While it didn’t win TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference earlier this week, one of the most interesting startups we saw at the event was CloudFlare. CloudFlare is a distributed DNS and content delivery network that includes some interesting security features. It promises to speed up your website by an average of 30% and dramatically decrease your bandwidth usage and server load by preventing spam bots and other attackers from reaching your site.
Installing CloudFlare is straightforward, though it will surely baffle those who have never touched any aspect of the domain registration before. The service walks you through the setup in four steps. It will scan your current DNS settings, make you double check your settings and then ask you to switch your DNS settings with your registrar. Up to this point, setting up CloudFlare is basically an automatic process, but changing your DNS settings isn’t something most small business owners do and an error there could easily take your site down for multiple hours or even days.
Once the setup is complete and your DNS changes have propagated through the system, CloudFlare will cache some of your files in five data centers in Chicago, Ashburn, San Jose, Amsterdam and Tokyo and allow your visitors to get faster access to your site by bringing your content closer to them. At the same time, the system will filter out known web spammers, botnet attacks and similar threads.
You can monitor the state of your site and incoming threads with the helps of CloudFlare’s well-designed dashboard. This also gives you a good indication by how much the system is speeding your site up.
After testing CloudFlare over the last few days, we did not encounter any issues and assuming its statistics are correct, the service did indeed increase the speed of the site we tested it on by around 30% and prevent hundreds of spammers from even reaching the site.
There are some lingering questions, though. Besides the fact that you are adding another point of failure to your setup (what happens when CloudFlare goes down?), there is always the risk that it could generate too many false positives and alienate potential visitors to your site (CloudFlare greets these visitors with a CAPTCHA). The CloudFlare team also noted that the company plans to monetize the free service (there are also paid pro plans with additional features) by adding unobtrusive ads to your site. While we have not seen this in action yet, many site owners will likely balk at the idea of somebody randomly inserting ads (even if only on 404 pages) on their sites that they can’t control.
Whether these are risks worth taking in return for better site performance is something website owners have to decided for themselves. CloudFlare offers small publishers features that until now were the domain of bigger organizations with dedicated IT staff and this alone gives it the potential to become a highly disruptive company.