The Secret to Speeding Up Your Website For Free

Let me guess, you'd like to supercharge the speed of your website, right? Who wouldn't? Pretty much everyone with a web presence is concerned about site performance (faster sites increase user experience and improve SEO). Using a CDN service like CloudFlare can give your site a performance boost with very little effort. Oh, did I mention it's free? Plus, if you have a skilled IT professional it should only take about an hour to get started. 

What is a CDN?

CloudFlare is a CDN, or Content Delivery Network, made of servers distributed all over the world. These servers act as a buffer between a website and its vistors, serving up some requests for content on behalf of the site. They do this by keeping a copy (a.k.a. “cache”) of some of that content, images for example, on their servers and sending it directly to your website visitors. For content the CDN can't serve, like dynamic content that comes from a database, it forwards the requests to your website.

What a CDN Can Do for You

To understand what a CDN like Cloudflare does, lets first look at how a typical website works. Normally, every time a visitor comes to your site they interact directly with your web server. This means multiple requests from the visitors web browser to your server. The browser downloads the various bits and pieces that make up a web page – HTML, CSS, Javascript, images, etc. Each of these requests consumes resources (CPU time, memory, network bandwidth) on your web server. If too many of these requests happen at a given time (i.e. many people visiting your website) they can use up resources and cause your site to slow down. 

A CDN helps by handling as many of these requests as possible without bothering your web server. As a result, your web server handles fewer requests for each visitor. This gives your existing web server the capacity to handle more visitors than it would be able to handle without a CDN. 

CDNs have geographical advantages too. If you're like most small or medium sized businesses we work with, you probably have a single server or a small group of servers located somewhere in the United States. If you have customers visiting your website from other countries, their requests often travel long distances over congested international network links to reach your server here in the U.S. Your website can seem sluggish to customers overseas even when the performance here in the U.S. seems just fine.

Since a CDN has a globally distributed network of servers, it's able to service many of these requests on servers in the same country or region as your website visitors. You end up with an improved experience for visitors located far away from where your website’s servers are located.

There are other CDNs out there, but we decided to try Cloudflare. We'd wanted to test it for awhile and see if this free tool could accomplish all their website claimed it could. We were not disappointed, although there are a few issues that may come up in some circumstances. 

Problems to Look Out For

Sites that use SSL (https) may require additional setup to work with CloudFlare and may not work with the free version of CloudFlare.

Since CloudFlare caches your content, if you make changes to files that are cached by CloudFlare, it may take some time before website visitors see those changes. CloudFlare actually provides a function in their administrative interface to clear out that content cache, so that's something you might need to do after making certain kinds of changes to a website.

How to Get Started with Cloudflare

Pie charts of bandwidth saved using content delivery networksWe recently implemented a CloudFlare CDN solution for one of our clients and found it surprisingly easy. You'll need some technical expertise, but CloudFlare walks you through the process.

The set up varies by website, but it mostly requires you (or your friendly neighborhood IT person) to change the DNS provider for your domain from your existing provider to CloudFlare. At that point CloudFlare will handle DNS requests for your domain and supply their IP addresses instead of the IP address for your web server. 

The whole process took only about an hour or two for a simple site setup using their free service level (yes, it’s really free). As you can see from the graph, CloudFlare is now handling over 50% of the requests for this site and saving the client on both hardware resources and bandwidth.

The effectiveness depends on different factors, but in this example we noticed about 10-20% increase in site speed. For a free solution to make your website faster, that seems pretty substantial. 

Photo Cred: Nathan E Photography 

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