If you read my CloudFlare Review you know that I loved the service. I’m always on the lookout on how to do things better. While CloudFlare offers a ton of features and isn’t just a CDN service. I wanted to switch to a dedicated CDN Service. So when I did some shopping around for CDN services and MaxCDN kept popping up as the best ‘bang for your buck’ service out I decided to try it out. Take a look inside as I go through the features/setup and then final thoughts on whether I think it is better than CloudFlare.
CDN? What is a CDN?
Why Should You Care About Load Times?
For a few reasons actually. You always want your page to load quickly due to visitors short attention spans. You only have a few seconds to get their attention and hopefully hold it with your content. It is also important as Google will use it as part of its crazy search algorithms on how to place you in their SERP results. Plus, its awesome to have a fast loading website! You can read my struggles to getting this site to run faster (and of course how you can do it too!):
Why the Switch From CloudFlare?
As I stated before I was on CloudFlare for just about a year. I did a review of it and I still say its a great free solution. The only problem? It seemed like it was starting to error out and crash on me. I wasn’t using any of the free services that they offered, the built in security measures they had seemed to flag real visitors from being able to reach the website. And the final reason? I wanted a “Pure” CDN service. Not a hybrid.
To be fair. As I stated before CloudFlare is a great service. If you are looking for a free way to try and speed up your own sites? I still recommend them.
MaxCDN to the Rescue!
I did a lot of research and shopping around. There are a lot out there. Google PageSpeed, CDN77, Amazon etc. I wanted something that was both affordable, scalable, and easy to setup. I chose MaxCDN as they met all three of the criteria. It also helped that they are one of the top CDN’s in the business!
Setup – Wasn’t a Breeze?
This isn’t the fault of MaxCDN at all. It actually had more to do with a bug in the W3 Total Cache plugin I was using at the time. No matter what I did I just couldn’t get it to work right. So I ended up doing the initial setup through MaxCDN’s dashboard then integrated it with WordPress using WP Super Cache which essentially does the same thing.
Note: As of version 0.9.2.11 W3 Total Cache should now work again. I haven’t tested as I stuck with WP Super Cache
After purchasing a plan and logging into the MaxCDN dashboard I was kind of lost at the beginning. Your Dashboard really doesn’t show anything at first. This is where the MaxCDN support FAQ’s came in handy. They walked me through on how to setup everything and even get it integrated with WordPress quickly and easily.
Creating Pull Zones
This Zone is for your every-day support files. A Pull Zone will automatically pull the data from a location that you specify upon the first request for the file. The files are served to the end user from either a subdomain of netdna-cdn.com or a custom domain (sub domain) of your choice that points to the CDN. The data is automatically purged from the server after a customizable amount of time.
I created CDN and CDN1 zones and made them as a subdomains for avgjoegeek.net. Otherwise if you use the default URL provided it would have been: cdn.avgjoegeeknet.netdna-cdn.com. By adding the subdomain its a much more friendly cdn.avgjoegeek.net. To get it to work though I had to add the CNAME to the DNS (i.e. I had to allow it to translate and use the new subdomain to get it to work.)
To do that I went into the cPanel in HostGator and added the two new CNAME entries so the zone names I created would actually work. After waiting about 5-10 minutes for the initial “Pull” to complete verified that the new Pull Zones were working and then started work to have it integrate with WordPress.
Integrating MaxCDN with WordPress – WP Super Cache vs. W3 Total Cache
Both are popular WordPress plugins. I have used W3 Total Cache for a long time until I had to setup the CDN. As I stated before I couldn’t get W3 Total Cache to work at the time of installation. So I went with WP Super Cache – plus it is recommended by HostGator that I use it. And it was a lot simpler to setup. The good news is that MaxCDN’s Support Database is beyond awesome. They have very detailed instructions on how to setup everything – including how to configure the plugins!
Below are the steps I attempted to use with W3 Total Cache vs. WP Super Cache
With W3 Total Cache:
- Create your Pull Zones
- Create the CNAMEs in your cPanel DNS
- Go to the CDN tab.
- Get an API Key from MaxCDN
- Receive an error or stall out when trying to verify the setup.
With WP Super Cache
- Already had the Pull Zones created.
- CNAMEs were already created from above attempt.
- Go to CDN tab.
- Click on “Enable CDN”
- Enter in CDN Pull Zone names created.
- Click on Save
- Clear Cache
WP Super Cache was very simple to setup. It is a tradeoff for the simpler configuration. W3 Total Cache displays reports right inside of your WP Admin Dashboard – while you are now forced to visit the MaxCDN website to see activity on there.
