Akamai CDN vs. AWS CloudFront: What Are the Merits of Switching?

Akamai is the leading content delivery network (CDN) operator, but that does not make it the only one worth considering. There are plenty of reasons to use Amazon’s CloudFront CDN instead, along with some potential drawbacks. Making the switch from Akamai to CloudFront is easy enough that it will almost always be worth analyzing whether the move makes sense.

Choosing Between Two Titans in Their Fields

Akamai was one of the first companies to make a CDN available to the public, and it has remained at the head of the class ever since. Twenty-plus years after getting off the ground as a finalist in an MIT entrepreneurship contest, Akamai now serves up anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of all World Wide Web traffic.

Amazon’s own network is no slouch, either, making the company one of the best-equipped to compete against Akamai’s mature technology. The CloudFront CDN uses the same worldwide network that powers the rest of Amazon Web Services (AWS), a platform that has been every bit as groundbreaking and dominant in the realm of infrastructure-as-a-service (IAAS) as with Akamai and content delivery.

Some of the most appealing-seeming CDN competitors to these two major names actually use Akamai or AWS infrastructure behind the scenes. When San Antonio-based Rackspace launched its own CDN in 2015, for instance, it did so with Akamai technology under the hood. While there are also plenty of other high-profile CDN operators, like Cloudflare, Microsoft Azure, Imperva, and Google Cloud, many who look into the details find Akamai and CloudFront the most appealing. With regard to generalities like history, resources, and commitment, both Akamai and Amazon should be seen as extremely well-qualified CDN operators.

Akamai versus Cloudfront: Delving Into the Details

Let’s examine each CDN services provider a bit more before pitting Akamai CDN vs. Cloudfront CDN.

What Is Akamai?

Akamai was founded in 1998 and is known as one of the oldest CDN providers in the world. From its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it supports websites and online platforms that require robust infrastructure for the huge amounts of global traffic they get at any given time.

Akamai’s advantage over other CDNs, including Amazon’s CloudFront, is its vast network of servers scattered all over the world. It has over 240,000 servers in more than 120 countries. Given its size and scope, the Akamai CDN can quickly deliver content to Internet users who want to view the websites Akamai hosts. It won’t matter if a website and its visitor live on opposite sides of the planet: Akamai’s CDN bridges the distance and ensures that the website loads just as fast for viewers from another country as it is for domestic visitors. As previously mentioned, Akamai’s clients are mostly large corporations and international brands that frequently receive massive amounts of web traffic. Some of their top customers are Adobe, IBM, Microsoft, Verizon, IKEA, and NBC.

What Is CloudFront?

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Founded approximately 10 years after Akamai (in 2008), CloudFront is a younger competitor that can hold its own against today’s bigger and more popular CDNs. It works the same way as Akamai: it provides a global network of servers that are responsible for making websites loading quickly regardless of the geographic locations of the site visitors.

Compared to Akamai, CloudFront has a smaller network. It only has 107 edge servers in five continents. CloudFront is offered direct-to-customers through the Amazon Web Services. Despite its size, this CDN has earned the trust of many high-profile clients, including Pinterest, Spotify, Dropbox, and Airbnb.

As might be expected, the broad differences between the two CDN’s impact the real-world experience of using Akamai and CloudFront in plenty of particular ways.

