DevOps

CloudFront vs CloudFlare: Choosing the right CDN

Content Delivery Network (CDN) is not a new technology. In fact, it has been around for many years. Every internet user, knowingly or unknowingly, uses a CDN while watching a video, reading a newspaper, or enjoying a TV show. As CDN solutions become mainstream, organizations must choose the right CDN platform to seamlessly and securely serve content to end-users. CloudFront CDN and CloudFlare CDN are two popular services available on the market. This blog delves deep into the CloudFront vs CloudFlare debate to explore the similarities, differences and features of both solutions in order to help organizations make an informed decision.

Table of contents

What is a CDN?

CDN stands for content delivery network. It’s a network of geographically distributed servers and data centers designed to deliver higher performance and high availability of internet content. Whether streaming videos, high-resolution images, JavaScript files, or HTML pages, a CDN solution facilitates a quick transfer of site assets, ensuring faster delivery of website content.

Why Do You Need a CDN?

Before getting into the CloudFront vs CloudFlare debate, it’s important to understand why you need a CDN in the first place. The concept of a CDN was introduced in the late 90s, at a time when the rapid explosion of users caused network congestion. For instance, when a European user tried to access graphical content from a business website in the US, it took a long time to transfer data and site assets. While the page elements specific to each page are one of the reasons for such a delay, the physical distance and the network traffic also result in latency issues. A CDN reduces this latency by placing multiple servers in different regions to deliver content from the network edge. As such, the user enjoys uninterrupted streaming content.

How Does a CDN Work?

CDN service stores cache versions of a site on multiple servers across various geographical locations called Points of Presence (PoPs). Each PoP contains multiple servers for the storage and delivery of cache content. For instance, when a user from India accesses a US website, the browser doesn’t have to contact the US server. Instead, the edge server located in India will serve the content to the end user, thereby increasing the speed and load times by up to 50%.  

A CDN service optimizes latency and network bandwidth, all while increasing website security. Moreover, you gain customized access controls for data delivery in different regions and the management of network traffic is optimized.

According to Mordor Intelligence, the CDN market yielded revenues of $11.76 billion in 2020. This amount is expected to reach $49.61 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 27.30% between 2021 and 2026. While North America is the largest market for CDN technology, Asia is the fastest-growing market. The entertainment and media sector holds the largest share of CDN traffic at 34%. 

What is Amazon CloudFront CDN?

As we ease into the CloudFront vs CloudFlare subject, it’s important to explore the capabilities of each tool. Amazon CloudFront CDN is a content delivery network service offered by AWS. Launched in 2008, CloudFront has quickly evolved into a formidable force in the CDN space. Today, CloudFront operates 410+ Points of Presence (PoPs) across six continents, competing with popular CDNs such as Limelight and Akamai Networks. Offering a developer-friendly interface, CloudFront enables organizations to easily configure the tool for a seamless delivery of data, videos and APIs to users across the globe with low latency and high transfer speeds using intelligent routing and automated network mapping. This service is offered under a pay-as-you-go subscription model.

When a user requests a piece of information in a traditional network environment, the request may have to pass through several interconnected networks in order to deliver the content to the user. With Amazon CloudFront, the request is served through the closest edge network for faster delivery. If the edge server doesn’t contain the requested information, CloudFront pulls it out from the origin server, such as an S3 bucket or an HTTP server or a media channel specified by the user. As copies of the content (objects) are stored at various edge locations across the globe, users can enjoy high availability and reliability.

What are the features of Amazon CloudFront?

Massive Network of PoPs

As reported by Statista, Amazon is currently leading the $200 billion cloud market with a market share of 34% for Q2 of 2022. Google Cloud and Azure’s combined market share is 31%. As an early leader in this space, AWS has an edge in gaining footprints across multiple geo-locations. Currently, the platform operates 410+ PoPs across 48 countries. It has partnered with various tier1, tier2 and tier3 telecom companies to deliver optimal performance to end users. While most edge servers are located in North America and Europe, CDN CloudFront also has a considerable footprint in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and China. This is a key aspect to consider when comparing Amazon CloudFront vs CloudFlare. 

