One of the most common questions I get asked by content owners, of all sizes, is which CDN they should use to deliver their videos. I like to answer their question by throwing one back to them saying, what’s the best car to buy? In both cases, it all depends on exactly what your use case is and without knowing more details, no one can really provide any helpful guidance. This is especially true in the small and medium business (SMB) market where many don’t have robust IT departments, aren’t as up to speed on the technology, don’t know what services cost, or simply need help knowing where to start.
With any CDN project, the first few things you have to identify are the types of video you are delivering (live/on-demand, short form vs. long form); how many viewers you think you will get; the devices you are delivering video to; any custom features you may need; what your monthly budget is; and whether your viewers are regional or global. Having answers to those basic questions will give anyone who is trying to help you enough of a foundation to work from, to try to point you in the right direction.
The budget number helps a lot as it enables vendors to define what size company you are. While that may seem irrelevant, it’s very important as some vendors tailor their solutions towards specific sized companies and verticals. When it comes to web services like CDN, however, there’s little said about where small and mid-sized companies stand. This becomes a problem when customers are reconsidering their current CDN or trying to find their first. It’s also a problem because the general criteria used in many other markets like annual revenue, employee count, etc. can’t be used due to the scalability of the web. For instance, a small five person team behind a video sharing platform could easily use more CDN services than a fifty person company who isn’t distributing viral videos.
Because of this kind of disparity, I’m going to set some loose standards for what small and mid-sized companies are when it comes to content delivery networks. This way those in the process of choosing a CDN will know where they stand in the market and it should help guide them to pick from the right pool of vendors. A small customer would be anyone spending less than $1,000 a month on video delivery and who doesn’t expect their needs to grow much in the next twelve months. Those spending less than $1,000 a month are often solo publishers with little traffic. A midsize customer would be one that is spending more than $1,000 a month and continues to grow their traffic at a rate that would double the value of their CDN contract within a twenty-four month period. Mid-sized customers also tend to have more specific technical requirements, be it for security, analytics, or player integration. Now that you know whether you’re a mid-sized company or not, let’s take a look at some of the things you should consider when choosing the right CDN for your business.
A mid-sized company typically has a lean technical team in comparison to traditional media companies. This is great for profit purposes, but not so great for in-house specialization. For instance, a smaller team behind a video sharing platform may have web developers and market-minded people who know how to create social buzz. But, somewhat ironically, they won’t have a person who specializes in delivering video. Because of the lack of in-house specialization and operations people, you need to rely on your CDN as a partner, not just a CDN provider. This is one of the places where CDNs that target the SMB market can really add a lot of value for customers.
With this partnership principle in mind, it’s the CDN’s duty to do the following: hold your hand through initial setup, show you how to interact with their control panel, offer transparency through status reports, and provide near-instant support in your preferred format (phone, web chat, written tutorials). Not all CDNs do this, however. And very few, that I have seen, take the time to measure their level of CDN support. One exception I have seen is MaxCDN. This content delivery network focuses on the mid-market and is working to establish a standard for support and customer satisfaction in the industry. According to their December 2014 blog post, the company has a transactional Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 80-90+. I mention them because I have yet to see another CDN publicly rank their customer satisfaction scores. Also, CDN customers I speak to who use MaxCDN are always saying how good they are. Given that there is not yet an established industry average NPS in the CDN space, MaxCDN is leading the charge in developing this crucial metric to help customers find the right CDN provider.
On the other hand, some CDNs are infamous for prioritizing their biggest clients and taking hours to respond to requests from other clients simply because their focus isn’t truly on the SMB market. And if they lose you as a customer as a result of poor support, they really aren’t worried. Therefore, when interviewing CDNs and testing out their platform, ask what their average ticket response time is. It should be no more than a few minutes, especially if your company doesn’t have someone fully committed to the intricacies of content delivery.
Easy To Understand Product and Pricing
If what you need is video delivery, go with a content delivery network, be it a regional one, or global. Don’t bother with a general web hosting provider that sells CDN “on the side.” To find out if a CDN provider has a streamlined product that fits your needs, look in these two places: the main feature/product page and the pricing page of the company’s website. If you see multiple offers on the feature/product page that are unrelated to CDN, like web hosting, managed services etc. continue your search elsewhere. However, if what you see is directly related to CDN, continue to the pricing page.
