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What is a CDN? How to Select a CDN Provider (2022 Guide)

September 20, 2022

Website performance and security are the two major aspects of modern website development that largely affect user experience and SEO rankings. Serving content to end users all over the world and making sure no visitors experience any delays regardless of their location can be extremely challenging.

Employed by all modern technological giants, CDN hosting helps meet the performance requirements of mission-critical applications and overcome the limitations of traditional web hosting by ensuring great page load times and improved security.

In this comprehensive guide to CDN hosting, you will learn how content delivery networks help speed up the internet by bringing content closer to the end user, and how to choose the best CDN provider for unrivaled website performance.

What Is a CDN?

A CDN, which stands for Content Delivery or Distribution Network, is a large network of geographically distributed servers that help speed up the delivery of web content, thus improving the overall user experience. By maintaining a global point of presence with dispersed data centers and offering a pool of additional server resources, CDNs can service a large number of web requests coming from your website visitors without having to direct them to the origin server.

You may be wondering, what is the difference between the origin server and a CDN endpoint? The origin server is the server your website resides on, while a CDN endpoint, which can also be referred to as a proxy server, is one of the physical servers that belong to the CDN hosting provider.

Is a CDN the Same As Web Hosting?

No, a CDN and web hosting are not the same, although both do perform similar operations for content delivery. In the vast majority of cases, a content delivery network can not replace traditional web hosting services due to the fact that CDNs can only be used to cache and serve static content, while dynamic content generation still needs to take place on the origin server.

If you are running a dynamic database-driven website, which can be built using WordPress or one of the other popular content management systems, you need both web hosting and CDN hosting to achieve great performance and high scalability. Managed WordPress hosting with CDN is the best choice for all types of websites built on the open source platform.

How Does a CDN Work?

How does a CDN work to speed up your website? By placing servers in multiple geographically distributed locations, a content delivery network stores copies of your website’s static content and directs each web request to the CDN endpoint closest to the visitor. A CDN can significantly improve page load times by decreasing the number of links and routers between the website visitor and the proxy server from which content is retrieved.

How Do Proxy Servers Deliver Content to Website Visitors?

If a content delivery network is used, all web requests coming to your website reach the proxy servers that determine what content needs to be sent to the visitor. Then, depending on whether the CDN can service the request, one of the following happens:

  • If the CDN stores a copy of the requested object, it can send it to the user’s browser without having to load it from the origin server.
  • If certain content has not been requested for some time, which means that the content delivery network no longer has it cached, it will establish a connection to the origin server, retrieve the requested object, and deliver it to the website visitor.

Every time a piece of static content is requested, a content delivery network is going to either retrieve it from cache or load it from the origin server and then save it to its cache.

How Does a CDN Speed Up Static Content Delivery?

Static content includes images and video, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and other types of documents that can be loaded bypassing the process of dynamic content generation. If no caching solution is used, each time a visitor loads a web page, a request is sent to your origin web server to retrieve and deliver it over the network.

This approach can lead to a substantial increase in latency, resulting in poor performance and long delays. Along with the negative effects on the client side, sending constant requests for static content to your origin server results in an increased utilization of server resources and higher bandwidth usage.

Unless the requested content needs to be tailored to each visitor to create personalized user experience, there is no need for each web request to be sent to the origin server, making large files travel long distances through the network. A content delivery network helps address this problem by providing powerful proxy servers and employing advanced traffic routing techniques.

Additional Features Offered by a CDN

Aside from caching static files on its proxy servers for fast and reliable content distribution, hosting with CDN offers a number of other features. These often include additional security solutions and static content delivery optimization tools.

Web Application Firewalls

Modern content delivery networks offer a web application firewall, or a WAF, which provides an additional layer of security for all modern websites. As the name suggests, a WAF works on the application level of network communication and serves the purpose of filtering out malicious or potentially unwanted web requests, so they never make it to the origin server.

Most web application firewalls offered by CDN hosting include managed rulesets that have been pre configured for you and ensure protection against most security threats, and the ability to add your own rules to block traffic based on custom parameters.

End-To-End Encryption

Content delivery networks can offer edge SSL certificates and ensure end-to-end encryption to protect the traffic flow both between the visitor’s browser and the CDN, and between the CDN and the origin server. Even if you do not have an SSL certificate installed for your website on the origin server, which is required for end-to-end encryption, a CDN will still use an edge certificate. This way, your website will still show as fully secure in all browsers.

Static Content Optimization

Along with storing objects on its proxy servers, content delivery networks can implement various static content optimization techniques, including file compression and minification.

For example, hosting with CDN can help you optimize your images and video by converting them to another format. A continent delivery network can also speed up the content delivery process by choosing the right size and quality of an image or video to be sent based on the visitor’s browser type and their device’s screen resolution.

3 Main Benefits of Using a CDN

Regardless of the website architecture, its size and complexity, content delivery networks provide a number of benefits, with the three most important ones being the following:

  • Increased website performance and faster page load times. Serving static content from the CDN endpoint closest to the website visitor and taking advantage of additional features like file compression, image optimization, and HTTP/2 inherently results in the reduction of user-perceived delay, speeding up your website.
  • Lowered load on the origin server and reduced bandwidth consumption. As the majority of static content can be retrieved from the proxy servers, and the web application firewall running on the CDN’s side filters out most malicious web requests, the number of connections received by the origin server is significantly lower. This will reduce bandwidth consumption and protect your web server from being overloaded, thus almost eliminating the possibility of downtime.
  • Improved website security. Content delivery networks employ modern security standards, which include ensuring end-to-end traffic encryption, providing protection against DDOS, brute force, and other types of network attacks. This can considerably reduce the attack surface and ease the requirements for server-side security solutions.

