A CDN – if it’s doing its job, your customers won’t know it’s there

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The internet promised to revolutionise the way we shop – no more queues, no more traffic jams; just what you want, when you want it. And, when digital delivery arrived for entertainment products, like music, videos and games, the opportunity to simplify the process got even bigger.  However, without the right infrastructure, vendors can find themselves simply creating online versions of the same problems that they previously had on the high street.

Let’s take the launch of a new video game as an example. Previously, whenever there was a big launch it would be common place to see large queues outside the store entrance with shoppers’ travelling from miles around eager to be the first to get their hands on the new product. With only a limited number of people serving customers, and security procedures to carry out for both the product and the payment and transaction itself, the shop soon fills up, the doorway becomes a bottleneck and queues stretch down the street. This log jam for customers quickly leads to frustration. 

The development of technology and the ability to download games straight to the console was meant to change this. From the moment a game becomes available, millions will look to download, log on and drive traffic towards the brand’s server. Without the right infrastructure, however, you face the same problems as you do in the crowded store. If a vendor is trying to distribute the game from its own servers, without enough capacity, potential customers need to queue, or they will leave. Security procedures have to be followed, too, and without careful management bottlenecks can occur in the process. And, even more than with the shop – people are coming from miles around. The download might be travelling for thousands of miles across all kinds of throttled and suboptimal connections.      

Unlike a bricks and mortar shopping experience, when it comes to direct purchasing, the player holds the developer responsible for the complete experience of getting the game to their device. The bottom line is that a great number of things must go right for a service to work and, when it does, no one will notice or care – it will be expected. But it only takes one weakness in the system to bring the whole thing crashing down, or for bad actors to try to take the network down while the rest of the internet goes about its daily business. If there is a big software launch somewhere else on the same day, it’s easy to see the problem – so much data is going across the world’s servers it can cause blockages and friction – reducing the quality of the service. 

On top of this, the era of social media has created challenges for brands. On the one hand, they have access to an almost limitless number of potential customers thanks to the connected world we now live in. One the other, should something go wrong, customers have a much easier avenue to vent their frustrations in public and demand a problem is fixed.   

It’s bad enough for one customer to suffer a bad experience, and brands work hard to make sure this doesn’t happen but, today, their voice is amplified through social media and could change the perception of the brand, even for those who have never suffered any issues. 

With this direct line to the customer, brands now need to be evermore careful that online launches are planned thoughtfully and they ensure they have the right infrastructure in place. So how can brands ensure that they have made the right investments to prepare for success? 

A CDN 101 

For this kind of situation, brands need to ensure they are working with a global platform that is spread across multiple locations, enabling the load from traffic to be distributed intelligently – ensuring that no single server is overloaded. They need a system that can remove the bottlenecks, and secure payment handoff. In order to solve these issues, any brand that is considering an online launch, be it a new website, streaming series, ecommerce promotion or something else, would benefit from having a Content Delivery Network (CDN). 

A CDN is a highly-distributed platform of servers that delivers content optimised for web applications and streaming media. This network of servers is spread across many locations in order to respond directly to consumer demands for content and media that is fast and secure. It acts as a gateway between a content server, also known as the origin, and those accessing the content.    

Without a CDN, the finite number of content origin servers must respond to every single end user request regardless of quantity, meaning peaks in traffic places them under significant pressure and can increase the possibility of overload. The biggest issue here is this dramatically increases the risk the server will fail or the performance will be inconsistent and suffer as a result. 

By responding to requests in the content server, and in closer physical and network proximity to the end user, a CDN unburdens traffic from content servers and improves the overall web experience for all parties by offering a smooth, uninterrupted service. This will reduce complaints from users or viewers, meaning that content providers can be happy, too.   

Where and when is a CDN needed? 

CDNs are mostly known for the delivery of websites and their content, but it’s not just needed for this. They can deliver multiple avenues of content including: video of all quality including 4K and HD; audio streams; software downloads such as apps, games, and OS updates; images; AR/VR experiences; data records that contain medical and financial information; and much more. Basically, any data that can be digitised can be delivered through a CDN. 

The idea behind a CDN is that it offers zero friction to the end user and no one should realise that it’s there. If it appears invisible then it’s doing its job right.

Some of the world’s biggest companies use CDNs, which raises the question: if it’s so important, why don’t they do it themselves? Building a CDN is not a case of just pressing a button and everything works – that’s the aim for the CDN user. The simple answer is because it’s a specialised technical function. The software layer to a CDN is extremely critical. The internet was not built for streaming data, so a CDN must be built with the ability to re-route information and make intelligent decisions on where to push it to. Those that operate one need to understand how many locations a CDN needs points of presence in and where they need to be – too few and you risk overloading the system, too many and it takes too long to transfer the data. Knowledge about managing a CDN is important too. If you had enough money for a private jet, you might buy one, but you probably wouldn’t fly it yourself, you’d employ a qualified pilot.  Many organisations of the scale needed to build their own CDN, prefer to work with specialists to manage one for them. 

While the development of technology has enabled brands to offer exciting and innovative services, consumer expectation has also skyrocketed. The impossible has become the expected and the possible has become the required. Brands now have no option but to strive for the perfect seamless experience all the time, or consumers will simply go elsewhere. Why would consumers settle for less when they can get a better service from another brand? What’s possible has changed perceptions and brands must live up to that, the right CDN can go a long way to helping on this front. 

The future 

As technology develops, and brands can offer more immersive and personalised experiences, consumer expectations will continue to rise. Brands are now in a constant battle to provide near flawless and friction-free performance, or reputations could suffer and consumers could go elsewhere. For anyone planning a big launch, or anticipating a large amount of traffic, the right infrastructure can go a long way to easing any issues.    

Nelson Rodriguez, Global Director of Media Industry Strategy at Akamai 

Image Credit: Bsdrouin / Pixabay