The Cloud is the answer to all the worlds problems, it would seem – a buzzword technology that sends computing full circle right back to where it started – with a thin client model and all the power in a remote server. Economic downturn? No problem – just put it in the cloud! World peace? There’s a cloud app for that.
I joke, of course – but there are actually some legitimate uses for this “new” technology, so allow me to cut through the messy marketing speak and tell you exactly how making use of the cloud can speed up your website.
Do You Need a Faster Site?
Even if you have just a small blog or e-commerce with very little traffic, slow load times are undoubtedly hurting you. With a relatively good load time of 4 seconds, 25% of users would rather abandon the page than wait. Beyond that, and you need to have some pretty dedicated users.
Your site’s bad performance may also be affecting your placement in search engines – Google prefers fast loading pages that present a good user experience, and has admitted that page load speed is a ranking factor.
It’s in your interests – no matter how small your site – to have the page loading as quickly as possible. Want to test how fast your site currently loads? Head over to pingdom.com and type in the URL for a comprehensive report.
CloudFlare encompasses a variety of services, but is best thought of as a firewall for your website. Sitting in between your servers and the public, it intercepts requests made to your site, and can therefore deny access to a variety of malicious bots and automated crawlers, or serve a cached version to legitimate users – including your entire website, should you go offline for some reason.
Activating CloudFlare is easy if you’re hosting with MediaTemple (who are sitting proudly on our Best Web Hosts page), since they now own the company. After logging in, from the sidebar select Add New Service or Domain, then Activate the CloudFlare option. You should now see a CloudFlare admin button on your overview dashboard – enabling or disabling the service is then a single click away.
If you’re not hosted with MediaTemple, head over to the article I wrote before – How to Protect and Speed Up Your Website With Cloudflare – for a full guide on setting the service up. It does require some fiddly work with DNS, so follow carefully.
Once set up, there’s no configuration needed so you can basically just let it run, safe in the knowledge that your site is faster and serving less requests. There are however some stats you can view at the CloudFlare site if you’re curious about just how much bandwidth is being saved.
Given that the service is completely free, there’s really no reason not to go and enable it for your site right now.
CDNs (Costs Depends On Traffic)
CDNs, or Content Delivery Networks, are cloud storage for static resource files – images and scripts generally – which are optimized to deliver files to the user much more quickly than a typical web server.
If you’ve ever visited a site and watched the images download one by one, bit by bit, it’s because they weren’t using a CDN. If they were, the images would be loaded almost instantly. This is in part due to the fact that browsers are limited in how much data they can request in parallel from a single domain. When using a CDN, images are stored on a different domain, and hence the browser can download more items in parallel. It’s also down to copies of the files being available on a fileserver more local to the user; as opposed to one central server that hosts the actual website. It’s an astonishing difference, so if you feel your page is loading a little sluggish – particularly the images – then considering purchasing CDN services.
At MakeUseOf (and on my personal sites), we use MaxCDN – the basic plan is just $35/year which includes 1TB of bandwidth, with overage charges of $0.069/GB. In addition to the speed gains, you’re also going to save money if you’re currently going over the bandwidth provisions of your webhost – common if you host large files or videos.
Setting up a CDN is easy if you’re using WordPress, but requires a little work for other systems. Basically, you need to have URLs for resource files rewritten to your CDN domain. w3 Total Cache handles this all for you in WordPress – just click the CDN option from the Performance menu, and the “I have MaxCDN” button to get started.
Register a new application (don’t worry about callback URLs, just make up a name and description). Copy your Consumer key and Consumer Secret back to w3 Total Cache, then click Back to find your Alias on the right side of the dashboard (this is just the name you chose for your CDN when you signed up).
Host Non-Essential Files On Cheap Cloud Storage
If you host large downloads that aren’t critical to the page load – music, videos, PDFs etc – move these over to a cheap cloud storage solution like Amazon s3 services. Though not quite as blazing fast as a CDN, they still take the strain of serving large files away from your web host, leaving it free to concentrate on generating and serving the HTML pages. Though Amazon is a premium service, you might even consider using filelockers for very popular files, which can in fact make you money by showing advertising to users (though this isn’t exactly the best user experience, so consider your audience well).
Do you know of any more cloud services that help to speed up a website? If so, let us know in the comments – because as you can see from the performance report above my website is still appallingly slow. Sigh – must be all those fantastic WordPress plugins.