Update: Since writing this article W3TC have since fixed the bugs/issues reported. I actually switched back to using them for cachine. Of course this can change as I tend to test out a lot of different things on the site! Both offer great solutions though.
Features of MaxCDN
There are a ton of features with MaxCDN to help you tweak your settings to get the most benefit from their service. With the Pull Zone’s setup you can further tweak them:
- Origin IP – Enter the IP of your website’s host (Found in cPanel for HostGator users)
- Cache Settings – Adjust your default cache settings for the CDN on when to expire/purge stale content.
- Edge Settings – Enable/Disable features such as file compression, Query String, Content Disposition, Strip Cookies, Pseudo Streaming, Use Stale, Ignore Cache Controls.
- Adjust the Custom URL you have setup.
Manage Cache Tab
Here you can purge your content that is on their Edge servers. Purge by specific file or have it refresh the entire site by purging everything.
On this tab you can setup anti hot-linking for your files by only allowing specific websites access your content. I already have this setup on HostGator so figured this was redundant to have both enabled.
- HTTP Referrer Whitelist – On this tab you can purge the Cached files on their servers either by specific file or do a full purge and have it re-pull everything.
- Secure Token – If you wish to have a token for encrypting files such as PDF’s you can purchase a token for your website (additional $39.00/mo)
Here you can enable Edge Shared SSL. This is where you can enable HTTPS either with using an existing SSL Certificate token or you can purchase one through MaxCDN. This addon for Custom SSL is an additional $39.00/mo.
Many Other Features Offered
There are a ton of other features and types of CDN services offered as well. If you require services for larger file downloads, or streaming media/audio/video they offer customized services too. For most WordPress bloggers reading this the basic Pull Zone CDN service will be adequate.
MaxCDN offers you some great reports to find out what is being utilized with your CDN. This way you could identify potential people hotlinking your images or see if you need to further optimize your website further.
Testing for Speed
I had CloudFlare running for quite some time and was able to get around 4-5 seconds consistently (when it didn’t timeout or crash..) I’ve since been migrated to a different server and have performed a lot of different tweaks since then (look at the link at the beginning). So you would think I could get it to run faster. In reality I ended up getting about the same speed and performance as CloudFlare.
So what’s the bottleneck you say? Well… in all honesty? Part of it is to blame are the plugins I run like WordFence (so me). The main reason though is the host I’m using – HostGator. I’m on their shared ‘Baby Plan’ because it’s cheap and it is what I can afford at the moment. Would I move to a better hosting service if I could? In a heartbeat.
Update: I’ve since moved hosting service to BigScoots. You can see the article here and the new speed I’m getting from their service in tandem with using both CloudFlare and MaxCDN!
MaxCDN does come at a cost while CloudFlare remains free. My initial investment was $67.00 for 1 Terabyte of transfer. If you have a small to medium sized website then this should be fine. If you get a lot of traffic or if you host a lot of images then you will have to up your plan which can start getting expensive. The good news is you can get 20% off of your first terabyte if you use the code maxcdn20 when you sign up. Of course they offer a 30 day guarantee so you can try the service and if you don’t like it? Cancel at any time.
Note: I would highly suggest paying for their yearly plan vs. monthly. You get 2 months free plus the 20% initial signup so you save almost $30.00!
What I Like:
- MaxCDN is a Dedicated CDN Service
- Documentation and Support – Probably the best documentation I’ve found and some of the nicest support staff out there.
- Built in Features – Cookie Control, Compression Settings, etc.
- MaxCDN is implemented without having to point your DNS through them unlike CloudFlare
What I don’t Like:
- The Price – It can get expensive if traffic were to start picking up for you website.
Is MaxCDN better than CloudFlare?
- In terms of Performance. Both provide the same speed/performance benefits and help take some of the load off of the hosting server.
- CloudFlare has a lot of other services built in that make it a great Free service while with MaxCDN they offer just CDN services.
- CloudFlare has more servers around the world including Asia at 23. MaxCDN is setup for the U.S. and Europe with 13. (Though MaxCDN plans on adding Tokyo and Sydney in the near future.)
- Due to having to point your DNS through CloudFlare you are at the mercy of their network entirely. If something goes wrong (with CF) your site is down hard. With MaxCDN if they are having issues? I can easily turn it off with a check box inside of WP Super Cache and I will be back up and running in two seconds.
After using the service for the past three months I would still choose MaxCDN over CloudFlare still even with the downsides listed. I have more control over what is happening. And more importantly I don’t have to go through a third party’s DNS filtering in order to gain the same benefit in terms of speed and performance.
Do you use a CDN service? What are your thoughts on them? Leave me a comment with your opinion and experience with them.