If you are at least one bit interested in the security of your website, you must have at least heard of Cloudflare - an immensely popular internet security services provider. However, it may not be perfectly clear what is Cloudflare and what it does. So, in our attempt to help the ones interested in security get their feet firmly on the ground, we will run a simple explanation.
So, What Is Cloudflare?
To understand what is Cloudflare and how it works, you first need to understand what Content Delivery Networks (CDN) are. CDNs are essentially the backbone of the internet, and, as their name suggests, they are in charge of delivering content online. Most people in the world don’t realize how often they use CDNs every day for all kinds of online tasks, such as reading online news, shopping on Amazon, watching silly YouTube videos, and browsing Instagram, Reddit, or Facebook.
CDNs are widely used because they solve a very important problem: latency. Our attention span in today’s digital age leaves little room for any kind of delay, especially when waiting for a web page to load. Would you wait five seconds or more when visiting a website? No thank you!
This delay interval is caused by an amalgam of things, one of the biggest being the distance between you and the website’s hosting server. This physical distance plays a big role in the delay duration, and so, a CDN’s purpose is to shorten that distance for the sake of speed and performance.
How Does A CDN Work?
You may be wondering how in the world a CDN can shorten the actual, real-life distance between you and a webpage’s server, and the answer is more simple than you’d think. CDNs make use of caching technology to store a copy of the website at a specified number of locations around the globe. So no matter where a site’s visitors live in the world—New York, Perth, South Africa, London—all of the data and content from the website that is then delivered to them will be from one of these locations that contain a server that is caching content and data.
Caching is the ability to store data so that when it’s requested, it can be served faster. In a nutshell, CDNs place a website’s content in many places all over the world which can reach a wider audience much faster. So when someone in Perth, Australia accesses your Florida-hosted website, it’s done through a local Australian server. This is way faster than having your Aussie visitors’ requests and your website’s responses travel across the world and back.
Things That Make Cloudflare So Interesting
So how exactly does a company like Cloudflare play into all of this? Well, Cloudflare is a CDN! Headquartered in San Francisco, USA, Cloudflare is a CDN and reverse proxy provider launched at the 2010 TechCrunch Conference.
Over 60,000 websites use Cloudflare for the following services:
- Content Delivery — Cloudflare acts as a CDN by creating cached versions of static content from their customers’ websites which spread across a network of servers. This cached content is delivered to visitors depending on their location to ensure the best page load speeds, lower bandwidth usage, and lower CPU usage.
- DDoS Protection — Distributed denial-of-service is a form of cyber attack. Cloudflare offers protective and preventive DDoS services to mitigate and deflect any attacks by using security measures such as captchas, which require visitors prove they are human.
- Domain Name Service — Another service Cloudflare provides is the handling of domain name service (DNS) requests for customers using an anycast network. Cloudflare has one of the fastest response times on the market.
A few companies you might recognize that take full advantage of Cloudflare’s powerful services include Yelp, Stack Overflow, DigitalOcean, Medium, and there's plenty more.
How does everything work?
Cloudflare essentially works as a reverse proxy, meaning once you create your account with Cloudflare, your website becomes part of their network and can begin taking advantage of their use of data centers all over the world that directs site traffic.
Their vast distribution of servers ensures that no matter how busy websites in their network are, traffic will always be directed to the nearest server.
Unlike standard CDNs, with Cloudflare, all you need to do is update your domain name servers (DNS) to point to Cloudflare. This is convenient, as you no longer have to worry about choosing the exact data to be cached from your website. It can typically take up to 24 hours for your servers to be ready to go, but once they are, they will be put to use automatically.
Site security is another great addition to Cloudflare’s CDN and reverse proxy services. They can block threats based on a variety of factors, such as HTTP headers, blacklists, reputation, and more. Cloudflare also works to ward off attacks from bots as well as limit comment spam, protect key ports—like FTP and SSH—from hackers, and other DDoS attacks.
Other Additions To Keep Your Site Smooth
Another added bonus of using Cloudflare is their image optimization. Their technology can reduce file sizes by an average of 35% and even optimize image display for mobile devices. This kind of feature can go a long way to impact the overall speed and performance of your site.
While Cloudflare is known for its approachable and user-friendly features, it also leaves plenty of breathing room for the more technically-inclined by offering support for HTTP/2, SPDY, IPv6, page rules for traffic, dedicated SSL certificates, a REST API and plenty more. Many web hosting providers already include some Cloudflare features in their services. So even with a simple and very inexpensive plan, you can go and check some of the best features Cloudflare has to offer.
There are plenty of notable CDNs available today on the market, but Cloudflare is one of the most popular. They have an excellent variety of services to both optimize and protect any website, and it’s easy to use.
There’s simply a ton of performance-boosting potential here, but if you’re still unsure, try out their basic free plan. While it has more restrictions and limitations than their paid plans, it’s a good place to start and get your feet wet.