The Internet and networking technology is becoming increasingly critical for business growth. More people are shopping and working online than ever before. Companies are now using the Internet as the primary outlet for increasing brand recognition, reaching customers, and converting sales.
Although it seems like more users online equal more sales opportunities there is a problem. The internet is brutally competitive. And users are demanding data load faster.
If your company can’t produce a webpage or load an image in milliseconds users will simply go elsewhere. And there’s little chance they are going to return to your site.
With rising globalization and increasingly connected users, data needs to travel farther and faster than it ever has before in order to reach users. Many companies, like ZebraHost, have users across the globe. Those users need to be served data at equally fast speeds or ZebraHost risks losing its global competitive edge.
The pain point of needing to deliver content to users faster has led to the rise of Edge computing. Under the umbrella of Edge computing, two solutions have emerged. Edge Networks and Content Delivery Networks. Content Delivery Networks and Edge Networks are both designed to bring content to users faster. Although the two methods are referred to interchangeably, there are some differences you should be aware of.
Content Delivery Network (CDN)
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a network of servers located strategically close to users. The primary purpose of these servers is to cache static content like images videos etc. to reduce the distance that data needs to travel. With less distance to travel, data reaches users faster.
Have you ever tried to request content from a server located in a foreign country or continent? If you live in North America and have ever tried to get content from Asia, you might have noticed it loads slowly. It has nothing to do with either your internet speed or theirs. It’s simply because of latency due to the distance that data needs to travel.
Because content must travel physical distance over copper or fiber wires, the farther a user is from the server hosting the content, the longer it takes to receive it. The user will have to request the content from the origin server (where the data is originally hosted). That server will then realize a user far away wants to access it then will push the content out to that specific user. All this takes time. The amount of time it takes to request then render a data request is known as latency.
Latency is solved through taking commonly accessed content like images or a website homepage and storing it on the CDN. The CDN will store the content via caching it closer to users. For example, if I want ZebraHost’s homepage to be accessed by users in Kansas City, Sydney Australia, and Cape Town South Africa but my servers are only located in Altoona Iowa, I might find a CDN beneficial. I can cache my homepage on a CDN that has servers in those locations. Then, instead of users having to download my homepage from Altoona Iowa, they can download it from the CDN server closest to them.
Naturally, a CDN can’t place a server equally close to every single user. So, in order to deliver data effectively, the CDN places servers at strategic points such as high traffic data centers where most internet activity in a region is accessed from. A CDN is not just about numbers or servers but strategic placement of those servers to minimize latency.
An Edge Network takes things a step further by not just placing servers in regionally dispersed data centers but rather at high volume Internet Exchange Points (IxPs). These Internet Exchange Points are where ISPs connect with each other to exchange information.
An Edge Network provider will place Point of Presence (PoP) servers at Internet exchange points to further minimize latency by going through the network most direct to the user.
Typically, data must travel over the cables of multiple network providers when traveling long distances. Because an Edge Network caches information at Internet Exchange Points, a user might only have to connect to the nearest exchange point to receive data rather than have it travel over many networks. This can speed up data delivery dramatically, especially for companies with internationally dispersed users.
This might make an Edge Network just sound like a fancy CDN because that’s what it is. An Edge Network is a CDN that specifically places servers at Internet Exchange Points to bring data closer to the network Edge. The network edge is the closest that a CDN can get to users. While an Edge Network is a CDN, a CDN is not an Edge Network. A CDN simply refers to a content delivery solution that caches information in geographically dispersed data centers. The CDN may place their servers in IXPs or they may not.
CDNs and Edge Networks are under the umbrella of the Edge Computing revolution. But Edge Computing and Edge Network are not the same thing. Edge Computing is an umbrella term that refers to the new trend of bringing data as close to users as possible. And Edge Computing can encompass many things. Most commonly, Edge devices are devices that enable data to be brought closer to users. Common examples are Internet routers, connected vehicles, smartphones, etc. Anything that can act as an entrance to the network has the potential to be an Edge device. But being able to store and access information at these Edge devices is what allows them to be a part of Edge Computing and work towards reducing latency for users.
A common example of Edge Computing is found in electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are highly connected with various electronics that can store, cache, and transmit data. Technology companies can cache information in these vehicles to deliver it faster to users. They can also pull data from these vehicles to understand driving habits, safety data, and more.
The overall goal of Edge computing is the same as CDNs and Edge Networks in that it is designed to deliver information to users quickly and decrease latency.
