Cloudflare Review: Behind the curtain of the cDN that powers Authority Hacker

Cloudflare Logo

Cloudflare has developed a reputation for being one of the best content delivery networks on the market, handling 10% of all internet traffic.

In our in-depth review, we look at whether Cloudflare deserves all that praise.

Starts at $20/month

Effectiveness

Our tests showed that Cloudflare does improve site speed in a demonstrable way, especially with new features like their ‘Polish’ image optimization technology.

Price

The free version of Cloudflare is excellent, if somewhat limited because some advanced features are not available. With that being said, a ‘Pro’ account only costs $20 per month.

Ease of use

The dashboard is a little bit overwhelming when you first see it, but enabling most of the features you’ll actually need only takes a few minutes.

Support

Despite their annoying push towards using their knowledge base/community to get answers to questions, their support team responded to our query in a little over an hour.

In today’s review, we’re going to look at Cloudflare, one of the most popular content delivery networks (CDNs) available right now.

In the interest of full transparency, this is the CDN we use ourselves and recommend to Authority Site System students.

But, as you’ll see from the review, we’re just as happy to highlight issues with Cloudflare as we are to pat them on the back for a job well done.

Let’s get to it.

What is Cloudflare?

Cloudflare Homepage

Cloudflare is a content delivery network that also provides your site with protection from DDoS attacks, and enhanced site security.

You get a boost in both site security and performance

Believe it or not, Cloudflare’s creation was an accident of sorts.

Its founders, Matthew Prince, Michelle Zatlyn and Lee Holloway, had originally set out to create a tool to stop spammers from mass harvesting emails from sites.

But a weird side effect of their caching and edge network technology was that beta testers saw a 30% improvement in page loading times.

For the sake of keeping this review short, we’re only going to focus on how Cloudflare can help you with page speed.

It has a ton of security features, but most of them are enabled by default so you don’t need to worry about them.

So now that you know where it came from, it’s time to get stuck into our review.

How the Cloudflare CDN works

Let’s imagine your web hosting company is based in Texas, but the bulk of your customers are in France.

The further your data has to travel across multiple networks the longer it takes to load in a browser.

This might only be an additional 5 seconds, but that’s longer than most web searchers are willing to wait.

The solution is to provide your international visitors with a copy of your content in a data center near them.

So you sign up for a CDN with data centers in or near France.

The next time a French visitor comes to your site a copy of it is now stored (cached) in the CDN’s French data center.

How Does Cdn Work

This dramatically improves site performance for your visitors.

Cloudflare’s results are possible because it employs a reverse proxy approach to delivering content to an international audience.

Cloudflare’s Global Network

Claiming you’re the “best” of anything is easy.

It’s the backing it up with facts is the tough part.

In Cloudflare’s case, they have data in 180 cities around the globe, leaving most of their competitors in the dust.

As you can see they have data centers everywhere except Greenland, the Russian Federation, and Antarctica.

This amount of coverage means no matter where in the world your audience lives, they can still access your content at local speeds.

Outside of enterprise offerings from Google, Akamai, and Microsoft, Cloudflare’s edge network is one of the most diverse and comprehensive there is.

Other Features

So we know that Cloudflare has more than enough data centers around the world, but what else does it have to offer?

Their free plan also includes protection against DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks, and you also get shared SSL certificates included too.

Here’s what means in real life:

  • Your site runs faster
  • It’s protected against malicious attacks
  • You get HTTPS thrown in

That’s their free plan, so how does their Pro plan stack up against that?

You get everything in the free plan (of course), but you also get:

  • Cloud-based firewall for your site
  • Image optimization via Cloudflare ‘Polish’
  • Your content is optimized for mobile device
  • HTTP/2 functionality

How easy is it to use?

The Cloudflare dashboard can seem a little bit daunting when you first access it:

Cloudflare Dashboard

But we’re going to take a few minutes to highlight the most important features, just so you can see it’s really not that technical.

We’re using a Cloudflare Pro account for demonstration purposes, just in case you were wondering.

Overview

This is your main dashboard where you can view basic traffic stats, and enable the ‘Under Attack Mode’ function if your site is being hammered by a DDoS.

You can also quickly purge your site cache from this screen.

Caching

You can choose between purging everything or a custom purge – a custom purge allows you to remove a specific URL from the Cloudflare cache:

But you can also choose how long your site stays cached in visitors’ browsers.

Another neat feature is that you can serve cached copies of your site from Cloudflare’s Anycast Network if your web host suffers an outage.

Cloudflare Browser Cache Expiration

Speed

This section of the dashboard gives you an overview of how much faster your site loads with Cloudflare vs. not using a CDN.

In this test that amounted to a 28% improvement in page loading time, with Cloudflare delivering a “First Contentful Paint” in 0.8s.

Cloudflare Speed Test

And you also see how your site performs on desktop versus mobile devices.

