Initial impressions of CloudFlare: v good

Just been checking out CloudFlare ahead of the Homeless World Cup next month. Every year the site goes mental during the tournament, but we’re expecting even more this year: evidently YouTube is on board with the live video we’ll be doing from pitch 1, and I understand that sponsor TelMex is planning to keep its many customers updated throughout the event. We’re also planning some serious Twitter, Facebook and other social activity around the event, together with a focused live reporting operation.

It’s hard to forecast traffic levels around something like this, and therefore hard to quantify exactly what server resources we’ll need to keep the site at peak performance. Ideally we’d be hosting in an elastic cloud, but realistically this is a job for another time; instead, we’re currently using a Rackspace cloud setup, which does give us the option to scale operations up fairly quickly if required.

Meanwhile, we’ve also been looking at various options to optimise parts of the application without the need for major rewrites. One of these is around the delivery of static assets. We were considering various CDN-type solutions, and even setting up our own quick nginx reverse proxy to do the job – until Paul mentioned CloudFlare. So we gave it a trial run on a dummy Loft domain, and have to say – very impressed indeed.

It’s dead easy to set up – took less than 30 minutes to configure, and an hour so to kick into action. You simply insert CloudFlare as a layer between the user and your site’s web and DNS servers, tweak the settings, and most of the rest gets sorted.

It provides a CDN for serving ‘stuff’ from servers local to the user – you can configure what stuff that is in various ways, whether just static assets or dynamic content too – and on-the-fly compression using Gzip and various minification techniques, plus many other useful performance, security and insight refinements. The documentation says that minification and “Rocket Loading” (which loads JavaScripts asynchronously) are both in beta, but our preliminary tests have found no problems with these.

And the cost? Astonishingly, free, or just $20/month on the pro plan. Business and enterprise plans are much more expensive, but also come with SLAs and service features suitable for heavyweight business use.

We’ll be testing this further, and all being well roll it out for the big event. Meanwhile, keep an eye for our new Homeless World Cup early next month…

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