Security is a Priority

CloudFront takes application security to the next level by using a comprehensive strategy. While the CloudFront service acts as a front door to network traffic, eliminating direct contact between the app and the user, AWS Web Shield, AWS Web Application Firewall and AWS S3 Route, along with CloudFront, form a cohesive team to combat every type of network attack. Regarding Transport Layer Security, CloudFront uses TLSv1.3 to securely deliver APIs, apps and content over the network. Furthermore, Amazon AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) enables easy creation, deployment and renewal of certifications. CloudFront offers different access controls using geo-restriction, signed cookies, URLs and Origin Access Identity (OAI). CloudFront security complies with all regulations, including HIPAA, PCI DSS and FedRamp.

High Availability

Regardless of peak seasons and traffic spikes, CloudFront ensures high availability for your applications by reducing application origin requests. By enabling a centralized caching layer called the “Origin Shield”, CloudFront further reduces the load on app servers. In addition, it allows you to configure multiple origins for redundant origins and backend architecture. This is an advantage of the AWS tool in this CloudFront vs CloudFlare debate. 

Feature-rich CDN Service

CloudFront Edge servers are not just plain servers. Indeed, they offer programmable functions and solutions to manage traffic operations at edge locations. For instance, CloudFront Functions can be used for HTTP header manipulations. Similarly, Lambda@Edge is a useful service that lets you perform serverless computing at the edge location. Server-side rendering, therefore, becomes easy with Lambda@Edge.

Intuitive Dashboard

CloudFront is developer friendly. With fully featured API, AWS SDKs and DevOps tools, it enables developers to configure and deploy workloads easily or make changes to the code and propagate changes and invalidations in a short period of time. You can use AWS CloudFormation or Development kits and APIs to configure and manage CloudFront while efficiently monitoring the network using Amazon Kinesis or CloudWatch. While the UI is good looking, having a lot of buttons/options may potentially cause confusion for some users, which gives a slight upper hand to CloudFlare in the CloudFront vs CloudFlare race.

Reuters, Slack, ShareChat, Canon and Spotify are a few notable organizations that are known to use CloudFront.

What is CloudFlare?

The CDN CloudFront vs CloudFlare debate gets interesting as we start exploring the capabilities of the second tool. CloudFlare is a content delivery network that is quite popular in the internet world. Founded in 2010 and headquartered in San Francisco, US, this CDN service quickly garnered a market share of more than 30% of internet websites. Designed to deliver performance, reliability and security, CloudFlare adapts a reverse proxy model wherein all traffic is routed through its servers. With servers located in 275+ cities in 100+ countries across the globe, CloudFlare delivers high availability and better performance. The edge servers cache static content and deliver it to users, thereby eliminating DDoS and other cybersecurity-related attacks. Indeed, DNS management and DDoS protection complement the CDN functionality of CloudFlare.

What are the features of CloudFlare?

CloudFlare CDN

As one of the largest CDN providers in the world, content delivery network service is the core function of CloudFlare. With a built-in cache feature, CDNs ensure that every page won’t be loaded from the original server. CloudFlare makes things even more advantageous as you can customize the caching module to control pages to cache, cache content duration and specific rules for caching.

CloudFlare DNS

DNS stands for Domain Name System, a service that translates website names into their corresponding IP addresses when a request is made to access a site. CloudFlare DNS is a free DNS offering that comes with an intuitive and easy-to-use interface. With 200+ edge servers around the world, CloudFlare DNS offers a site lookup speed of 4.5 ms. This is where CloudFlare excels in the AWS CloudFront vs CloudFlare debate, as CloudFront is only CDN and requires the use of extra services such as Route53 to manage the DNS.