Pro Tip

If you’re not actively optimizing for mobile devices now is a good time to start i.e. Google’s Mobile-First Index.

Cloudflare Critical Loading Time

File Size Optimization

You choose to resize images or optimize their delivery with Cloudflare’s ‘Polish’ technology.

Cloudflare Fize Size Optimization

Image optimization

Image resizing is only available on “Cloudflare Business”, which costs $200 per month, and Cloudflare’s ‘Polish’ image optimization is only available on Pro plans ($20/month).

But ShortPixel takes care of both of these tasks for $5 per month for beginners, or $29.99 per month if you’re an image-serving behemoth.

Kind of a weird marketing decision for Cloudflare to make.

WordPress Minification

Cloudflare also has a minification function that takes care of your JavaScript, CSS and HTML files.

This means you could potentially drop your current caching plugin, or just disable its minification features.

Brotli compression optimizes your HTTPS traffic, and Cloudflare also takes care of your Gzip compression needs by default.

Optimized Delivery

Cloudflare Optimized Delivery

HTTP/2 Prioritization is Cloudflare’s way of dealing with render-blocking scripts i.e. stopping those JS-based bottlenecks that kill page speed.

Scrape Shield

This section has a few handy features like hiding your email address and hiding certain types of content from visitors with malicious intent.

Cloudflare Scrape Shield

But our favorite feature on this list is “Hotlink Protection”.

This is great for killing off all those spammy backlinks and referral traffic from countries we won’t mention here.

Cloudflare has a ton of other cool features, but the ones we covered here are what you’ll use most often.

How easy is Cloudflare to set up?

Getting your website caching swapped over to Cloudflare is way easier than you might have thought.

After all, Content Delivery Networks sound very technical don’t they?

Your first step is to sign up for a free account:

Get Started With Cloudflare

You’ll receive two emails after this step:

  • One to ask you to verify your email address
  • One to help you get started with your Cloudflare account

You’re then asked to enter what domain name you would like to add to the Cloudflare network:

Cloudflare then queries the DNS record for your domain.

Then all you have to do is click ‘Next’, choose your free plan and click ‘Confirm plan’:

Cloudflare Pricing Plans

The next step can seem a bit confusing because it asks what other web services you want to add like MX routing, cPanel, FTP, etc.

Typically, you can leave everything here at their default setting and click ‘Continue’:

Cloudflare Other Web Services Settings

The next screen provides you with two new Cloudflare DNS entries:

Cloudflare Dns Entries

Now open another browser tab because you’ll need to log in to your domain registrar account.

We’re using Namecheap in this example, but the process is similar to most domain registrars.

Choose the domain you need to change the name servers (DNS entries) for and click ‘Manage’:

Enter your new Cloudflare DNS as illustrated here, and click ‘Save’ when you’re done.

Head back over to the tab with your Cloudflare account open on it, and click ‘Continue’:

Setting Up Cloudflare Account

Now it’s time to be patient.

Your new Cloudflare name servers could propagate in as little as 20 minutes, or it could take up to 24 hours.

Namecheap is usually pretty quick though – I typically don’t have to wait any longer than 2 hours for a DNS change to propagate across the Internet.

Pro Tip:

Swapping your DNS alone over to a Cloudflare Free account will reduce your DNS query time by about 400%.

Cloudflare Query Speed Performance

Cloudflare integration with WordPress

You can also administer your Cloudflare account from within your WordPress dashboard.

From the admin screen click on ‘Plugins’ and then ‘Add new’:

Enter “Cloudflare” in the search field and then click ‘Install’ once the plugin is listed:

Cloudflare Plugin Search In WordPress

Once the installation is complete you need to click ‘Activate’ before we go any further.

Now that the plugin is active we need to link it to our Cloudflare account.

To do that, click on the ‘Settings’ menu and then choose ‘Cloudflare’:

You’ll be asked if you want to create a new account or sign in to an existing one. We already have an account which we want to sign in to.

But before we do that we need to locate our Cloudflare API key, which requires a trip to the Cloudflare site:

Log In To Cloudflare

Now navigate to your profile menu – you’ll find this in the top right-hand corner:

Open ‘My Profile’ from the menu bar and scroll down until you find ‘API Settings’:

Api Settings In Cloudflare

Now click on ‘Global API’, enter your main Cloudflare account password again, tick the ‘Captcha’ box and then click ‘View’:

Copy and paste your API key to the login screen for our Cloudflare plugin for WordPress, and then click on ‘Save API Credentials”:

Enter Cloudflare Api Credentials

And you can now manage your Cloudflare account from within WordPress:

Cloudflare vs. the Competition

Cloudflare obviously isn’t the only CDN on the market, so how does it fare against the competition?

The brand names you’ll see most often in discussions – besides Cloudflare – about content delivery networks are:

Note: We didn’t include Akamai or Azure as competitors because they’re high-end solutions, so are prohibitively expensive for the average user.

