Some of us might recall the “dark days'' before YouTube and mobile gaming, while others can’t imagine a world without them. The establishment of the World Wide Web (WWW) protocol in 1990 by computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was essentially Year 1 in terms of what we consider the Internet. To say this milestone was revolutionary would be an understatement.

While the WWW protocol of the 1990s established the foundation layer of the Internet, there is an often-overlooked component to the Internet’s infrastructure that makes engaging with these apps possible. These are known as content delivery networks (CDNs), and they are responsible for making the Internet experience much richer, diverse, and dynamic.

In honour of World Wide Web Day, it’s important to understand the incredible value that CDNs bring to our lives, both personal and professional.

What do CDNs do?

The role CDNs play can be explained in their name—they are networks that deliver content to end users. But that, of course, doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. The first generation of CDNs launched more than two decades ago and were designed to enhance and improve the Internet’s performance as it became a more widely used medium. Since their debut in the late 90s, CDNs have expanded to facilitate a massive chunk of the Internet’s content including text, graphics, scripts, and downloadable files and applications.

Technically speaking, a CDN is a network of servers scattered around the globe distributing content from the original server by caching, or storing, content as close as possible to the end user accessing the Internet. The closer content is cached to the end user, the shorter the travel distance is, reducing latency and decreasing the workload for the original server. In short, CDNs help websites and applications perform better by delivering the data faster through a network of geolocalized servers known as edge servers. The more servers the better!

Now, as global Internet usage continues to expand thanks to streaming subscription services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, along with the scaling of online gaming, social media, and e-commerce, effective CDN architecture is becoming more and more critical in our everyday lives. Soon, we will likely see a rise in demand for more immersive and interactive virtual reality (VR) experiences, and this will contribute to the growing demand and need for high-speed low-latency connections. The increased demand for low-latency connections will further emphasize the importance of the CDN framework.

Importance of proper CDN framework

Many benefits vary depending on the type of Internet content, but the primary benefits include improving website load times, reduction in bandwidth costs, increase in content availability and redundancy, and improving website security. We take this for granted today, but behind the scenes, CDNs are supporting our Internet’s entire infrastructure.

Today, virtually all businesses depend on high-quality Internet experiences for much of their business operations and activities. CDNs ensure this and without the proper framework, businesses are vulnerable to revenue loss. Website delays of only 100 milliseconds can harm conversion rates by 7 percent. For an e-commerce platform, this contributes to cart abandonment, which leads to an estimated loss of $18 billion in revenue each year.

A faster loading time of 250 milliseconds proved to prevent users from visiting a competitor’s online store, demonstrating the necessity and priority that online shoppers place on agile web connections.

Finding the best CDN

For businesses looking to step up their online presence, there are many considerations to take into account when building the proper CDN framework. When considering CDN optimization, organizations must be aware of two separate costs: CDN and cloud. CDN costs are charged based on outgoing traffic, while cloud costs include storage, computation usage, and data transfer. CDNs, however, help organizations cut down on their data transfer costs by caching data closer to the user instead of with the origin server.

Security is another key consideration for any business shopping around for a CDN because global CDN traffic reached 252 exabytes per month in 2022—compared to only 54 exabytes in 2017. This leaves plenty of crucial data for bad actors to try to intercept, steal, or modify. While there are some inherent insecurities of the applications accelerated by CDNs, with the right steps, finding a robust CDN that will remediate or protect against such application vulnerabilities, can secure websites and their content is possible. All organizations that want to find the best CDN vendor in terms of both security and quality must carefully evaluate all potential CDNs beforehand, activate a web application firewall to protect against outsiders, and enable compatibility with secure sockets layer (SSL) certificates. Additionally, depending on an organization’s specific needs, features such as encryption, distributed denial of service (DDoS) mitigation, and compliance may also be a high priority.

Finding the right CDN, ultimately, comes down to the use case that fits a given organization’s needs. An OTT platform, or online streaming service, is going to have a completely different set of needs than that of an e-commerce website; different types of content function better with different CDNs. In addition to security and content, other important considerations when shopping around for the perfect match are budget, location of end users, speed and reliability, cost and pricing models, and support services.

The average web user is completely unaware of CDNs and their importance within the overall Internet ecosystem. Likewise, many businesses and organizations of all types are unaware of the role and importance that CDNs play and therefore don’t invest the proper amount of due diligence into researching the best CDN options.

CDNs are the unsung hero of the Internet, so in honour of World Wide Web Day, it is worth shedding light on how they impact our everyday lives and how organizations can make the most informed decisions.

Written by Dr. Eduardo Rocha, Senior Solutions Architect at GlobalDots