Tech Corner – Do you need a CDN for your website?

Posted by Steve Wattenmaker on February 10, 2015 at 4:19 PM

What the heck is a CDN? I’ll explain below.  But first the back story.

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Most organizations today – from professional associations to companies of all sizes – are using video on their websites to enrich their communications. By video I mean everything from posting recorded videos on your website for internal and external customers, hosting live webcasts from your conferences or trade shows, offering media-rich online brochures,  video testimonials, training materials, and other examples.  If that describes your organization now, or describes where you are headed, read on.

CDN is short for content distribution network. It is a service generally provided by companies like Akamai, Level 3, CDNetworks, Verizon Digital Media Services, and others.  CDNs mirror your website’s content on thousands of servers around the country and around the world so that users can access your web content more quickly.  “Latency” – the time it takes content hosted on your web server to reach a user – wasn’t a big concern a few years ago when websites typically just displayed text and photos. But with video playing a bigger role, latency has become a concern as servers try to push out huge video files.  The irony is that we are only talking about the difference between maybe a couple seconds and 10 seconds before your video begins playing on a user’s computer or mobile device. But in today’s impatient world of short attention spans, those seconds can decide whether a user stays or leaves.

Just because your website hosts videos, though, doesn’t mean you absolutely need a CDN. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.  Other key factors include whether your user base is scattered widely across the country or globe, whether your website is heavily trafficked, whether “user experience” on your website is a high priority, or whether you have gotten complaints from customers / users about slow web access. While there is no absolute metric for deciding whether to take the CDN route, you can ask your webmaster or IT professional to analyze your site’s accessibility / latency through GT metrix (free). But use the analysis as simply one data-point in your decision.

Some organizations make their pre-recorded video assets available on YouTube via an embedded link rather than actually host them on their own websites.  While that may take a strain off your internal web-serving capacity, the YouTube route also comes with pros and cons. Do you want your customers or other users exposed to promos for other people’s videos or online ads? If you are just using YouTube to house your videos – rather than as part of an overall social media strategy – will your users see through your cost-saving tactic and either criticize (or maybe applaud) – your frugality.

The bottom line is that if your website has entered the video era – especially the live video webcasting era – then exploring the world of CDN’s may be a wise decision.