"Your website should use a CDN to be fast..."
You may be surprised to learn how often this is completely untrue.
It’s likely that you’ve heard of Cloudflare before, even if you’re not entirely sure what it is. In a nutshell, Cloudflare is a formidable website security and performance-focussed company based in the USA, that’s been around since 2009. They have an extensive and impressive offering, with one of their main services being one of the world’s largest content distribution networks (CDN).
Most businesses believe that its essential to use a CDN to achieve optimal website speeds. However, if you take a look at the traceroute of an Australian-hosted website using Cloudflare’s free or even business-tier CDN service, depending on who your internet provider is the hop journey and ping response times often tell an unexpected story.
In this article, we’ll show you why Cloudflare’s CDN service is likely slowing down your Australian website for most of your visitors.
What does Cloudflare actually do?
The use of Cloudflare is widespread amongst Australian websites, and often for good reason. Cloudflare provides a wide range of top-tier quality services, and for the most part, it’s free. Below are some of the key features of Cloudflare that many Australian websites are making good use of:
Many businesses use Cloudflare for their DNS hosting service, to keep their DNS records hosted separately from their website. If your business requires its website to be up and running at all times, keeping your DNS hosting and web hosting apart is an essential redundancy strategy. Just as you shouldn’t host your email on the same server as your website, it’s vital to separate DNS from your web server so that you don’t have a single point of failure.
A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack refers to an attempt by an attacker (or attackers) to disrupt the availability of your website. It can be done in various ways, but generally a DDoS attack works by drowning your hosting server with an influx of data requests.
Cloudflare is an absolute frontrunner when it comes to DDoS protection. Their DNS proxy/CDN service essentially acts as a barrier between your website and the rest of the internet, with the ability to detect and resist malicious traffic sent to your website as a DDoS attack. When you have this service enabled, your origin hosting server is hidden from public view and Cloudflare plays the middleman for all data requests, ensuring only the genuine traffic gets through to your hosting server. However, this also means that your page load times will rely on the speed of Cloudflare’s servers, rather than your own – but more on this later.
A CDN provides a means of getting your website data geographically closer to your visitors, thus speeding up their page load times. It does this by pushing copies of your website’s static (and some dynamic) data out to an extensive number of servers all around the world. Then, when a user visits your website, they can load the majority of the files that make up your web pages from their closest CDN server location.
All of the above benefits are available (at certain levels) for free with Cloudflare, making it seem like an ideal solution. However, if you’re using Cloudflare primarily for its purported performance benefits, unless you are on one of Cloudflare’s top-tier paid plans, it’s very likely doing the exact opposite and making your website slower than it was to begin with.
Why? Like almost everything else, it all comes back to money. But it’s not Cloudflare at fault.
How using Cloudflare is actually slowing down your website
To explain the matter properly, we need to lay a bit of groundwork first.
Australia is among the most expensive bandwidth markets globally. It’s one of the 6 most expensive countries that cost Cloudflare almost half of their entire bandwidth costs, while also only serving around 6% of their overall traffic. In 2014, Cloudflare claimed that it cost them around the same amount in bandwidth costs each month to serve the entirety of Europe as it did for them to serve Australia alone.
For this reason, Australian websites that use Cloudflare’s free or business tier CDN service aren’t actually being served to most Australian visitors from an Australian server. Cloudflare is forced instead to serve them from the nearest affordable option overseas.
The reality of the bandwidth cost problem in Australia
We’re a pretty remote country, geographically speaking. To get data over here, it has to travel over expensive undersea cabling. As such, network providers are limited to only a small handful of companies who hold a fairly untouchable monopoly over the Australian bandwidth market.
Two of the main network providers in Australia, Telstra and Optus, have repeatedly refused to come to an agreement with Cloudflare over offering affordable points of presence on their Australian networks. Cloudflare claims this is due to these carriers abusing their monopoly over Australian networks to try and drive up charges.
Ironically, failing to come to an agreement with Cloudflare actually means these companies end up paying more themselves to backhaul visitors trying to load data from Cloudflare-hosted websites through offshore points of presence. This involves them sending data both to and from an offshore server over the aforementioned expensive undersea cabling, rather than just allowing it to pass through here on home turf.
As such, if you have Cloudflare’s free or business tier CDN service activated, your Australian website visitors whose internet provider is either Telstra, Optus or one of the many reseller brands who piggyback off their networks, will be loading your website’s data via the next closest location with affordable bandwidth. This is typically Singapore or Los Angeles.
That’s a hell of a scenic route.
On the other hand, without Cloudflare’s CDN service activated, your visitors will simply be loading your website’s data from your origin hosting server, which typically would be (or at least should be) located here in Australia. This means Australian-based visitors will experience much faster page load times with Cloudflare deactivated, as opposed to the extra wait from having to load your website from another country.
When it actually pays to use Cloudflare, and when it doesn't
While Cloudflare offer staggering benefits when used correctly, CDN services like it are more often misunderstood to be a solve-all solution for performance issues, with little regard to whether or not it is actually suitable or really providing the expected benefit. This issue is exacerbated by popular page speed tools such as GTmetrix suggesting a CDN as one of the top performance improvements that can be made, without taking into account the specific website, it’s user-base, or it’s needs.
If your goal is to protect your website from DDoS attacks or add extra redundancy to your DNS hosting, those are both perfectly valid and excellent uses of Cloudflare. If, however, your intention is to use it to speed up your website, that’s where further consideration needs to take place.
In terms of improving page speeds, a CDN such as Cloudflare is only really beneficial in two scenarios:
If your target audience is global, a CDN is a great idea to ensure your website loads quickly for your visitors no matter where they are around the world. Without a CDN active, an Australian-hosted website would load slower for a visitor based in a country on the other side of the world.
If you have droves of visitors on your website at any given time, it would place a hell of a burden on your origin web hosting server to manage that all by itself. Having a CDN offloads a lot of the work and allows significant portions of your website’s data to be copied and distributed through a much larger network of servers.
The average local Australian business doesn't benefit from a CDN
With the two use cases above in mind, most local businesses in Australia don’t need or benefit much (if at all) from using a CDN, Cloudflare or otherwise. If you only have a modest amount of traffic, largely made up of Australian consumers, you’re generally better off without a CDN both in terms of costs and page load speeds.
Even if you do use an alternative CDN provider who offers an Australian point of presence, your visitors in Australia won’t experience much (if any) speed improvement whether they load your website from your Australian-based origin web hosting server or an Australian-based CDN server.
However, in terms of Cloudflare at least, you can definitely still benefit from its other uses, such as DDoS mitigation and DNS hosting (as mentioned above). Just be sure to leave Cloudflare’s proxy/CDN service disabled whenever possible to ensure your page load speeds stay as quick as possible if your target audience is primarily Australian visitors.
How to properly speed up your website
Our WordPress Website Premium Speed Optimisation includes:
Want to pick our brains?
We’re always happy to talk speed. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any specific questions or speed concerns you need help with.