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The pursuit of ‘full potential’ is driving companies to sweat their CDNs

They may be indispensable in the online world, but CDNs have much more to offer than the way most companies use them.

“An obsession with reaching full potential is the hallmark of great leadership,” a Bain & Company partner opined at the end of last year.

You could replace “great leadership” in that sentence with any number of things. Replacing it with “a great IT team” works well in our context.

For a long while, the individuals that make up IT teams have obsessed overreaching their full potential in terms of their technical skills and capabilities. Knowledge is one of the hallmarks of a great tech leader. 

But more than that, IT teams - and particularly leaders - have spent years obsessing overachieving the full potential of their IT investments. 

In the days of physical on-prem infrastructure, there was the concept of sweating one’s investments to wring out every last bit of value. A lot of this came from a position of under-utilisation. It was common for servers to have considerable operating ceilings, often so they did not become overworked and produce too much heat.

Case-in-point a 2015 article declares that “typical servers in business and enterprise data centres deliver[ed] between 5 and 15 percent of their maximum computing output on average over the course of the year”, and that one-in-three servers sat fully idle.

That’s no longer as much of a concern in the cloud world. In the event over-specified or under-utilised cloud instances are found, they can be fairly easily ‘rightsized’, scaled back to an instance size more fitting of the workload being processed, or switched off. A financially-optimised cloud environment is about as close as most IT teams get to an infrastructure setup that’s reaching its full potential.

Of course, IT isn’t just about infrastructure. The real value for businesses comes from the software and (software-based) services they run. These are often broad in capability, with new features being added at regular intervals.Yet, it’s tradition for organisations to use only a small amount of what these suites or services are capable of. There’s long been an appetite - and potential - to ‘sweat’ them, taking advantage of features that are ‘paid for’ but sit unused.

Sweating the CDN

One service close to our hearts that is ripe for more extensive usage is the content delivery network or CDN. 

Most distributors of online content use a CDN. Traditional benefits range from faster and secure delivery of content to where users reside, to tight integration with modern content management systems. But there are many lesser-known reasons for using a CDN.

The first of these is next-level caching. CDNs typically cache fairly simple (static) stuff: images, JavaScript, CSS, and other components that comprise a web page. However, a lot of content is much more cacheable than you might think: HTML pages, API routes, GraphQL queries — things or objects typically referred to as being event-driven. 

Caching more will help drive down costs, particularly for compute-heavy workloads, such as database queries. This is because you're caching data at the edge rather than at the origin. Such a strategy results in consistent and global performance improvements. Modern CDNs can even help with truly dynamic or completely uncacheable content or web page elements. 

A second lesser-known application of CDNs is for security. 

CDNs are a great place to implement and enforce security. They are massive in size and designed to take incredible traffic spikes, both legitimate — e.g., large crowds of viewers at live sports events — and malicious DDoS attacks. They are great at hiding where your true origin or application lives, helping reduce the attack area for hackers to actually get in. You can set up IP restrictions and private network interconnects to restrict access only to your application.

CDNs can block huge volumetric attacks. Protecting against user behaviour and emerging threats requires a more nuanced approach, and the web application firewall (WAF) offering of most CDNs can help with this. 

In fact, CDNs are a great place to do all things security. A CDN can inspect, detect, and block attacks before they reach an application. Features such as rate-limiting allow legitimate users to enjoy the app while attackers are blocked at the edge.

Enforcing security policies at the edge saves time, increases performance, and reduces the load on core applications - all valuable benefits considering that research shows over half of businesses struggle to reduce the risk of attacks, leaving them fearful of compromise.

A third and related use case is visibility. CDNs inherently have tons of data that can help improve day-to-day operations, particularly if the data is available in real-time. 

Among other things, CDN logs can help teams make better architectural decisions for future build-out and improvements; reduce costs by enabling you to identify areas where your caching or optimisation strategies are subpar; or help detect new and effective ways that people are trying to misuse and abuse applications so the application owner can make informed decisions. 

These are but three suggestions for extending CDN use. By picking up on one or more, teams can move closer to achieving the full potential of one more piece of their architecture and investment - and in doing so demonstrate the full potential that IT has to ‘do more with less’.

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