A Content Delivery Network, or CDN, has become an important part of the Internet in recent years. With big sites getting lots of traffic and speed influencing search results, CDNs can save your visitors time and your servers from becoming swamped with a traffic spike. I’ve looked into a few different CDNs to see if I could reduce the load hitting my server or speed it up for geographically distant visitors. Including Amazon S3, all the CDNs I tried cost money and didn’t seem to improve the speed as much as they would have you believe, nor did their caching resolve my problem of an overburdened server. I upgraded my hosting with more RAM and significantly reduced memory consumption by using LiteSpeed instead of Apache.
Despite those upgrades, when I saw CloudFlare in action, I had to give it a try. Is it all hype or does it really provide a benefit to your site?
The CDNs that I’ve tried before took a lot of time to set up as well as costing money. CloudFlare promises a fast setup and a free service. Is it too good to be true? Fortunately not. CloudFlare is as easy to set up as it is to make a DNS change. In four steps, CloudFlare will guide you through all that’s required after you sign up. You enter your domain name into CloudFlare and it will automatically pick up your DNS settings. You can confirm those settings or make changes and the final step is to go to your domain registrar (like GoDaddy) and change your name servers to point to a set of redundant name servers CloudFlare runs. The transition is seamless because your current name servers will continue working while the DNS transition hands off to the CloudFlare name servers.
CloudFlare has a lot of features and settings that are easy to control through their Dashboard. The free version of CloudFlare has a number of basic features that improve your site’s security and uptime, the Pro version has even more features. I started with the free version and then decided to give the Pro version a try for a month to see if it did speed up my site with its pro-active caching or further protected my site with its other features.
In the case that you need to get directly to your site around CloudFlare, you can set up a subdomain to go directly to your site. Some of the features I really like with CloudFlare include: Hot Link protection, notifying botnet-infected computer humans how to clean their computer, and saving bandwidth/requests thanks to their caching. With most CDNs, you mirror your content onto their servers using some automated processes like a plugin that uploads new files. This can be time-consuming and will initially increase your bandwidth usage and server load. CloudFlare will automatically cache your most demanded pages and files onto their network.
The service provides protection from crawling abuse, botnets, and spam. If a person visits your site and malware running on their computer tries to spam your site in the background or if they’re a known bad visitor, they’ll reach a challenge page, which you can customize, instead of the intended page. They will have to answer a CAPTCHA in order to proceed to the page to prove they’re human. If they’re infected, they’ll receive information regarding how to clean up their site.
There is a WordPress plugin to provide better communication between your site and CloudFlare.
CloudFlare is currently in public beta, so it doesn’t come without issues and not all features are fully implemented yet. They have some promising plans for more features to roll out in the coming months. As of now, I’m using the Pro version of the site and I think my site has seen some benefits. I will probably downgrade back to the Free version once this month runs up. A few things to know about CloudFlare before you dive right in:
- If you want to use SSL on a subdomain, you’ll have to go for the Pro account as it’s only available under that version for now.
- I had some initial problems with CloudFlare conflicting with the Bad Behavior WordPress plugin. Don’t use CloudFlare with Bad Behavior! There isn’t supposed to be a conflict but it resulted in my site’s listing in search engines to bottom out because the crawlers were receiving an error message. CloudFlare serves much the same purpose as Bad Behavior, so there’s also less reason to run both at the same time. Since then, my site is being successfully crawled and is ranking at the top of many search engine queries. Thanks to the CloudFlare folks for the support while figuring out the problem.
Now that the dust has settled, I am happy I have CloudFlare enabled on my site. It should help protect against any surges that might head my way (some day…). I wish my site didn’t have to suffer through the Bad Behavior/CloudFlare conflict but that’s in the past and things are looking up now.
If you run a site that can get a decent amount of traffic and you’d like to see if CloudFlare’s CDN and protection will help you, I highly recommend investigating CloudFlare further. Any questions you might have are probably addressed in the CloudFlare Help Page.