The Wikipedia entry for CDN states: “A content delivery network or content distribution network (CDN) is a large distributed system of servers deployed in multiple data centers across the Internet. The goal of a CDN is to serve content to end-users with high availability and high performance. CDNs serve a large fraction of the Internet content today, including web objects (text, graphics and scripts), downloadable objects (media files, software, documents), applications (e-commerce, portals), live streaming media, on-demand streaming media, and social networks.”
The Internet is a network of networks. To get content from a server on the other side of the planet, IP packets have to travel through a series of backbone servers and public network cables.
CDNs augment the transport network by employing various techniques to optimize content delivery. It is fairly easy to see how CDNs help by looking at how the Internet works. A trace route to an Internet address tells us how many network hops a simple request takes. Following is one to Yahoo.com.
>tracert www.yahoo.com Tracing route to www-real.wa1.b.yahoo.com [184.108.40.206] over a maximum of 30 hops: 1 1 ms 1 ms 1 ms 192.168.1.1 2 11 ms 9 ms 9 ms 220.127.116.11 3 11 ms 9 ms 9 ms 18.104.22.168 4 11 ms 9 ms 9 ms bb1-10g0-0.aus2tx.sbcglobal.net [22.214.171.124] 5 16 ms 19 ms 16 ms ex2-p14-1.eqdltx.sbcglobal.net [126.96.36.199] 6 16 ms 16 ms 18 ms asn10310-10-yahoo.eqdltx.sbcglobal.net [188.8.131.52] 7 19 ms 17 ms 106 ms ae2-p101.msr1.mud.yahoo.com [184.108.40.206] 8 18 ms 18 ms 17 ms te-8-1.bas-c1.mud.yahoo.com [220.127.116.11] 9 18 ms 18 ms 17 ms f1.www.vip.mud.yahoo.com [18.104.22.168] Trace complete.
Additional hops mean more time to render data from a request on the user's browser. The speed of delivery is also constrained by the slowest network in the chain. The solution is a CDN that places servers around the world and, depending on where the end user is located, serves the user with data from the closest or most appropriate server. CDNs reduce the number of hops needed to handle a request. The difference is shown in the following figures.
CDNs focus on improving performance of web page delivery. CDNs like the Akamai CDN support progressive downloads, which optimizes delivery of digital assets such as web page images. CDN nodes and servers are deployed in multiple locations around the globe over multiple Internet backbones. These nodes cooperate with each other to satisfy data requests by end users, transparently moving content to optimize the delivery process. The larger the size and scale of a CDN's Edge Network deployments, the better the CDN.
CDNs generally push the Edge Network closer to end users. The Edge Network grows outward from the origin server by the addition of co-location facilities, bandwidth, and servers. CDNs choose the best location for serving content while optimizing for performance. They may choose locations that are the fewest hops or fewest number of network seconds away from the requesting client. CDNs choose the least expensive locations while optimizing for cost. CDNs use various techniques such as web caching, server-load balancing, and request routing to achieve the optimization goals.
For more information, see What are the benefits of using a CDN?
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