Content delivery networks (CDNs) have been around for decades, so they may not generate the interest and excitement of newer technology. Still, any view of them as being dull and ordinary is misplaced. CDNs are now sitting on years of building globally distributed infrastructure and associated network connectivity, enhanced by value-added services in a world that heavily favors speed.
Running dozens of mini data centers (or even full-sized data centers) interconnected by a network backbone of tens or hundreds of Tbps sounds like a great place to put yourself in. Even better, these vendors have already spent a couple of decades going through all the trials and tribulations of entering almost every market in the world from a legal point of view. All that experience is going to add up to a lot of capability.
Some aspects of CDNs may feel a little stale, but taking the time to look at what CDNs deliver today will reveal the contrary. For starters, there are so many opportunities that require globally distributed infrastructure—and CDN providers are among the only ones that can capitalize on them.
These are examples of where today’s CDNs can deliver the most value:
- Edge platforms
- Web3 and decentralized web
- The entire business infrastructure stack
CDNs can offer edge compute to provide latency-sensitive development platforms. While we don’t foresee all CDNs evolving into edge platforms, key vendors are offering increasingly sophisticated compute products and associated storage and security services.
Recent and significant moves by two CDN players illustrate the flexibility of vendors that have distributed infrastructure. Both StackPath and Lumen have sold their CDN businesses to focus exclusively on offering edge platform services—namely compute, storage, networking, and security, all at the edge.
First, it’s worth noting that all the main cloud providers—Amazon, Microsoft, Google—have a CDN product. This makes sense, considering they all operate globally distributed infrastructure.
However, CDNs are also starting to dance the cloud tango. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is Akamai’s acquisition of Linode. What could provide clearer evidence of this trend than offering fully fledged cloud services at select locations and having these enhanced by thousands of points of presence (PoPs) around the world?
It’s also worth looking at vendors such as GCore that offer infrastructure as a service (IaaS), which includes dedicated servers, virtual machines, managed Kubernetes, function as a service (FaaS), and, of course, CDNs.
For a more nuanced take on cloudification, take a look at Fastly’s multicloud optimization product. Fastly enables its customers to overlay their compute, networking, and security services on top of multicloud architectures to enable advanced functions, such as handling inbound requests with edge logic decisions and load balance requests across different providers, and defining failover and redundancy.
Web3 and Decentralized Web
I’ve taken a somewhat jaundiced view of overzealous web3 proponents, but I do think we’ll witness some sort of web3 incarnation within the next 10 years.
Leaving aside the hype around cryptocurrencies, web3’s model of decentralization makes sense for some internet-based applications. CDNs are in a great position to cater to the technical challenges of web3 applications, especially in latency-sensitive use cases. The inherently distributed nature of web3 architecture puts CDNs in a prime position to enable communication among geographically disparate nodes for either validation or transfer purposes.
I don’t believe web3 will revolutionize the internet as web2 did. More likely, web3 will exist in conjunction with web2. CDNs can provide a bridge between the current web2 model and the new decentralized and trustless model of web3, so users can start leveraging protocols such as the interplanetary file system (IPFS) and make it easily accessible via HTTP, or access an Ethereum network over HTTP, in such a way that users and developers no longer need to maintain and monitor specialized software on their local machines.
The Entire Business Infrastructure Stack
After evaluating over a dozen CDNs, one reality stands out: CDNs are inherently platforms. While this may not be a huge revelation, it might not have occurred to some that today’s CDNs can absolutely offer all the underlying infrastructure and services on which to build a business. A large network of mini data centers with built-in security, connectivity by design, website hosting, domain name system (DNS) management, scripting, and programming capabilities—CDNs offer all that and more—and that’s a solid foundation for an organization’s digital infrastructure.
Cloudflare made a point of this with its innovative Startup Plan. With this program, Cloudflare offers a complete package to enable startups to build their businesses using only services provided by Cloudflare. These services include Cloudflare R2 (Amazon S3-compatible object storage), D1 (a SQL database), Pages (a JAMstack platform for front-end developers to collaborate and deploy websites), Queues (flexible messaging queues for asynchronous processing) and Workers (a serverless execution environment).
CDN isn’t the only technology built upon a network backbone and PoPs. We see a lot of similarities between CDN and network as a service (NaaS) and secure access service edge (SASE), specifically in terms of emerging use cases. Edge computing is perhaps the most obvious example, where all providers that can supply compute services closer to users than a cloud will do just that. Security is another likely use case.
While SASE has security in its name, network (Layer 3) and content (Layer 7) security is clearly in demand for CDNs. The difference between SASE and CDN with respect to security is the end user: where SASE is mainly oriented toward workforces, CDN is oriented toward consumers. However, with vendors such as Akamai, Cloudflare, and to some degree, Imperva entering the SASE arena, there’s no reason why a single vendor can’t cater to both.
CDNs no longer cater only to the narrow use cases of website and media delivery. Complex organizations that rely on delivering web services to global audiences can leverage sophisticated CDN products to innovate and differentiate themselves in a crowded digital market.
To learn more, take a look at GigaOm’s CDN Key Criteria and Radar reports. These reports provide a comprehensive overview of the market, outline the criteria you’ll want to consider in a purchase decision, and evaluate how a number of vendors perform against those decision criteria.
If you’re not yet a GigaOm subscriber, you can access the research using a free trial.