CloudFlare Security

Along with CloudFlare CDN, organizations can take advantage of the web application firewall service. This feature is not available with the free version of CloudFlare but is offered with the three paid editions. With a monthly subscription of $20 for the Pro edition, you can enjoy the amazing network security benefits of the CloudFlare WAF. When you rename your servers with CloudFlare DNS, you’ll get the SSL/TSL encryption service and will automatically be entitled to the web application firewall feature. With its large network, CloudFlare quickly scans all IP addresses, easily identifies bad IPs, and blocks them. Similarly, blocking specific IPs or regions can easily mitigate DDoS attacks. Every user request passes through the WAF in order to protect your servers against cyber-attacks. CloudFlare offers a WAF dashboard for easy monitoring and customization of WAF rules for your organization. All you need to do is turn on the OWASP rule set to define your security policies for the WAF service.

Medium, Yelp, Upwork, Fiverr and Gitlab are a few notable organizations that use CloudFlare.

Table of Features: CloudFront vs CloudFlare

FeaturesCloudFrontCloudFlare
CDN ArchitectureTraditional CDNReverse Proxy
ConfigurationSpecial URLsNameservers
Content DeliveryLevel 3 Cache HeadersMultiplexing
CDN Locations410+ PoPs (Including 13 regional mid-tier caches) in 90+ cities and 48 countriesData Centers in 275 cities in 100+ countries, including Mainland China
Core FunctionOnly CDN (You need to use other services such as Route53 to manage DNS at an additional cost)CDN, DNS Management and DDoS Protection (A big pro for CloudFlare)
SubscriptionPay-per-useFlat rate per month
Data out charges$0.0085 per GBFree
HTTP/HTTP Requests$0.0075 per GbFree
SSL/TSL CertificateFree Amazon Certificate Manager (ACM)Free SSL Encryption
APIsAmazon API GatewayCloudFlare API Shield

Amazon CloudFront Edge Locations

Source: Amazon

CloudFlare CDN Edge Locations

Source: CloudFlare

What is an Origin Server?

In the CloudFront vs CloudFlare debate, you’ll commonly hear about the origin server. It’s a server that contains the original version of website content. A cached version of this content will be hosted on the edge server of a CDN network. Both servers communicate with each other regularly to update the cached version using the “push” and “pull” methods. A pull method is more effective as the CDN simply pulls content from the original server and prepares a cached version of it. Alternately, when you use a push method, you’ll need to push changes made to the origin server to the CDN server. 

CloudFront vs CloudFlare: Global Usage

When it comes to CloudFront vs CloudFlare global usage, both services are evenly poised. The CloudFront CDN operates a massive network of 414+ globally distributed PoPs that are interconnected via the AWS backbone. Indeed, AWS has built a private network called the AWS backbone using 100 Gbe metro fiber and trans-oceanic cables going through the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and seas such as the Mediterranean Sea, South China Sea and the Red Sea. Backed by this massive and globally distributed network, CloudFront delivers high performance and ultra-low latency. The deep integration with AWS services facilitates easy integration of existing infrastructure with CloudFront.

Enlyft reports that CloudFront owns a market share of 20.67% in the CDN space, while CloudFlare owns a market share of 33.64%. Retail and construction are two leading sectors that share a major market share of CloudFront, accounting for 9% and 7%, respectively. Moreover, 55% of CloudFront customers are based in the US, while 8% of customers are found in the UK. It’s also interesting to note that 70% of companies that use CloudFront are small businesses and 24% are medium-sized businesses. Large enterprise customers account for 6% of the total CloudFront market. According to Builtwith, around 50 million websites use CloudFront, 11.6 million of which are active sites.

Kinsta reports that CloudFlare revenues are consistently growing. The company has announced revenues of $212 million for Q1 in 2022, a YOY increase of 52% when compared to the 2021 revenues at $656.4 million. Furthermore, 20% of websites on the Internet use CloudFlare, 33% of which are among Fortune 1000 companies. In the reverse proxy segment, 79.9% of websites run on CloudFlare. According to Builtwith, as of 2022, 28.6% of the top 100,000 websites use CloudFlare. 