CDN Hosting vs. Traditional Hosting

Web hosting and CDN hosting are two separate services often used together to achieve better website performance, security, and scalability. The vast majority of modern websites and web applications need at least a web server and a database server, which traditional hosting offers, to handle dynamic content generation, and a content delivery network to improve static content distribution.

However, there are cases where you could use CDN hosting without the need to sign up for traditional web hosting services. If you build a static website, using free CDN hosting is a great way to reduce hosting costs.

CDN Hosting For Static Website Architecture

As opposed to dynamic database-driven websites and web applications, static websites do not require a database, and can be hosted using a content delivery network or an object storage service. For example, Jamstack, which is a powerful web development architecture employing Javascript, API, and HTML markup, can be used for building high-performance static websites and web applications.

Static website architecture is often used for creating landing pages, personal blogs, and web portals. Jamstack can also be integrated with WordPress as a headless CMS by using modern static content generators like GatsbyJS and NextJS. This way, you can leverage all the benefits that WordPress hosting with CDN offers.

How Do I Select a CDN Hosting Provider?

The chosen content delivery network and the CDN hosting provider will have a tremendous impact on how well your website serves static content, and, ultimately, on its page load times and overall performance. Here are the five main aspects of a content delivery network to take into consideration when choosing a CDN hosting provider:

  • Network size and server locations.
  • Performance and security optimizations.
  • Pricing and CDN hosting plans.
  • Ease of use.
  • Technical support and documentation.

Network Size and Server Locations

The size of a content delivery network is defined by the number of servers it has, which are often referred to as points of presence, and their locations. The number of points of presence and how well they are distributed across the globe is key to ensure no website visitors will experience any delays in content delivery.

A content delivery network should have at least a few points of presence on all continents if you have customers all over the world. More servers should be present in the region where most website visitors are located. If you have your customer base concentrated in one region or even would like to only allow traffic from a certain location, it is generally recommended to have your origin server there for better page load times.

Performance And Security Optimizations

Before choosing a CDN hosting provider, learn what additional features you can leverage. Depending on the plan, you can get a different set of optimization options. Think of what you absolutely need and what can be skipped based on the specific requirements of your website.

SSL, web application firewalls, traffic encryption options represent the main additional security features that can be included. Support for HTTP/2, compression, and various static content optimization tools can provide a great performance boost for any website.

Pricing and CDN Hosting Plans

Review the plans content delivery networks offer and what features are included in each of them. Most companies have free CDN hosting plans that provide core CDN functionality, which might be exactly what you are looking for. Most of the time, you are allowed to upgrade to another plan to unlock premium features.

Ease Of Use

This factor is especially important if you are just starting with CDN hosting. A content delivery network should be easy to integrate with your website and provide a way to configure it according to the specific requirements of your business.

Learn how you can configure the chosen content delivery network for your website, including the changes to the DNS setup, and the modifications that need to be made to the origin server. Your web hosting provider's support team might be able to help you with some tasks, but they won't be able to log in to any third-party services. So there is a high chance that you will have to configure your CDN hosting on your own or reach out to their technical support.

Technical Support And Documentation

The CDN hosting provider’s technical support team will be the point of contact if you run into any issues during the initial configuration or if using the content delivery network causes degraded functionality on your website. Learn how the CDN hosting provider accepts and processes support requests - whether you are able to call, chat, or open a ticket - and how fast the reported issue can be addressed.

Study the documentation that covers the content delivery network’s main features and the configuration process. Having access to great documentation allows you to better understand how the CDN hosting can benefit your business, and how you can enable certain optimizations.

Is CDN Hosting For You?

Nowadays there is no website or a web application that could not benefit from using a content delivery network. A content delivery network helps bring content closer to your customers and provide better user experience by serving static content from one of the proxy servers closest to each particular website visitor.

As important as the CDN used is for your online business, it won’t make any difference if your server infrastructure is not configured correctly, which often results in poor performance and frequent downtime. When it comes to web hosting, you can not settle for anything less than the best.

Nexcess offers high-performance hosting optimized for WordPress and other modern content management systems. With over two decades of providing the best managed hosting for mission-critical websites, Nexcess combines the power of open source software and award-winning support to create a unique hosting experience.

Leverage unrivaled performance and enterprise-grade security with a lightning-fast content delivery network included with all hosting plans. With more than twenty points of presence around the globe, the Nexcess Edge Content Delivery Network ensures great page load times employing cutting-edge technology configured out of the box.

Check out our plans to get started today.

Kiki Sheldon
Kiki Sheldon


Kiki works as a Security Specialist for Liquid Web. Before joining the Abuse & Security Operations Department, she worked on the Liquid Web Managed Hosting Support Team, where she gained extensive knowledge of Linux System Administration and popular Content Management Systems (CMSs).

Kiki’s passion for writing allows her to share her professional expertise and help others. She keeps up with technology and always looks to improve her technical skills. In her free time, she enjoys reading, especially classic books and detective stories.