The use of content-distribution-networks (CDN) is becoming vastly more popular in this day and age, especially when you have a widely recognised name as Cloudflare does. Cloudflare is one of the biggest, powerhouse names when you think ‘CDN’.
CDN’s are great – they provide better loading times by delivering your website files to local caches, allowing for things like DNS masking and even some analytics and insights on how your website performs.
But truly, how good are CDN’s? The answer is, it depends on several things.
Like everything in this world, nothing is built equal. CDN providers like Amazon (AWS), Cloudflare, Fastly, and Microsoft Azure all offer different plans with different limitations and weeding out what makes their offerings more superior goes a long way to ensure you select the best CDN for your needs.
Keep in mind, this post is purely looking into the perspective of the free Cloudflare plan that most cPanel hosting providers offer, given that it is widely available to most people.
Let’s take a look into if there is a declining value in the free Cloudflare plan, or if it’s worth using given its non-existent price tag.
Cloudflare And ISP Peering Is Confusing
If you’re an Australian, and thinking of using the free Cloudflare plan, keep reading – you’re going to want to.
In 2016, Cloudflare published a blog post that detailed the most expensive bandwidth costs around the world.
Telstra and Optus are some of Australia’s largest internet service providers (ISP) and represent the most expensive network providers to peer with, almost 50% of Cloudflare’s bandwidth costs are taken up by Telstra, Optus, and 4 other overseas ISP’s despite only representing 6% of their traffic.
It appears negotiations have broken down with Telstra to lower their bandwidth costs, and this is where it hits an impasse for those free Cloudflare users since they have been moved off transit providers like Telstra and Optus.
The only way Cloudflare peers with these popular Australian ISP’s is through their expensive Business and Enterprise plans, which are over $200 a month.
Small businesses can’t justify this cost, and with no current news between the peering relationship of Cloudflare and these ISP’s, it is guaranteed to ensure this will stay this way for time to come.
Cloudflare also opened a case against Telstra and Optus with the ACC (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission) which is the regulatory body that aims to ensure fair trading and describes these ISP’s behaviour as ‘anti-competitive’.
An interesting extract from this case highlights the impact on Australian customers due to Telstra and Optus’ unwillingness to lower bandwidth costs.
‘Instead, under the current arrangement, for a Cloudflare free customer in Australia to reach another Internet user in Australia, that traffic must go through data centers in Los Angeles or Singapore via expensive undersea cables rather than through a local connection point. This results in increased latency, potential packet loss, and degraded performance for the Internet users even though they are geographically in relatively close proximity to one another. It is also an increased cost for Telstra and Optus, and an inefficient use of resources and infrastructure, to port that traffic from Australia, across the world, and back to Australia.’
For those with smaller ISP’s such as Aussie Broadband might find some success since they peer with Cloudflare Australia wide.
Let’s test for ourselves – has ISP peering in Australia changed?
Given a lot of the talk between Cloudflare and these popular ISP’s is non-existent, we may able to see if things have silently changed with how the free Cloudflare plan routes traffic.
There’s no better way than to test for ourselves.
For most free Cloudflare plans, the consensus is that your traffic will be routed overseas to places like LAX (Los Angeles, US West) and Malaysia/Singapore and throughout history, this has been true from personal experience.
We ran this test on an example domain of ours, just to see if the free Cloudflare plan would route the traffic to a local data centre, or if it would send it overseas.
For the first test, we can see that the colo is MEL, so it’s storing a local copy of our files to one of Cloudflare’s data centres in Melbourne, rather than the server of our website is hosted (Sydney).
This simply means that people in Melbourne will receive an incredibly minuscule amount of a speed increase given the packet only has to travel to Melbourne, not Sydney. However, this loss is largely negligible – it’s more so test to how Cloudflare is routing this traffic.
For the second test, we can see this website’s traffic is going to be routed overseas, despite the fact they are more than likely hosted on a local server.
This isn’t ideal, but there are a few features that Cloudflare offers such as DNS masking, image resizing and HTML/CSS/JS minifying features that can lower the page load time.
They may also cater their services to people abroad and can result in better loading times for overseas visitors.
Given this small sample, it’s hard to tell whether or not Cloudflare is slowly moving free users back to transit providers such as Telstra/Optus, but it does look somewhat hopeful.
If you want to test this for yourself, go to any Cloudflare hosted domain and add ‘/cdn-cgi/trace’ to the end of the URL, such as below:
It’s important to note that we know if traffic is being routed overseas for an Australian website, they are undoubtedly using the free Cloudflare plan or Cloudflare’s Pro ($20 a month) plan because the Business and Enterprise plans are peered with Telstra and Optus, and don’t force any traffic overseas.
Regardless – Location Matters
Location matters when choosing a CDN for several reasons. The first being, your geographical location will allow you to pre-determine how many local servers there are around you.
The second reason being, you need to take into account your target audience, and your current traffic location.
Touching base on the first reason is important because although Cloudflare has 155+ servers, in over 200 cities and 90 countries, it doesn’t always equate to it being beneficial for your website speed.
Your location matters for your traffic because of latency.
In layman’s terms, latency is the amount of delay or time it takes for one packet to arrive to the server (of where your website data is stored) and then relay it back to the person wanting to receive your website data (the user).
If Cloudflare is sending your data overseas, that means all uncached requests fly over to that foreign server, and then all the way back home to your hosting server.
This means that if you’re an Australia catering your products to Australian’s only, it simply won’t be that useful in terms of speed, but this is mainly because it is a limitation of the free Cloudflare plan.
What Are The Other Perks of Cloudflare?
The global CDN feature of Cloudflare is undoubtedly the most important, but you might get some benefit from some of their other features.
Here are some of the most useful features that the free Cloudflare plan offers:
⦁ Offers DDoS protection
Very useful for websites that are always under attack by illegitimate traffic and bots.
⦁ DNS changes are faster, almost no propagation
DNS propagation is a change. Up to 24 hours for one DNS record to propagate effectively is a distant memory when you use Cloudflare.
Change your nameservers and voila! Complete.
⦁ Spam protection
Most hosting providers offer unlimited bandwidth with their plans, but for those on budget plans with a capped limit, this helps tremendously.
⦁ Accurate site analytics
⦁ Load balancing
Distributes your traffic to different servers to ensure load on those servers is adequate, and not draw out loading times for users.
Your website host might offer a lot of these features, but having the ability to also optimise website images, as well as reduce whitespace, new line characters all help improve your page loading time significantly.
DNS masking is another great feature, which prevents your DNS records from being scalped.
Given their wide range of networks available, another great feature is the Always Online tool, which essentially guarantees a failover to another data centre if your website goes down – which means your website will always be online.
These are some extremely helpful tools but it makes sense to understand the need of your users before enabling Cloudflare.
Weigh Up Your Needs Vs The Features
It’s always a dangerous thing to jump in with both feet, especially when you’re unaware of how certain things work.
Despite Cloudflare’s great features, they aren’t for everyone. If your website isn’t being DDOS’ed, or under spam attack, then having that extra security layer may not matter, and might just be unnecessary.
It also makes sense to reiterate how ISP’s and Cloudflare’s relationship regarding peering has been extremely rocky. This is because a vast majority of the Australian public would use Telstra and Optus as their internet provider, and won’t see any benefit.
A lot of your consideration for products should come down to improving your user experience, given your users are the pulse of your website.
As of 2020, it appears as though we are in the same position with Cloudflare and ISP’s peering as we were in 2016.