According to Backlinko, CloudFlare serves 7.59 million active websites and 4.1 million customers. The company generated a revenue of $431.06 million in 2020 and $656.4 million in 2021. There are 945 large customers that pay $100,000 per account. This number has grown 8.71 times bigger since 2016.

CloudFront vs CloudFlare: Costs

The advantage of CloudFront over CloudFlare is that it is powered by the cloud infrastructure giant Amazon. As such, there are no charges when data is fetched from origin servers within the AWS infrastructure, such as Amazon S3 buckets, Amazon EC2 instances and Amazon ELBs. For newbies or companies with low-volume data transfers, CloudFront offers a free tier allowing you to get a hang of the service. The free tier offers 1 TB data transfer, 2,000,000 CloudFront Functions invocations and 10,000,000 HTTP/HTTPS requests.

The pricing structure for CloudFront isn’t easy to understand at face value. There are multiple aspects to consider when calculating monthly expenses. Also, there is no flat rate for data delivery across all regions. Charges will vary with each region. For instance, in the US regions, CloudFront charges $0.085 per GB for the first 10GB. The next 40 GB in this region costs $0.08 per GB, which goes down as the data capacity increases. For the Middle East, charges go up to $0.11 per GB. The next 40 GB in the US region costs $0.08, which goes down as the data capacity increases. In an AWS CloudFront vs CloudFlare scenario, the latter doesn’t charge anything for data going out.

Regarding Functions, CloudFront charges $0.10 per 1 million invocations. For Lambda@Edge Functions, the charge is $0.60 per 1 million invocations. Of course, you should also consider the compute capacity and duration. Companies can enjoy a discount of 30% if they commit to a long-term contract of at least a year in the form of the Amazon CloudFront Security Savings Bundle. This package also includes web application firewall services.

CloudFlare offers a free version and three paid version plans, namely the Enterprise edition, Business edition and Pro edition. The free plan includes access to a global CDN, unmetered DDoS protection, a Universal SSL certificate, simple bot mitigation and community support. CloudFlare charges a flat rate for paid plans. The Pro edition costs $20 per month, the Business edition costs $200 per month and the Enterprise edition comes with customized annual billing. You don’t need to worry about calculating the monthly costs. You simply pay a flat rate per month regardless of the amount of data transfer that happens over the network. The biggest advantage of CloudFlare is that you don’t pay for data going out from your servers, unlike CloudFront, which charges $0.0085 per GB of data going out. Similarly, you don’t need to pay for HTTP/HTTP requests which cost $0.0075 on CloudFront.

That said, you should also consider the uptime of Amazon CloudFront vs CloudFlare. CloudFront offers a 100% uptime, while the CloudFlare network has had multiple downtimes in 2022.

CloudFront vs CloudFlare CostsCloudFrontCloudFlare
Free TierAvailableAvailable
Contract TermNo Minimum Contract Term and Minimum Monthly CostsNo Minimum Contract Term and Minimum Monthly Costs
HTTP / HTTPS Requests$0.0075Free
Data Transfer Out$0.085 per GB (US Region)Free

CloudFront vs CloudFlare: Performance

When it comes to performance, CloudFlare has a slight edge over CloudFront. Managing server loads and site speeds are easier with CloudFlare. According to a CDN benchmark test conducted by CDNperf using a 500-byte image, CloudFlare outperformed CloudFront by a 2-millisecond speed in the US region. However, when the same test was conducted in the Asian region, CloudFront delivered better latency times while maintaining the same pace as CloudFlare.

When HTML sites were involved, CloudFlare scored a page score of 100 for both regions seeing as it uses gzip compression by default. That said, load times were slightly slower because CloudFlare performs DDoS protection on sites and redirects bots to a specific page. The default cache setting covers specific types of assets, such as images, stylesheets and scripts. As such, you should enable the “cache all” feature to cache other types of site assets. However, this feature doesn’t cache JSON files. To cache JSON files, you need to set specific page rules. The free version of CloudFlare only allows for3 specific page rules. 