CDN’s are all about optimizing the speed with which you deliver content to your visitors, but how do these other networks compare to Cloudflare in terms of response time?

Cdn Performance Data
Source: CDNPerf

Cloudflare comes in .88ms slower than Fastly CDN, but 1.02ms faster than Bunny CDN.

Let’s take a look at their respective pricing plans.

Cloudflare pricing

You can start using Cloudflare straight away thanks to their free plan, which is ideal for smaller websites, but you don’t get access to the web application firewall protection at this level.

The next step up from there is “Cloudflare Pro” which costs a flat $20 per month, which gives you some more advanced features, their web application firewall and faster support response times.

Fastly CDN pricing

This CDN doesn’t offer a “free forever” plan like Cloudflare’s offering, but you do get $50 of free traffic to test things out.

If you decide to continue using Fastly then there’s a $50 per month minimum bill, plus you have to pay variable pricing for traffic depending on what part of the world your visitors are from.

So North American traffic costs you $0.12 per GB, but South African traffic costs you $0.28 per GB.

Basic technical support comes free of charge, but you have to sign up for a premium support plan if you want priority service.

Bunny CDN pricing

Here’s a CDN that’s been gaining in popularity over the last year or two.

Bunny CDN offers a 14-day free trial, and you don’t have to provide credit card details during that time.

The downside is that you start paying for traffic immediately after the free trial ends, and it’s a pay-per-usage model.

Only paying for the data you use can be very cost-effective if your site doesn’t have a lot of traffic, but having to use a calculator is a bit of a nuisance.

Number of data centers

A good CDN will cache your content on a server that’s as close as possible to your visitors, reducing latency and improving overall page load times.

This is one of the main reasons you’d even consider signing up for a CDN in the first place.

So the number of data centers on offer is a pretty important consideration:

  • Cloudflare has 180 data centers
  • Fastly CDN has 65 data centers
  • Bunny CDN has 36 data centers

Cloudflare leads the pack here by a pretty huge margin, but this can always change as companies experience growth over time.

Cloudflare Results

We decided it might be a good idea to test Cloudflare on one of our websites, just so you can see what to expect.

Here’s the baseline before we connected the site to Cloudflare:

Site Speed Performance Before Cloudflare

And here’s what it looks post-Cloudflare, using only the speed improvements available in the free version of the service:

2.2 seconds knocked off our fully loaded time, a small bump to our PageSpeed score, and a 2% improvement on our YSlow score.

Achieving the above result took about 5 minutes.

Shaving 2.2 seconds off our page speed will also potentially improve conversion rates for that page.

The 72% PageSpeed score is because of a lack of image optimization, so using ShortPixel should bring that into the mid-to-high 80s.

We could also easily improve the YSlow score by installing and configuring Autoptimize to get rid of at least 10 of those HTTP requests.

Cloudflare Support

We like to test customer support whenever possible when reviewing a product because it’s a good indicator of how well a company is run.

This is where we ran into a tiny problem…actually finding where to open a ticket.

Cloudflare actively pushes users towards their knowledge base and community to get answers to their questions.

But it took me 15 minutes to figure out how to open a ticket for Cloudflare.

The ticket submission process also requires you to run diagnostics on your site before you can submit a ticket.

The whole process was just a tiny bit convoluted.

We eventually managed to send a query to their support team at 13:35 and we received a response at 14:49, so a little over an hour later.

Cloudflare Pro support times are reportedly usually in the 2-hour range, so this is a better-than-expected result.

The 502 Outage

In the worst possible case of irony seen so far in 2019, Cloudflare experienced a global outage while we were putting together this review.

We first noticed this at 14:54 pm GMT on July 2nd, 2019.

But Cloudflare was very public in how they dealt with the outage, and communication from their support team was timely and very comprehensive:

Cloudflare 502 Outage

This was in direct contrast to Facebook’s outage the following day, which went on for hours and then was silently resolved overnight.

Conclusion

Before using Cloudflare I was dubious as to the actual value of CDNs.

Now, I can’t see myself running an authority site without Cloudflare.

As a service, it is far from perfect, especially the user dashboard, which needs a serious UX overhaul.

And, yes, there are competing services that are cheaper, based on a pay-per-usage model.

But none of them offer the same range of features, backed up by 180 data centers, for $20 per month.

Who should use Cloudflare?

Anyone who’s serious about site speed and security.

If you are just getting started, the free plan beats the competition and still brings some serious speed improvements.

As your site grows, the $20/month plan is a fair upgrade for a fair price, without the need to change anything to your setup (you know the pain if you have switched solutions before).

And that, my friends, brings our Cloudflare review to a close.

We hope you can see why we use it, and why we recommend it to others.

Do you think we missed anything?

If so, let us know with a comment below.

Oh, and you can sign up for Cloudflare account here.

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