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How to shop for CDN services

How to shop for CDN services

Five questions to ask to get the right content delivery network for your organization

Content delivery networks have been around for more than a decade, but many enterprises are taking a new look at the perks and specialization that today’s CDN services have to offer.

Why the renewed interest? The cloud-first movement, all-things-video, IoT and edge computing are all bringing sexy back to CDNs. The content delivery network market was valued at $7.3 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $29.5 billion by 2023, a compound annual growth rate of 26 percent, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com.

Content delivery networks are the transparent backbone of the Internet that bring users every piece of content to their PCs or mobile browsers – from news stories to shopping sites to live-streaming video. For more than a decade, a content delivery network’s primary mission has been to reduce latency by shortening the distance between a website’s visitor and its server. Today, however, the stakes are much higher.

Skyrocketing streaming demands, growing consumer impatience, spikes in global live viewership, and shifting device preferences are all changing CDN services, according to a study by streaming platform Conviva. Its users’ overall viewing hours increased 89 percent in 2018, including a 165 percent jump in streaming TV viewership in the fourth quarter alone, according to the study. Live content drove much of the surges, including a 217 percent spike in U.S. news watching during November’s mid-term elections.  

At the same time, rising expectations about video streaming quality have viewers more impatient than ever. In 2018, 16.7 percent of viewers exited before the video started for live content, up from 11.2 percent in 2017, which highlights the demand for exceptional customer experiences that delivery from the edge can provide. 

“The edge, along with IoT, artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to play a bigger role in CDN services, not only in terms of distribution of data, but more importantly, this data will give you information about the use case, the application, customer preferences and other things,” says Ghassan Abdo, IDC research vice president, worldwide telecom, virtualization and CDN. “That will give you better feedback in terms of driving a richer customer experience.”

CDNs becoming more specialized

Enterprises are also taking another look at CDN services because they’re becoming more specialized. Some already tout specialties around security (think Incapsula or StackPath). Other CDNs are almost exclusively focused on video and streaming. Now, some CDNs are catering to developers by tightly coupling their CDN services with developer tools and AI frameworks. This is prompting more enterprises to deploy multiple CDN services. Large enterprises that have considered building their own specialized CDNs now have an easier, viable option, according to Ted Chamberlin, a research vice president at Gartner.

“Enterprises with a very big Web presence, a lot of spikes or peaks in requirements, and are in different regions, or have different business units – those are the ones that definitely will have two to three CDNs,” Chamberlin says.

An interesting group of software and services providers, such as Conviva and NicePeopleAtWork (NPAW) have built in capabilities to evaluate an enterprise's multiple CDNs and recommend which one performs the best depending on the traffic load and business rules, and then perform real-time, in-stream switching. “For large to extra-large enterprises that want to do CDN arbitrage for pricing, or they want resiliency or a specific CDN for a specific market, it’s going to work well,” Chamberlin says.

DevOps come into play

There has also been a big push by CDNs to cater as much to developers and DevOps as they do to IT departments. For CDN users like BuzzFeed, traditional CDN caching strategies have been replaced with APIs. “It’s very important for us to be able to update our pages at the edge very quickly,” says Clement Huyghebaert, BuzzFeed director of engineering, in a video. “If a news story breaks, we have to update our readers as fast as possible.” The APIs by CDN services provider Fastly can purge content at the end in less than one second, he says. The news organization has a 97 to 98 percent cache rate on its new CDN compared to 60 to 65 percent before then.

Other vendors, such as Cloudflare, Section.io, MediaNova, as well as some of the traditional cloud providers like Amazon CloudFront, also cater to developers.

GDPR now a concern

If your content reaches the EU and gleans any type of personal data from users, you’ll want to ensure that your CDN service know the General Data Protection Regulation requirements, which became enforceable in May 2018, and that it has taken appropriate steps to protect it.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a CDN – latency, throughput, availability, global scale and security, to name a few. When shopping for a CDN service provider, industry experts offer five questions to ask yourself and the prospective vendor to ensure it’s the right fit.

1. How much hand-holding do you need? 

“If you know your stuff inside and out and want to use CDN purely as a commodity, then your options are really big,” Chamberlin says. But if you don’t know how to set up your firewall rules based on your traffic type, or you really want to orchestrate across clouds, “then you’re going to want a CDN provider with good professional and migration services.” For instance, Akamai is strongest across web performance, security and ecommerce deployments. Imperva/Incapsula is very strong with professional security services as they are a firewall provider by pedigree. Fastly, Section.io and Rafay are well tailored for developer and programmable edge professional services.

2. What geography do you need to cover?

CDN service providers cover the U.S. very efficiently, but organizations with an emerging business unit in Israel or India, for instance, will find very few service providers with more than a node or two in India, and they’re not optimized for 3G+ networks, Chamberlin says. “If you have a specific region, you’re going to have to pick a provider who can support you there.”

If the organization requires CDN services in every nook and cranny around the world, “then Akamai is probably your best bet from a scale that works,” he adds. “They’re the biggest, but other (CDN service providers) challenge them on performance.” Centurylink, AWS/CloudFront, Verizon Digital Media Services, Limelight and Fastly also compete at a global scale.

If China is your destination, getting behind its firewall requires special relationships, he adds. China is cracking down on web content and policing it more, Chamberlin says. “For almost every CDN provider, your traffic, once it gets to mainland China, has to be passed off to one of the national providers, and their networks and parent companies are not very good. A lot of times your traffic is degraded going through,” hesays.

Alibaba Cloud CDN, ChinaNetCenter and CDNetworks are a few of China’s national providers. Also, Baidu in China has a stake in Cloudflare, based in San Francisco, and can run all their services natively in China, he adds.

3. Can the vendor meet your IoT requirements?

If the organization relies heavily on IoT devices, parameters such a latency and security requirements are going to be extremely important, such as time to receive equipment alarms in manufacturing and making sure the data being transmitted is safe and reliable, Abdo says.

4. Should your cloud provider double as your CDN provider?

AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud all have CDN services. “It’s the path of least resistance, and sometime the more money and bigger contract you have with a cloud provider, the bigger discounts you get,” Chamberlin says. But relying on any one provider too heavily, might not be the best choice for organizations with specialized CDN needs, and should be carefully evaluated.

5. What other clients does the CDN provider have?

There are plenty of inexpensive CDN providers, but is that the right choice? Make sure the CDN provider can accommodate your workload and specific requirements. A check of the prospective vendor’s client list might provide some clues.

“If all their clients are gaming and offshore betting, then they may put a premium on performance and less on compliance,” Chamberlin says. Another option is to balance between a provider with the services you need, with one that also follows proper compliance (such as GDPR) for data at rest and in flight. “In the EU that could become seriously contentious if you’re not protecting data in different states.” 

Migrating to a different CDN

The great thing about CDN services is that they are only “mildly sticky,” Chamberlin says. “If your chosen CDN provider turns out not to be right for the organization, then migrating to another one is not exceedingly difficult. Most providers out there today are well-known in IT and are well-funded and provide good services,” he says. “And a lot of these CDN nodes are in the same data centers globally, like an Equinix or Interaction. They all traverse the same fiber around the world. If you trace your tracks, you’ll often find your traffic is on Akamai or Verizon.”


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