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How to buy content delivery networks

This Buyer's Guide informs IT professionals about the latest in content delivery networks (CDNs). It reviews how CDNs work, their key features and offers a bottom line on how to choose the best CDN for their enterprise.

As enterprises generate, share and store ever-growing volumes of digital content, the market for content delivery network (CDN) technologies and services is growing faster than ever before. Businesses of all sizes that need to serve content from a mix of on-premises and cloud locations can now not only distribute it close to the user but can also add on a mix of value-added service options.

Content delivery networks explained

Content delivery networks are systems of distributed servers that deliver Web pages and other types of content like video to users based on their geographic location; this minimizes latency and eases the traffic load on the customer's network. CDN services are designed to speed content delivery, particularly for websites with a high volume of traffic and a global reach. The closer the CDN server is to a user, the faster the content will be delivered. Content delivery networks can also provide protection against large traffic surges.

The first CDNs were developed in the 1990s to address the pressure on bandwidth that arose as the demand for audio and video streaming grew and the number of content providers increased. Several new providers have launched CDN services since 2008, many serving niche markets. CDN providers now use a variety of features and cloud services including software as a service (SaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

Business adoption of CDNs in a variety of market segments will continue to accelerate because major vendors are building cost-effective products and services that can help customers optimize the performance of their Web pages and other content. According to a 2015 report by research firm MarketsandMarkets, the global CDN market is expected to grow from $4.95 billion in 2015 to $15.73 billion in 2020 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26%.

MarketsandMarkets segments the CDN market in terms of the features that providers offer. These include Web performance optimization, media delivery, cloud storage, data security, transparent caching, transcoding and digital rights management, and analytics and monitoring.

How content delivery networks work

CDN value-added services now include monitoring, encoding, caching, digital rights management, content management software systems, online video platforms (including video streaming), Web and mobile content acceleration, transparent caching, front-end optimization, and services to measure CDN performance, load balancing, analytics and cloud intelligence.

CDN service providers in the market include traditional players like Akamai, cloud-based CDNs like Limelight Networks, telecom-owned CDNs like Verizon EdgeCast and Level 3 Communications, and other niche CDN companies such as San Francisco-based Fastly, which specializes in serving fast-changing content like online store inventory in real time. Beyond getting content closer to users, CDN providers offer products designed to help customers deliver high-quality content to users as well as analyze and monitor its performance.

Why do you need a content delivery network?

So why are more enterprises using CDNs? These services are designed to help organizations manage and deliver content of all types to employees, customers, business partners and Internet users in general.

Demand for fast, secure content delivery is on the rise for a number of reasons, including the growing use of mobile devices, increasing online collaboration and the availability of cloud services to support content delivery. Content delivery networks account for a growing share of Internet content delivery, including live and on-demand streaming media, text, documents, graphics, media files and applications.

Business users and consumers expect content to be available quickly and securely, regardless of the device they are using, said Mark Grannan, an application development and delivery analyst at Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass. “Performance on mobile devices and mobile networks is often abysmal, and when that happens, conversion rates and even brand reputations suffer,” Grannan said. At the same time, he added, there's a “voracious consumer appetite for digital content. Even traditional CDN vendors are experiencing growth based on their ability to deliver large files [like software updates] or streaming video.”

The huge growth of video and over-the-top content traveling over the Internet is contributing to the evolution of CDNs. This content, including video on demand and live broadcasting, consumes much more network bandwidth than static Web pages.

While CDN use can be valuable to any business, vertical markets that lead CDN use include advertising, media and entertainment, online gaming, e-commerce, Internet service providers, government, healthcare, education, hospitality and automotive.

CDN features and service options

Organizations can choose from a range of CDN vendors and value-added services to meet their specific needs.

While the main mission of CDN services is still to deliver Web pages and other types of content like video to users as close to their geographic location as possible, the CDN products and services most in demand now include instant configuration using self-service tools. “Cloud platforms like AWS [Amazon Web Services] have dramatically shifted developer expectations,” Grannan said. With cloud-based services from vendors like Fastly and MaxCDN, companies can deploy to their production environments and content becomes global almost immediately.

These vendors are actively redefining the ability to cache content. The tools that help developers move at their own pace, and pipe data and logic into their own systems and processes, are a big area of opportunity for mature CDN vendors like Akamai and Limelight, Grannan said.

Security features that protect content delivery networks from attacks like denial of service are in high demand. CDN vendors are scrambling to address this market, according to Grannan. Companies like Akamai, Incapsula, CloudFlare are among the leaders in the CDN security market, he said.

Enterprises looking to deploy CDNs need to understand that the vendor market is growing and changing. The emergence of the cloud and mobile devices are key factors in the changes. For example, some cloud service providers like AWS have become CDN vendors, and CDN companies like CloudFlare are providing some of the functions that cloud service providers deliver.

The integration of Web and video content for services like e-commerce and digital marketing are also having an impact on the CDN vendor ecosystem, using DevOps service agility. Increasingly, CDN services will be embedded in all types of enterprise applications, including mobile apps.

A directory of vendors that Dan Rayburn, executive vice president of StreamingMedia.com, maintains consists of several dozen CDN technology providers whose products and services include Web and mobile content acceleration, video streaming, software downloads, transparent caching, front-end optimization and CDN performance measurement.

The presence of so many CDN providers offers a lot of choice, though that also makes the decision about how to build a CDN deployment strategy more difficult. Enterprises should consider a number of factors when selecting CDN technology and service vendors, including basics like how much experience the vendor has, cost, the types of support and maintenance provided, and the financial stability of the vendor.

Companies should demand simplified tools, contractual terms and pricing, Grannan said. “Cloud delivery should itself carry SaaS-like transparency and flexibility. Most vendors are making big investments to pivot to this new model, but you should ask for reference customers and milestone dates [for the completion of project stages] that will enable an easier working relationship.”

The bottom line

When looking for CDN services, enterprises should also ask what's on the roadmap in terms of future offerings. New services like HTTP/2 support, Web application firewall or image optimization are CDN capabilities that businesses should be looking for, Grannan said. Businesses should also ask when new offerings are rolling out and how they map to the company's broader development and delivery roadmap.

Before buying CDN products and services, enterprises have to ask themselves tough questions about what they need. These include looking at geographic coverage requirements, access for mobile users and security services. When looking for a CDN provider, enterprises should look at a provider's vertical market expertise, ask about conducting a trial with a CDN provider, and determine whether their business needs performance and security together. It all depends on what services companies want to enable and how they'll work in concert.

The answers will help companies select the best CDN providers and services. With the ongoing growth of online content and the potential value this content can deliver to organizations, how they execute CDN strategy could have a huge impact on the success of the business.

Next Steps

Learn what new roles content delivery networks are taking on

How can CDN security be improved?

Discover some new tech advances in CDNs

This was last published in January 2016

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What features of the available content delivery networks are most appealing to your organization?
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The growth of the content delivery network industry has been insane. Something important to highlight is how the CDN industry has been affected by mobile technology. Industries such as e-commerce and media need CDNs more than ever now that end-users are using their mobile devices for shopping, streaming, and, well just about anything. Developing countries such as China and Asia Pacfic regions have been adopting smartphones and utilizing them at a higher rate. CDN technology has gone beyond accelerating websites, but also mobile apps. Speed and performance is everything when it comes to accessing content through our mobile devices. It's easy to forget the wonders of technology when all we experience is seamlessnesss.
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