Free vs Paid CDNs
There are numerous paid CDN services available that make CDN management easy. Examples include Key CDN, Akamai, CloudFront, etc. But there are also free CDNs with more limited features. The most popular of which is Cloud Flare.
Free CDNs typically require more manual configuration. A paid CDN will have a support team that can guide you as you set up your CDN, as well as help you if anything goes wrong. A free CDN will typically let you use the CDN network, but there is unlikely to be any kind of personalized support as part of the free plan.
Free CDNs will also often use a ‘push’ method of delivering content. The push method means that users will choose which content they want on their CDN and request that it be stored on the CDN. The plus is that users have control over the content being pushed and there isn’t wait time for the CDN to cache the content once users request it. On the other hand, if the content hasn’t been pushed to the CDN it won’t be automatically added to the CDN as frequently access content. This can prevent the CDN from working optimally from a user end.
A Paid CDN will typically have more premium support as well as extra features. For example, Cloudflare offers both a free CDN and paid CDN. The free plan offers access to their global CDN. But the paid tier offers the following features:
- Better site protection
- More frequent site crawls
- Mobile optimization
- DDoS protection
As well as offering extra features as Cloudflare does, paid CDNs are typically more automated using the ‘pull’ method. The pull method is where users will request content. The CDN will then be set as the default access point and since it does not have the content. It will pull that content from the origin server and then cache that content over the CDN. The downside to this is that the first users to request something will have to wait longer because the information isn’t already cached. However, users afterward will be able to access the content quicker once it’s cached. And because the CDN is helping automatically pull frequently requested content it leads to better user experience as the CDN is optimized via user requests.
Main Advantages of CDNs and Edge Networks
CDNs and Edge networks differ slightly, but the core advantages are very similar between the two:
Fast: CDNs and Edge Networks deliver content quicker to your users than if they must send a request to the origin server. This will give your users a better experience and increase the chances of them returning to your site.
Better Bandwidth: Because geographically dispersed users request content from the server closest to them, it means that there is less bandwidth being used on the origin server. CDNs cache content in multiple places helping balance bandwidth.
Load Balancing: Having information cached in dispersed servers that users can access other than the origin server lessens the stress on each server in your network.
Cost Savings*: CDNs and Edge Networks typically end up saving businesses money. Data travels shorter distances so hosts pay less to ISPs. Although CDNs and Edge Networks in most cases cost money, this cost is often less than the amount saved.
Security: Because content is cached globally and the CDN or Edge Network acts as an access point to the network, DDoS and other network attacks are mitigated or at the very least affect fewer users.
Redundancy: Because content is stored in multiple places, if a server goes down, users can simply be redirected to the next closest server that has the content they requested cached. Content is also cached so if the origin server is down, users can still access the content.
Should You Use a a CDN, Edge Network or Neither?
Most businesses have geographically dispersed users and will likely benefit from the addition of a CDN or Edge Network to their infrastructure. However, some businesses, mostly local businesses, will have users in only one area. For these businesses, a CDN might not be useful – yet.
In order to answer the question of which content delivery option is best for your business, you must look at your user base.
Do you have a large, globally dispersed userbase? Use an Edge Network. An Edge Network being located at Internet Exchange Points will help data travel by having it traverse fewer ISP networks thus bringing content closer to your users.
Do you have a geographically dispersed user base in only a few main regions? If the features and price are right, a CDN is right for your business. If your users are only in a few key areas having your content stored in data centers close to your users will suffice.
Do you have users only in a local area? If you are a local business or only serve a region near your origin server, a CDN or Edge Network will not make any noticeable improvement for your business. Your data doesn’t have to travel far so the extra cost or technical setup might not be worth it. On the other hand, you should keep Edge Networks and CDNs in mind if you plan to expand beyond your local area in the future.
There is no doubt that we will see a rise in the usage of CDNs and Edge networks in the future. As the Internet continues to grow and users demand content to be delivered faster, Edge Networks and CDNs will be an important part of most companies’ network infrastructure.
Though CDNs typically are not free, the cost is well worth it for many businesses for the benefits they provide like security, redundancy, and faster load times.
Businesses of any size should keep the advantages of a CDN or Edge Network in mind as they expand and need to potentially cover a larger customer base. Unless your business deals strictly with the local area, understanding how these content delivery methods function could help expand your business.
ZebraHost is now on a CDN. We’ve worked with a leading CDN to make our website faster by caching our homepage so it is delivered to users quickly. We chose to work with a CDN to add additional speed to make browsing our website faster and increase user satisfaction when researching our cloud solutions.