Are paid CDNs like Cloudflare worth the cost? (How to find out)

Ask any web expert how to speed up a website, and one of their suggestions will be to sign up for a CDN, or Content Delivery Network. This tip makes all the lists, including mine, and it is generally a good idea.

A CDN helps speed up your site by storing parts of the site on other servers around the world. That way when a visitor loads a page, the closest CDN server sends some or all of the page. The page only has to travel a fraction of the distance, and so it will load faster.

This is a good way to speed up your site, no doubt about it, but here is another question for you: Should you pay for a CDN?

Some CDN companies such as Cloudflare have both a free tier, and paid tiers with more features and better service.  Cloudflare’s paid service starts at $20 a month and can go as high as $5K.

Is it worth the money?

I can’t answer that question for everyone, but I do know how you can find out whether a CDN is helping your site or is just a waste of money.

There are online tools you can use to measure  a site’s performance, and you can use them to run before and after tests and tell whether a CDN is helping.

Let me give you an example.

In addition to building websites, I also have a blog called The Digital Reader. It’s a fairly active niche blog with hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. I’ve had it for around 8 years now,  and in that time I have done everything possible to make it load faster. I have optimized images, bought a license to WP rocket (a caching plugin), minified CSS and JS, and deleted any plugins I didn’t absolutely need.

I even signed up for Cloudflare’s free service. This site is as fast as I could make it, but would it be faster if I upgraded to Cloudflare’s paid service?

The answer is no, and let me show you how I found that out.

What I did was use 3 online tools to test my site’s performance both before and after the upgrade:

Those tools showed that my site was pretty fast while on Cloudflare’s free service. The site fully loaded in 2.3 seconds, and it got good scores at PageSpeed Insights:

That is not the fastest site on the web but it’s still pretty fast.

Would it be faster on Cloudflare’s $20 a month plan, or the $200 a month plan?

As far as I can tell, no. The site loaded a fraction of a second faster, but overall performance did not improve:

Cloudflare’s paid plans did not help my blog because it was already as fast as it was going to get.

If you trial a CDN, and you run these tests, you might find yourself in a similar position.

Or maybe not. Each website is different, and even if we group them into broad categories the simple truth is that each category has its own needs and solutions. Huge eCommerce websites, for example, need more robust solutions than a blog requires.

Really, the only one size fits all advice I have for you is that your CDN should not cost more than your hosting fees. I think you would get better results from paying for better hosting than from paying for a CDN, but that’s just me.

image by stevepaustin via Flickr

Posted in tips & tricks.

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