CloudFront performs well with static and dynamic content. It supports gzip and other compression tools for website speed optimization. For instance, Hulu, Amazon Prime and PBS videos are streamed using CloudFront. In addition to edge servers, CloudFront operates regional edge caches. This means that when a user-requested piece of content is not available at the nearest edge server, CloudFront ensures that next time the request doesn’t need to go through the origin server.

CloudFront vs CloudFlare: Conclusion

CloudFlare acts as a proxy or a DNS for your site and caches data on its closest servers to the end user location via multiplexing. On the other hand, CloudFront caches data in S3 buckets nearer to edge locations and delivers data using level-3 cache headers. CloudFlare is easy to set up and configure, while CloudFront configurations take time. However, there is an initial learning curve with CloudFlare, as the interface isn’t very intuitive. Indeed, it contains many functions that require a bit of learning. Also, the UI/UX could be improved.

Concerning Amazon CloudFront vs CloudFlare costs, CloudFront is a bit expensive. However, the tool offers additional features such as serverless computing at the edge location, Functions and other AWS services that offer value for the money spent. Where live streaming, dynamic images and graphically rich content are involved, CloudFront offers a robust network with built-in support for managing files. It also offers low latency. CloudFront offers more control over cache invalidation, HTTP headers and live streaming. Moreover, AWS offers a host of cloud services that make integrating your CDN service with other processes easy. It also provides detailed reporting on resource usage and frequently used objects. With many cool services at your disposal, you can significantly enhance the capabilities of your websites. 

Elasticity is another key benefit of CloudFront. The service is highly scalable and automatically responds to traffic spikes without requiring human intervention. You only pay for the content delivered over the network without an up-front fee or a minimum commitment. Furthermore, CloudFront is highly reliable. 

CloudFront is a great choice for organizations that are already using AWS services. Small organizations that don’t use AWS services must subscribe to several additional features, such as AWS WAF, AWS Shield and AWS Lambda, to run the CDN service. The other clouds also have CDN tools, and it’s always better to use the CDN where most of your services are deployed. The advantage of CloudFlare is that it doesn’t really matter where your other cloud services are created.

CloudFlare helps organizations looking for more cache options deliver content faster. Therefore, small websites and blogs powered by WordPress can make the most out of it. Performance, DNS management and DDoS protection are CloudFlare’s three most notable advantages. Basic features are free and easy to configure and use. On the downside, the tool provides inadequate information about the cached content. As such, you should be careful about what is being cached. Moreover, analytics and monitoring features are limited when compared to CloudFront. The free plan only allows for three custom page rules. In light of the above, if a secure CDN is your main requirement, CloudFlare is a good option for you. 

CloudFront vs CloudFlare: Pros

FAQs

Are CloudFront PoPs and CloudFlare Data centers the same?

Similar to CloudFront vs CloudFlare, the PoPs vs datacenter debate is also trending in the CDN space. Points of Presence (PoPs) refer to servers that are strategically placed in a data center at an edge location. While CloudFront uses the term “PoPs,” CloudFlare calls them data centers. However, a PoP can also be a single server installed at an edge location, while a data center always hosts multiple servers.

What is the Difference Between Push CDN and Pull CDN?

The website owner pushes content to the CDN edge servers in a Push CDN. A Pull CDN works in the opposite direction, wherein the CDN pulls content from the website. With a Push CDN, website owners can choose the cached content, duration and updates. A Pull CDN relieves web owners from the administrative burden as the system automatically does the work for them. Regarding AWS CloudFront vs CloudFlare, the former uses a push method while supporting a pull method and the latter uses a pull method.

Is CDN a Necessity for Every Organization?

A CDN tool doesn’t make sense when a company’s user base is located in the same geographical location. That said, you can still use the security and other CDN features.

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