What Is a CDN and How Do CDNs Work?

What is CDN


If you’ve ever visited a website and wondered whether your internet was down or the website was just slow, you may have experienced the effects of a slow or unreliable content delivery network, or CDN.

CDN services are used to improve the overall consumption of internet content and allow for a website to handle large amounts of web traffic when needed. Without the help of content delivery networks, a webpage might be incredibly slow to load and ruin the user experience.

Ahead, learn what a CDN is, and the impact it has for businesses, marketers, and users online.

What is a CDN?

A content delivery network, sometimes referred to as a content distribution network, is a group of geographically distributed and interconnected servers that bring web content closer to a website’s users. CDNs reduce network latency (or wait time) and ensure better performance for webpages and applications. 

Instead of everyone in the world accessing a single server for a particular website, website content is stored on servers around the world, nearer to where the expected users are located. Content delivery networks are critical for website content to run as expected with millions of users online at any one point in time. CDN services essentially help website owners ensure content can be loaded quickly.

To compare it to the world of fast food, you wouldn’t drive to a McDonald’s several states away to get a Big Mac. You’d go to a local franchise in your area.

Global map showing how CDN's work.

Image source


How does a CDN work?

While there is a lot going on behind the scenes from a tech perspective, at a high level, CDN networks simply help deliver content on the web more effectively. For a business owner who sees a massive spike in traffic after a successful marketing campaign, for example, this allows them to serve a large amount of web traffic without reducing the quality of the experience.

Origin servers take the initial request for a domain and redirect it to an appropriate CDN server. Cached content is then delivered from the CDN server to the client across a shorter distance.

The primary location where a website’s content is stored—where that initial request comes in—is called the origin server. Types of content stored include static webpages (images, text, code), software downloads, rich media (audio and video), and dynamic content created by applications.

Cached content, which is a copy of the origin server content, is stored on geographically distributed caching servers in data centers called points of presence (PoPs). These servers are located near where user requests are expected, the so-called “edge” of the network. These servers are also called “edge servers.”

If the content delivery network doesn’t have the requested file, it retrieves it from the origin servers and delivers it to the client, and subsequent client requests are fulfilled much faster. The CDN management software uses intelligent algorithms and machine learning to anticipate content requests, retrieve content to the CDN before it is needed, maintain synchrony with changing content on the origin server, and enhance perceived performance.

Who uses CDNs?

Organizations, business owners, and marketers that want to deliver complex websites internationally or improve the online experience for their users should be employing a CDN as part of their web architecture. 

When CDN technology was introduced in the late 1990s, it was primarily used only by the biggest corporate websites and business applications. At that time the technology was new, expensive, and limited to publishing static content. 

Over the past few decades, things have improved. CDN services have become more ubiquitous, and CDN adoption more common. The cost of commercial CDNs has become more affordable, sometimes even being bundled with web hosting packages. Static and dynamic content can now both be served intelligently, and CDNs are essential to rich media streaming, particularly across broader geographical locations. 

Why use a CDN?

In addition to loading internet content more quickly, CDNs can support more users simultaneously, reduce local network congestion, redirect busy server traffic for load balancing, and eliminate single points of server failure. This all happens transparently to the end user.

Advantages of CDNs

Improved user experience and website performance

One of the main motivations for most organizations using CDNs is the elimination of long wait times for downloads and streaming, which can improve customer satisfaction and user experience, especially for websites with high bandwidth consumption.

Optimized bandwidth costs and consumption

Distribution of content through CDNs shortens web server load times and reduces or eliminates local network bottlenecks, reducing bandwidth requirements and enabling better network usage.

More simultaneous users

By distributing to edge servers, more simultaneous users can be supported than is possible with even a highly scaled centralized solution.

Improved website security and availability

Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks are commonly used by cybercriminals attempting to harass or penetrate the defenses of an organization. CDNs inherently offer DDoS protection by multiplying the number of points of access, resulting in a more reliable and available web solution.

Many CDNs include support for additional security enhancements as well, such as web application firewalls (WAFs) to protect web applications.

Control of access and performance in different regions

It may be the case that your organization wishes to focus its content delivery on certain geographies. Smart deployment of appropriate CDN servers rather than the origin server into those areas can enhance your web performance there, and CDN management software can automate responses to spikes in demand.

Conversely, it may be desirable to limit access in other areas. A CDN platform can also be configured to help with this.

Disadvantages of CDNs

While there are many advantages to the use of CDNs, there may be drawbacks for some organizations. These include:

  • Cost. For non-trivial web solutions, there will be real costs paid to the CDN host, both start-up costs and ongoing operations costs tied to data transfer volume. If not planned for, these costs can grow to unexpected levels. 
  • Geography. It is critical to match your CDN infrastructure to the geography where your users are. A poor geographic alignment will result in lower performance and content availability. Some organizations use multiple CDNs with different footprints to help address this issue.
  • Complexity and support. The use of a third-party CDN introduces additional complexity in deploying and managing your web solutions, as well as an additional layer of support that can potentially complicate solving system problems.
  • Local restrictions. Some countries and local organizations have blocked internet access to content hosted by some CDNs. This can negatively affect the reach of your website.

Why CDNs are important for everyone with an online business

While using content delivery networks is not absolutely necessary if you’re just starting your online business, it’s wise to consider investing in CDN services as soon as you can afford it or are receiving sizable online traffic. Depending on your amount of traffic, CDN servers can start as low as $20 a month. For larger businesses with significant amounts of global traffic this can go up to hundreds of even thousands of dollars a month.

While this is not a trivial amount for an online business to spend, consider the costs of a bad user experience or content of your website not loading properly during a campaign. If users of your website are using lots of bandwidth consumption such as loading or watching a video, CDN’s can be especially helpful to improve performance.

Ultimately, CDN’s are an important part of making sure web content functions as intended and helps provide a better user experience for anyone running or growing an online business.

What is a CDN FAQ

What is a CDN and how does it work?

A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a group of interconnected servers distributed globally that serve web content to users. A CDN takes requests for domains and is able to direct them to the appropriate CDN server which then delivers cached content to the client server.

What is the advantage of a CDN?

The advantage of a CDN is that because cached content can be delivered by any number of servers, the overall bandwidth and costs associated with browsing the internet are reduced. This improves user experience and allows for more users to access content simultaneously.

What is the difference between a CDN and a proxy?

A CDN is a globally distributed network of many proxy servers operating in various data centers. Proxy servers act as an intermediary between a client requesting content and the server providing that resource.

What are the best CDN providers?

While there are many CDN providers, here are some of the top names in the space today:

  • KeyCDN
  • Rackspace
  • Sucuri.
  • Cloudflare
  • Google Cloud CDN
  • CacheFly
  • Amazon CloudFront