When comparing pricing pages, you’ll notice that there are various add-ons that cost extra. Many of these add-ons are legitimate as content delivery networks are progressing and offering upgrades like SSL, mid-tier caching, or custom caching rules to name a few. The CDN you want is the CDN that isn’t charging outrageous fees for these add-ons. The additional charges should be purposeful and make sense. For instance, if you want SSL (because you need SSL), you shouldn’t have to pay ridiculous sums of money, as serving traffic over SSL is becoming the standard. This leads me to my next point.
Companies that don’t serve content over encrypted connections will grow in irrelevance at the same speed as non-encrypted connections. For instance, soon publishers will start demanding ads to be secured from malware. And once publishers and security advocates like Google start enforcing this, you will need SSL. As a mid-sized company, you can probably afford heightened SSL costs. But why do it when you don’t have to?
Some content delivery networks, mainly those that target larger enterprise customer, charge outrageous sums of money for something that will eventually be as common as HTTP. One way CDNs overcharge for SSL is by increasing the cost of bandwidth. Instead of charging a flat fee for custom SSL or wildcard SSL, bandwidth served as HTTPS costs slightly more than that served as HTTP. The increase is usually slim, but when you’re a mid-sized company with a growing base of customers, those slim margins add up to thousands of dollars. If security is something you need, it’s also important to note that the CDN you choose should support SPDY, the secure protocol developed by Google that has lower latency than HTTPS. Most quality CDNs support this, and it’s worth inquiring about when investigating different providers.
Some CDNs will tell you that when it comes to quality of service, it’s all about how many points of presence (POPs) they have. The fact is, POPs are only one of the many attributes of a CDN network that determines performance. But quantity does not equal quality. Many companies are still stuck on the notion that the CDN with the most POPs or locations is always the fastest or provides the best service. However, this isn’t always true. And even when it is, those few milliseconds shaved off of delivery speed, usually have no business ROI with video specifically and can cost your company thousands. Is it worth paying 30% more per month to one CDN just to have your videos startup up two-tenths of a fraction of a second faster? Probably not. In all seriousness though, there’s a POP problem, especially with many of the larger CDNs who are so focused on how many locations they have. That’s great for enterprise customers that need global delivery, but not good for an SMB customer with smaller traffic, less inventory of content, and doesn’t have tons of money to spend. If you are a growing mid-sized company dedicated to scale, you should seek out a CDN dedicated to the same.
Many customers need to have full control over the content delivered by their CDN. If you’re not currently using a CDN, you’re accustom to this level of control. You simply access the CMS or FTP of your origin server and hit delete. Some content may still live on in browser caches, but the main source the content lives on is wiped clean. Now new or updated content is delivered to users rather than older content. This is how it should be, and this is how it is when you use a content delivery network with instant purging. This feature gives you origin-like control over the content delivered by your CDN, meaning old or unwanted content is purged and inaccessible to users in a matter of seconds.
Using the video streaming company as an example again, say a user uploaded a controversial file onto your server. Based on your algorithm, this file could be automatically pushed out to your CDN for quick user consumption. To protect your brand image, you’d want to remove all traces of this file as soon as you became aware of it. With a CDN that has one-click instant purging, the unwanted video would be removed in a matter of seconds. This wouldn’t be the case with some CDNs though. They often require minutes, even hours to purge content on their servers. This is a major problem in an age when the face of your business hinges on the nature of your content.
If you’re a small customer and only have a few hundred dollars a month to spend, I would argue it really won’t matter who you pick. For mid-sized customers, picking and choosing the right CDN usually means looking past the big CDNs. While they do have some small and mid-sized customers, that’s not really their focus and they are more suited to handle large media, enterprise and broadcast customers. That’s not to say you can’t get good service from them if you are smaller, but you will be paying far more than you need to. Why pay enterprise rates when you’re not an enterprise customer?
For mid-sized customers, align yourself with mid-sized CDNs that specialize in CDN rather than a slew of non-related web services like web design or marketing. A service-based company dedicated to offering content delivery will almost always have better support, better prices, and more CDN-specific features than a traditional web hosting company or solutions integrator. You’ll find many options in the mid-sized CDN space, but as mentioned earlier, companies like MaxCDN, who are specifically serving this space make them a great starting point for you in your search. Bottom line: Whomever you choose, keep the 5 points mentioned above in mind during your CDN decision-making process. This will save your company money and other resources down the road.
The great news for all content owners is that content delivery services are now within reach of all SMB customers and only continue to improve in ease of use and performance each year. If you still need help picking and choosing the right CDN, feel free to send me an email. I’ll gladly walk you through the process and help guide you, free of charge.