As you can (hopefully) see from this site, I like my pages fast. Very, very fast. Now, before we jump into this, let me be very clear about it: using a CDN will only get you so far. If your site is slow because of shoddy frontend work, a CDN isn’t going to help you much. You need to get your frontend work right first. However, once you’ve optimized everything you could, it’s time to look at content delivery.
My main problem was that even though you could get the inital website load with a single HTTP request, my server being hosted in Frankfurt, the folks from Australia still had to wait up to 2-3 seconds to get it. Round trip times of over 300 ms and a lot of providers inbetween made the page load just like any other Wordpress site.
So what can we do about it? One solution, of course, would be the use of a traditional CDN. However, most commercial CDNs pull the data from your server on request and then cache it for a while.
Using a traditional CDN the initial page load is slower than without it, since the CDN is a slight detour for the content. This is not a problem if you have a high traffic site since the content stays in the cache all the time. If, on the other hand, you are running a small blog like I do the content drops out of the cache pretty much all the time. So, in effect, a traditional pull-CDN would make this site slower. I could, of course, use a push-CDN where I can upload the content directly, but those seem to be quite pricey in comparison to what I’m about to build.
How do CDNs work?
Our plan is clear: on our path to world domination we need to make our content available everywhere fast. That means our content needs to be close to the audience. Conveniently, there are a lot of cloud providers that offer cheap virtual servers in multiple regions. We can just put our content on, say, 6 servers and we’re good, right?
Well, not so fast. How is the user going to be routed to the right server? Let’s take a look at the process of actually getting a site. First, the users browser uses the Domain Name System (DNS) to look up the IP address of the website. Once it has the IP address, it can connect the website and download the requested page.
If we think about it on a high level, the solution is quite simple: we need a smart DNS server that does a GeoIP lookup on the requesting IP address and returns the IP address closest to it. And indeed, that’s (almost) how commercial CDNs do it. There is a bit more engineering involved, like measuring latencies, but this is basically how it’s done.
Making the DNS servers fast
Now the next question arises: how do we make the DNS server fast? Getting the website download to go to the closest node is only half the job, if the DNS lookup has to go all the way around the planet, that’s still a HUGE lag.
As it turns out, the infrastructure underpinning the internet is uniquely suitable to solve this problem. Network providers use the Border Gateway Protocol to tell each other which networks they can reach and how many hops away they are. The end user ISP then, in most cases, takes the shortest route to reach the destination.
If we now advertise the IP addresses in multiple locations, the DNS request will always be routed to the closest node. This is called BGP Anycast.
Why not use BGP Anycast for the website download?
Wait, hold on, if we can do this, why don’t we simply use BGP to route the web traffic? Well, there are three reasons.
First of all, doing BGP Anycast requires control over the network hardware and a pool of at least 256 IP addresses, which is way over our budget.
Second, BGP routes are not that stable. While DNS requests only require a single packet to be sent in both directions, HTTP (web) requests require establishing a connection to download the content. If the route changes or the connection is unstable, the HTTP connection could broken. That adds a lot of complexity for a project of this scale.
And finally, the lowest count of hops, which is the basis of BGP route calculations, does not guarantee the lowest round trip time. A hop across the ocean may be just one hop, but it’s a damn long one.
Further reading: Linkedin Engineering has a wonderful blog post about this topic.
Setting up DNS
Since we have established that we can’t run our own BGP Anycast, this means we can also not run our own DNS servers. So let’s go shopping! … OK, as it turns out, DNS providers that offer BGP Anycast servers and latency-based routing are a little hard to come by. During my search I found only two, the rather pricey Dyn and the dirt-cheap Amazon Route53. (Update: as it turns out, DNS Made Easy also does latency-based routing.)
Since we are cheap, Route53 it is. We add our domain and then start setting up the IPs for our machines. We need as many DNS records as we have servers around the globe (edge locations), and each record should look like this:
Tip: it is useful to set up a health check for each of the edge locations so they are removed if they go down.
The next issue we need to tackle is distributing content. Each of your edge nodes needs to have the same content. If you are using a static site generator like Jekyll, your task is easy: simply copy the generated HTML files on all servers. Something as simple as rsync might just do the trick.
If you want to use a content editing system like Wordpress, you have a significantly harder job since it is not built to run on a CDN. It can be done, but it’s not without its drawbacks, and the distribution of static content is still a problem. You may have to create a distributed object storage for that to fully work.
Using SSL/TLS certificates
The next pain point is using SSL/TLS certificates. Actually, let’s call them what they are: x509 certificates. Each of your edge locations needs to have a valid certificate for your domain. The simple solution, of course, is to use LetsEncrypt to generate a different certificate for each, but you have to be careful. LE has a rate limit, which I ran into on one of my edge nodes. In fact, I had to take the London node down for the time being until the weekly limit expires.
However, I am using Traefik as my proxy of choice, which supports using a distributed key-value store or even Apache Zookeeper as the backend for synchronization. While this requires a bit more engineering, it is probably a lot more stable in the long run.
Time for the truth, how does my CDN perform? Using this tool, let’s see some global stats:
As you can see, the results are pretty decent. I might need two more nodes, one in Asia and one in South America to get better load times there.
Update: After I’ve made it to the Hacker News front page (wow!), I had a chance to collect a bit of real usage data using Google Analytics:
Bottom line: I really need that Singapore node. The load times in India are above the desired 1 second.
Frequently asked questions
When I do projects like this, people usually ask me: “Why do you do this? You must like pain.” Yes, to some extent I like doing things differently just for the sake of exploring new options and technologies, building your own CDN may make a lot of sense. Let’s address some of the questions about this setup.
Let’s be clear: if a commercial provider comes out with an affordable push CDN that allows me to do nice URLs, SSL and custom headers, I’ll absolutely throw money at them and stop running my own infrastructure. As fun as it was to build, I have enough servers to run without this.
Why don’t you just use CloudFlare?
CloudFlare is a wonderful tool for many, but as outlined above, CDNs drop unused content from their cache. On other sites that I’m managing I see a cache rate of about 75% with the correct setup. Having your own CDN means 100% of the content is always in cache, and there are no additional round trips to the origin server.
Why don’t you use S3 and CloudFront?
Amazon S3 has an option to host static websites, and it works in conjunction with CloudFront. However, it does not allow you to set custom headers for caching, nice URLs, etc. For that, you need Lambda@Edge, a tool that lets you run code on the CloudFront edge nodes. Lambda@Edge, however, has the same problem as CDNs: if it doesn’t receive requests for a certain time, the container running it is shut down and needs up to a second to boot up.
Why don’t you use Google AMP?
Google AMP only brings benefits when people visit your site from the Google search engine. Most of my traffic does not come from Google so that won’t solve the problem. So it really only benefits Google, nobody else. Oh, and I’m perfectly capable of building a fast website without the dumbed down HTML they offer.
Who cares? 3 seconds is a wonderful load time!
I’m a DevOps engineer who specializes in delivering content. If anyone, I should have a website that’s fast around the globe, no?
Oh, and I like to flip Google AMP off because it’s a terrible technology. Not that they’d care.
Build your own
Now it’s up to you: do you want to build your own CDN? The source code for mine is right there on my GitHub. Go nuts!