Why and How to Use a CDN With WordPress

how to use a cdnThere is little doubt that WordPress is a very powerful site management tool. In terms of simplicity and usability, WordPress is already largely heralded as a king and with the improvements in the 3.0 branch, WordPress is also gaining ground in flexibility and power.

However, WordPress has never really been the champ when its come to speed. Though it certainly can be a speedy system, it’s better known for requiring a high volume of database queries and even crashing servers under heavy load.

Because of this, WordPress users are constantly looking for ways to speed up their site and caching systems such as WP Super Cache and W3 Total Cache have been very popular among WordPress users as a means to streamline and speed up their sites.

But another tool, potentially more powerful, is often overlooked. Using a CDN, especially on media-heavy sites, can improve your performance drastically, reduce load on your server and help you weather traffic spikes.

Best of all, it’s trivial to set up and is actually a part of W3 Total Cache.

Why a CDN?

CDN stands for a “Content Distribution Network” or “Content Delivery Network” and is a series of servers or datacenters, usually across the globe, that deliver content in such a way that the visitor access their data from the closest location possible.

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This can greatly speed up site loading time, especially for visitors who are far away geographically from your server, and also improves reliability as several, if not dozens, of servers would have to go down to take your content offline completely.

These servers also tend to be better suited for delivering static content, rather than precessing PHP scripts, meaning that they load the material faster and can delivery it quicker even without the advantage of geography.

Best off all, these networks are very cheap. Most WordPress users will only spend a few dollars per month to host their images on Amazon Cloudfront, a popular solution, and MaxCDN, another popular service, offers 1 TB of transfer for $40, more than your average blog will use in many months.

However, implementing this into your blog can be very intimidating though, fortunately, there are several plugins to make it easier.

How to Get Started with a CDN

There are many ways to get started with a CDN in WordPress, the easiest is W3 Total Cache, a caching plugin that many WordPress admins already use. The plugin, in addition to a wide array of powerful caching options, also makes it easy to upload files to a variety of CDN providers and automatically rewrites URLs to direct users to the CDN.

However, W3 Total Cache can be memory intensive, especially if you enable advanced features, and isn’t right for every setup. As such, there are several other easy ways to use a CDN with your WordPress blog including:

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  • WP Kamps Amazon S3 Plugin: An early beta plugin, the Kamps Amazon S3 Plugin checks to see if an image is available on Amazon S3 and, if it is, directs users to that version. If it’s not, it attempts to write it to the CDN. Works with both Amazon S3 and Amazon Cloudfront.
  • CDN Tools: Works with Rackspace’s Cloud Files offering to easily uploading and redirect visitors to CDN versions of static content. Does not work with any other CDN though it is one of the most established CDN plugins.
  • Free CDN: If you are looking for a free solution, Free CDN takes advantage of the existing Coral Cache Network to let you load your content from it’s freely-available CDN. Best of all, one merely has to activate the plugin to use it.
  • CDN Rewrites: Similar to Free CDN but works with any network by checking to see if a file is present on the CDN and then redirect visitors to that version. Will not upload files to the server, meaning you will have to find another solution for synchronizing files, but is a low-overhead solution for CDN redirection.

Conclusions

Given that the costs of using a CDN are so low and the potential benefits so great, there’s little reason to not give it a try. However, as always, back up your files and your database before doing any experimentation with your server. Though the odds of catastrophe are small, they are always there.

But if you’re careful, there’s little to fear from using a CDN and, especially if you’re running a media-heavy site, a great deal of speed improvements to be had. That alone makes it more than worth the time to set up and try out.