Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) make your web applications more responsive, resilient, and more secure by serving up content from servers near your customers. They are both redundant and geographically distributed, can make your websites feel more responsive, and can even help with your search engine optimization (SEO). In this article, we’ll briefly explore the history of CDNs, discuss when and why you should use them, and look at how they work with modern web architectures.
Where did CDNs come from?
The internet has grown and evolved a lot since its inception. Although it felt like magic at the time, the first websites were simple: you typed “http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html” into a browser and it returned static files stored on a NeXT computer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. This worked well for static pages, but developers soon wanted to deliver dynamic content.
They quickly figured out how to have the web server talk to a database server and return a message board post or the latest stock prices
Since then, we’ve seen every combination of these technologies: client- and server-side scripting, APIs, microservices all combined with static HTML, script, CSS, and images to produce the interactive web applications we all use every day.
It makes sense to reach back to a central database to get dynamic content, but why would you serve a static file or image from halfway around the world? And why would you pay for the bandwidth to serve them up each time someone loaded your web page?
Those questions led to the development of a content delivery network, which provided localized, distributed hosting of static files. Each file is hosted on multiple “edge servers” around the world, meaning that there’s always a local copy that is quickly available. You upload the file once and everyone around the world gets copy.
Over twenty years ago, when the first CDNs emerged, they served up static files efficiently, reliably, and cheaply. Since then, they have evolved to provide a host of functions: load balancing, video streaming, DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack protection, and firewalls. CDNs do this while saving petabytes of bandwidth.
Why use a Content Delivery Network?
If speed, simplicity, and security are not enough, you should consider using CDNs because they can support your search engine optimization, customer experience, and conversion rates.
Slow websites are frustrating websites. Walmart rebuilt their site after finding conversion rates plummet as load times increase from one to four seconds. A study from the largest web analytics company on the web, Google, showed that 53% of users will leave your site if it doesn’t load in under 3 seconds.
To encourage faster web applications, Google changed how they index results to favor mobile websites and sites that load quickly. They rolled this change out gradually from May 2020 through June 2021. The first two sentences of Google Search documentation as it relates to SEO read:
“Page experience is a set of signals that measure how users perceive the experience of interacting with a web page beyond its pure information value. It includes Core Web Vitals, which is a set of metrics that measure real-world user experience for loading performance, interactivity, and visual stability of the page.”
Incidentally, Google has a tool, PageSpeed Insights, that helps assess the speed of your web site or application and identify issues that are slowing it down.
How to use CDNs with modern web applications?
So, a CDN will make your application faster, cheaper to host, more secure, and will make your customers happier and more likely to buy. How do you get started? Your application is a lot more sophisticated than that first web page on a NeXT computer in Europe.
All major front-end frameworks currently support a pre-rendering or a post-transpile step to generate static pages that provide content immediately while the rest of the functionality is bootstrapped. This is also referred to as SSR or Server-Side Rendering. These static files are hosted directly on the CDN. This, in combination with microservice endpoints, simplifies your architecture and saves money on operational costs without compromising on speed and quality.
We are entering a huge transition on how we build things on the web, driven by the need for speed while controlling costs. As companies look for more ways to reach consumers, you can also cut operational costs and build a faster, better, and more secure experience for your users. CDNs provide an easy way to accomplish all those goals.
Colin Elliott is a senior consultant with RevGen Partners, having over 10 years of experience in web development across telecom, healthcare, geospatial, e-commerce, and supply-chain/planning. He’s a huge advocate of open-source software/hardware and the latest innovations on the web.
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