a lot to think about, but that’s another marker of a great CDN: this CDN will take the time to explain it all to you. And perhaps this goes without saying, but a great CDN’s “About” page will load freakishly fast.
With contribution from the Hippo Thinks research network.