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Coach Wei (Global) - The Evolution of CDNs

The Evolution of CDNs

All was not well during Apple’s iPad announcement on March 7, 2012. As customers rushed to Apple.com, they experienced a number of performance problems ranging from slow page load times (according to research anything over three seconds is slow and can cause site abandonment) to downtime and “Service Unavailable” errors for store.apple.com. These led to more than 2000 negative tweets about store.apple.com being down.

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) such as the one used by Apple have been a crucial component in ensuring site stability and increasing site speed for over the last 15 years. Yet, Apple’s inability to keep its site functioning during heavy traffic is a sign that traditional technology behind CDNs can no longer meet the demands of today’s online shoppers. With legacy CDN technology still being sold and used, e-commerce companies already using or on the market for a CDN must ensure that their CDN solution incorporates the latest performance technologies.

Websites Have Changed, CDNs Have Not

15 years ago, when the web was first gaining momentum, e-commerce websites were nothing more than HTML files and images.

Think about Amazon.com. On this site, you encounter embedded media, interactive JavaScript and Ajax calls, and a number of third-party widgets for connecting with social media. There are also invariably other assets at work behind the scenes, tracking visitors and collecting data.

These complex websites are nearly unrecognizable when compared to e-commerce sites that CDNs were built to address. When CDNs were created 15 years ago, site content was relatively simple for browsers to render; the major hurdle in web performance was delivering the content from the server to the browser as quickly as possible. CDNs were built to address this specific problem.

The world has changed since then, but CDNs haven’t evolved fast enough to keep up. A breakdown of today’s webpages reveals that delivery is responsible for less than 20% of the total time it takes to load a webpage. The rest of the time spent is in “execution”— that is, when the browser is piecing together and executing the complex programmatic statements contained in Web 2.0 applications.  Put differently: 80% of website load time is now spent by the user’s browser ‘executing’ code that has already been delivered.  CDNs have been rendered less effective by the unimportance of the problem they were originally built to solve.

Choosing the Right CDN Solution

AccuStream Research estimates the CDN market at $3 billion. While the industry is large and growing at about 20% annually, not all CDNs are created equal. Whether e-commerce companies are choosing a CDN for the first time or re-evaluating their CDN needs, asking CDN providers the right questions about performance, technology and costs can help ensure a much better return on investment.

First evaluate whether the CDN service actually speeds up the site performance.  Most existing CDNs are built to address the delivery bottleneck that existed 15 years ago. Due to the complexity of modern websites, these CDNs have been lagging behind in fulfilling the promise of “site acceleration”.

Looking into the CDN technology, specifically how the CDN makes sites faster and more reliable, should be the first step of any CDN evaluation. The key here is to make sure that the CDN incorporates technologies that focus on front-end optimization in addition to delivery features. E-commerce companies must insist on getting specifics about what the CDN’s front-end capabilities are, and how much these front-end capabilities can boost site speed. CDN providers using state of the art front-end optimization techniques should be able to guarantee site speed increases of 100% or more.

Concerning price, CDNs should no longer cost the hundreds of thousands of dollars they did when the technology first arrived on the market. Yet, some CDN providers still try to sell solutions that are unnecessary and in come cases outdated. When negotiating CDN prices, keep this general range in mind: There are alternative options.

CDNs should also have few if any set up costs. Be wary of providers that talk about significant time and resources needed for CDN implementations.

With site speed playing such an important role in time on site, conversions and ultimately revenue, e-commerce companies need affordable and reliable CDNs that guarantee significant site performance gains. Taking the time to evaluate CDN technologies and costs helps ensure a great customer experience, whether on a slow traffic weekday or during an anticipated product launch that drives iPad announcement traffic levels.

By Coach Wei, founder and CEO of Yottaa, the web performance company.

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