Is CloudFlare A Myth?

Small Business Insights: Technical

I’ve bounced back and forth on Cloud Flare’s free CDN (content delivery network) service for the better part of a year. Every now and then, I’d configure a website with Cloud Flare and the best of intentions. It is after all supposed to protect websites from downtime and add a layer of additional protection from malware. And of course, as its primary function, it promised faster page loads by way of the CDN and cached images/files.

The reason I’ve bounced to and from CloudFlare was that sites using the service seemed to load slower. Say what? Yeah, I know! But up until now, I’d never taken the time to investigate what was essentially my gut telling me the load times had slowed.

What finally convinced me to attempt some A/B testing was downtime more than perceived loading times. Even though CloudFlare has a setting branded “Always Online”, sites using that configuration was throwing up more downtime warnings than other sites that weren’t using Cloud Flare. Dramatically more. I’m no detective, but that didn’t make sense and I finally chose to chase down hard facts.

It wasn’t rocket science.

Using another third party page speed testing service called GT Metrix, I tested my client site website speed. GT Metrix measures HTTP requests, browser caching, minify JavaScript settings, and other sexy items like cache validators. Then after disabling Cloud Flare, waiting a day, and clearing caches to ensure I was comparing “apples to apples”, I tested the site a second time. No additional changes were made to the site or its settings.

With CloudFlare:

  • PageSpeed score: 90 (Google)
  • YSlow score: 86 (Yahoo)

Without CloudFlare:

  • PageSpeed score: 95
  • YSlow score: 91

Keep in mind that YSlow considers a CDN (like Cloud Flare) a “big fish” when determining a score. Yet when the CDN/CloudFlare was disabled, GT Metrix awarded the same page higher, faster speed scores.

I choose to believe that CloudFlare has value to users that sign up for it’s paid service and that perhaps I’m getting what I pay for. That said, I likewise believe the best way to turn me into a paying client would be to make the service clearly valuable even if it’s a small, incremental bump in performance. Likewise, CloudFlare continues to flourish so clearly SOMEONE thinks it’s working.

My takeaway is perhaps oversimplified but between my gut and some reliable third-party reporting, I can’t recommend Cloud Flare’s free CDN services for basic, low traffic websites.

I wanted to love it, but I can’t.

Sidebar: My first experience with Sucuri’s Firewall service has been exceptional. Nor is it free; $120/yr. While I’ve not had a chance to dig deeper than one client website, the primary function here is security. Ironically, the performance boosts through optimization is technically more of a bonus feature.