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What is a CDN, besides amazing?

Dominik

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What is a CDN

CDN is a category of specialized server systems designed to facilitate data sharing over the Internet. For many intents and purposes, CDNs serve as the master cache storage for the majority of the World Wide Web, which is why they are commonly referred to as the backbone of the Internet.


A content delivery or distribution network (CDN) is a category of specialized server systems designed to facilitate data sharing over the Internet. For many intents and purposes, CDNs serve as the master cache storage for the majority of the World Wide Web, which is why they are commonly referred to as the backbone of the Internet.

True to their name, CDNs promulgate the delivery of content from websites, apps, and any other online platform to pretty much every netizen. They’re not in-your-face about it, either, but they’re pretty much always bridging your connection to websites on the other side of the planet. Unless your Internet surfing doesn’t take you too far away from home, of course.

But it usually does, as evidenced by the fact CDNs have already been serving half of all Internet content by the late summer of 2017, according to the European Commission’s CDN-H project. And they are still gaining momentum, mind you, so they’re doing pretty well for a technology that is significantly younger than the Internet itself. For added context, a Cambridge, MA-based IT firm Akamai launched the world’s first CDN in 1999.

Around the world in 80 milliseconds

In a typical setup, CDNs are geographically positioned between a client device and its target host. Or many – if not countless – client devices, to be more specific. That framework brings us to their first and primary goal – eliminating latency.

They accomplish that by e.g. sending frontend designs, static pages, cached articles, and even entire websites over to the client devices requesting them. Over significantly shorter distances, of course. Ever noticed how ads on most websites tend to be the first thing to load? That may not always be the work of a typical CDN, but it’s the same principle.

These intermediary server farms of sorts are nowadays also called Points of Presence CDNs, or PoPs. These charmingly named solutions are a fundamental element of any CDN system and are backed by more typical caching server farms that may or may not be on the same physical premises.

Regardless, modern CDNs are like your typical Premier League winger whenever Adam Hansen’s in the commentary booth: they’re quick, fast, and they’ve got pace. For example, Cloudflare, widely touted as today’s fastest CDN in the world, can service a request on another side of the planet in a matter of milliseconds.

Needless to say, such robust tech also lightens the traffic load on the world’s most popular websites. But that’s more of an added bonus than the primary goal of CDNs. There’s no denying this side benefit played a pretty major role in their continued rise over the last decade. 

After all, a contemporary CDN cluster can be so powerful as to de facto mitigate DDoS attacks even without employing active countermeasures. So – just by helping the attacked site bear the sudden influx of traffic.

Why CDNs are pro-torrenting

CDNs even go hand-in-hand with torrenting, or better said, they *are* torrenting. Peer-to-peer sharing protocols have quite literally always been considered as a type of CDNs. Lately, however, we’ve seen a lot of movement on the actual P2P CDN prompt. Because PCDNs gained a lot of popularity with the advent of 5G and its manic focus on edge computing, last-mile delivery, and all that shebang. Virtualized CDNs are another thing to keep an eye on in the years ahead, for much the same reasons.

Even those not satisfied with their regional CDN need not despair these days. Regardless of whether that’s some smaller provider or one of the industry giants such as Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure. With the technology recently entering into its third decade of existence and overwhelming prevalence, it’s mature enough that you can even start your own CDN by either renting a couple of servers or multicasting from your own hardware.

Finally, even telecom giants have been getting into the CDN business – solo and federated – for nearly a decade by now. How could they have not, what with all the quad-play strategies, synergies, and similar attempts at finding anything resembling growth in this oversaturated, hyper-commercialized world? On what else could they have spent that allowan… bailout, I mean, from Obama?

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