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Since its launch back in 2010, CloudFlare has been a company with an ambitious goal – help to power and protect the entire Internet.

Along the way they also accelerate your website, promising massive performance gains through use of their globally distributed servers – providing everyone with easy access a content delivery network.

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) have been used to accelerate website for many years now through means of using a network of servers dotted around the world. Requests for content on your site that doesn’t change frequently (images, CSS & Javascript etc) are directed to whichever CDN server is geographically closest to each visitor – offloading the request from your own server & network, and accelerating delivery of your content.

Historically however using a CDN has been an expensive undertaking with high charges for storage of your content on their servers & of course bandwidth usage costs for the data served in support of your website. Generally speaking, most CDNs are pure cache solutions and do not provide any additional security for your website or content optimisation technologies.

CloudFlare is different; significantly different.

For a start, they provide all the services you’d expect to see offered by a traditional CDN. A globally dispersed network of servers with fast, high-capacity connectivity which you can use to accelerate delivery of your website’s content. That’s where the similarity ends…
Firstly, the service is available for free.

FREE.

No setup costs, no monthly costs, no storage costs, no bandwidth costs and no advertising. They offer a paid upgrade for $20 (US) / month which adds many other useful services and enhanced analytics, but that’s still hardly expensive when considering the cost of traditional CDN solutions.

CDN aside, CloudFlare also provides a range of security-orientated services – their main product. These services protect your website by screening out malicious, threatening or abusive traffic; challenging anything suspicious and blocking it before it reaches your servers. Details of attacks across all sites using their network are fed back into the system to help ensure that emerging attack profiles can be tracked and blocked for all as rapidly as possible.

The end result is that only genuine traffic reaches your webservers – helping improve performance further still by preventing unwanted traffic from wasting your server’s resources.

Surely setting this up is difficult?

Opting to use a traditional CDN is sometimes a difficult affair involving changes to your application code or alterations to your webserver’s configuration to ensure that requests for files hosted on the CDN are routed to the CDN rather than your server. If you’re using a CMS this might be as simple as installing a suitable plugin but on the other hand could involve significant development effort.

Using CloudFlare is simplicity itself, taking 5-10 minutes to setup a new website. You need to have control of your domain’s Name Servers however as setup entails adding your domain to the system, and then pointing its Name Servers to CloudFlare’s DNS. Once that’s done, you’re up and running.

Does it work?

CloudFlare was enabled a few days ago on this site, and first impressions are good. Response times were far from slow previously however as we’ve been running the blazing fast combination of Nginx & PHP-FPM rather than traditional Apache, but we had a number of areas we were hoping to improve in terms of compressing JS/CSS files and cache management of static files. Comment SPAM has also been getting increasingly annoying with this site seemingly being on someone’s list for the link-spamming brigade.

It’s obviously early days but so far it seems great. We’re getting increased website performance in terms of faster page loads; everything that can be compressed or minified is now being handled as we’d like; comment spam seems to have been stopped in its tracks (probably due to the bot-nets that generate it now being blocked by CloudFlare); and stability of the CloudFlare service seems fine.
All in, for free, I’m pleased with how it seems to be working so far.

We’ll be adding a few more sites to the service over the coming week or two and I’ll let you know how it goes.. Definitely a case of so far, so good!

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