Can Cloudflare speed up your website?

Cloudflare is a CDN (content delivery network) that sits in front of your web server and speeds up your website. They have grown in popularity because they offer a set of basic features as part of their free plan. Therefore, you can get started for nothing and see what you think.

Setup

It is easy to get set up with. You start by entering your domain and Cloudflare scans the DNS records for it. It then sets up all of the rules in its own system and you update your nameserver records to point at their server.

You choose which hosts go through Cloudflare and which do not. You move all of your DNS over to their system, but only certain parts (typically www and any static asset subdomains you are using) will flow through the Cloudflare CDN.

Speed results

I am resistant to make any recommendations here. I ran a couple of tests for Anxiety Leeds. A sample set of one project with a few tests run is not representative.

I first ran a test while the site was still running on my server with no CDN in front of it:

I then ran the same test again once Cloudflare had been set up. I got the same results: the time did not change.

However, when I tried it the next day I got much faster results:

Whether this was because it took Cloudflare a while to cache everything, or whether it was because it provides no speed benefits but my server was just faster at the time I re-ran the test, I am not sure.

When I ran the test a few weeks later, things were really slow:

However, I ran the test again immediately after and got completely different results:

DNS management

It is also worth considering whether you want Cloudflare managing your DNS. For example, you could move all of your DNS management over to Cloudflare and bypass their CDN layer. I use NameCheap for registering my domain names and they provide free DNS hosting, also. How to do the two compare?

NameCheap is great: they provide a redirect server and email forwarding. Therefore I use them for a lot of the domains where I want to implement those features as I get them for free. Their email forwarding service reliably delivers emails to my inbox.

Therefore, I usually stick with NameCheap.

Cloudflare does have one advantage, though. They support CNAME flattening on the root domain. When using Heroku, you have to CNAME your domain to theirs. However, you cannot CNAME the root domain (www.example.com works fine, but example.com does not) as this disrupts all of your other DNS records.

Cloudflare (and a number of other DNS providers, but not NameCheap) solve this by providing CNAME flattening in which they allow you to enter a CNAME, but they translate this into an A record that updates automatically. Because of this, I tend to use Cloudflare when using Heroku.

DNS speed

Another concern is the speed of Cloudflare’s DNS server. First, let’s look at a typical response from the NameCheap free DNS service.

30 milliseconds. That sounds fine. Now, compare that to one of my sites running on Cloudflare’s DNS service.

It is an eye-watering 813 milliseconds. That is almost an entire second just to do the DNS lookup. I immediately re-ran a few more tests on various websites, including on the same website again. The second time, it was much better.

6 milliseconds. It is also a big difference to the first result. Such discrepancies are concerning.

Conclusion

Can Cloudflare speed up your website? Based on the available evidence, no. However, this is one website that I ran five tests for. That is not a large enough sample to draw any conclusions from.

Second, it may be that I need to spend more time playing around with the cache headers on Anxiety Leeds to get the full affect. The documentation suggests I should not have to do this, but I am not convinced that that is the case.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 9th, 2017 at 11:00 am and is filed under Tech. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.