  • Points of presence. The purpose of any CDN is to shorten the distance data needs to travel to reach users while adding redundancy. Akamai’s CDN now includes at least 2,200 individual points of presence (PoPs) worldwide that are positioned to maximize the company’s global coverage. AWS Cloudfront relies on a far small number of so-called “super PoPs,” instead, with the count as of this writing including 199 actual edge locations and 11 regional caches. Akamai’s strategy used to be the only realistic approach to CDN operation, since congested and unreliable network links were a lot more common. Although Akamai’s larger network is still generally regarded as the most reliable and safest for enterprise-level customers, CloudFront’s modernized approach has come to seem satisfactory and more to hundreds of thousands of users.
  • Pricing and payments. Akamai remains the leading enterprise-level CDN, and its pricing and payment terms reflect that. Akamai users sign conventional contracts that entitle them to set amounts of CDN traffic each month, with no rollover for unused bandwidth. CloudFront employs the same on-demand pricing scheme that is used for most other AWS products. Even at similar levels of bandwidth usage, CloudFront typically costs less than Akamai’s industrial-strength solution. Should demand for content drop significantly, CloudFront clients pay only for what gets used, while Akamai customers receive the usual monthly bill. Hobbyists and others with minimal needs can even test and use CloudFront without paying anything, thanks to the AWS Free Tier plan.
  • Supporting services. AWS is nearly as dominant in the IAAS industry as Akamai is with enterprise-ready CDN service. There are now well over 150 distinct AWS services and products, many of which can be quite easily and naturally integrated with CloudFront usage. Akamai offers a fair number of potentially complementary services like DDoS protection, access management, and DNS, but not in the on-demand, pay-as-you-go fashion that makes AWS so accessible and appealing to so many.
  • CDN features. Finally, Akamai and CloudFront differ pretty significantly with regard to the options and features they make available to CDN users. Akamai’s CDN tends to enable finer-grained control over CDN content, allowing, for instance, for instant, manual purges that CloudFront does not. Akamai plans also include support for video-on-demand service and RTMP streaming, reflections of its historical focus on catering to media companies. CloudFront users have to pay extra for some such features, although that can still end up costing less than an Akamai contract.

A Fairly Straightforward Move to Make

As will hopefully be obvious, there are good reasons to choose either Akamai or CloudFront, depending upon the situation. Fortunately, making the move from Akamai to CloudFront is quite simple and can be carried out safely. Even companies that have been using Akamai for a while, then, should be able to justify a switch CloudFront if conditions merit it.

Simply keeping a few tips in mind should ensure a hassle- and stress-free migration such that any mistakes or oversights can be addressed before they cause problems. Generally speaking, when moving from Akamai to CloudFront, it will be helpful to:

  • Set up a transitional subdomain. Rather than flipping the switch and hoping for the best, it will be far better to get everything set up and tested before committing to CloudFront. It will normally be easiest to simply designate a subdomain for CloudFront configuration and testing before touching existing Akamai arrangements at all.
  • Assess and adjust headers. Once CloudFront has been set up and made accessible at a temporary domain via a DNS update, it will be useful to give it a vigorous spin. CloudFront will return HTTP headers with every response that indicate how long the associated content will remain cached. This information can be used to get an idea about how things are going to work in practice and identify any adjustments that need to be made. Most CloudFront users will also want to make sure that the CDN PoPs are configured to forward any headers that could be needed by origin servers.
  • Update DNS. Once everything looks to be working properly and has been tested extensively, all that it will take to complete the switch to CloudFront will be to update the relevant DNS records appropriately. Akamai’s CDN can then be made accessible at the previously designated temporary domain as a fall-back option.

In most cases, this straightforward process should go quite smoothly. Difficulties that do arise along the way tend to concern improperly configured header forwarding rules, but testing should reveal such problems quite quickly. While CloudFront is a full-featured CDN in its own right, its AWS-appropriate personality can take a bit of getting used to for longtime Akamai clients. Some of the features that CloudFront lacks out of the box can be emulated using other AWS services, as a look around Amazon’s developer forums will show.

A Better CDN for Many Companies Today

While there are certainly cases where it will make more sense to stick with Akamai, many businesses and entrepreneurs have successfully switched to AWS CloudFront and are not looking back. Some additional research online will reveal even more reasons to make the leap to Amazon CDN services.

Although it has been around for more than a decade, CloudFront represents a more modern take on CDN service than that reflected in Akamai’s enterprise-focused approach. Even large companies that are happy to pay a premium for quality now often find that CloudFront’s flexibility and membership in the AWS family make it a natural choice.

Fortunately, a bit of preparation and attention will make the switch easy if it becomes clear that CloudFront is a better option than Akamai. There should not even be a need to disrupt content delivery at all in the vast majority of cases. Given that, it will almost always be wise to at least look into whether switching to CloudFront from Akamai could make sense. Whether because of financial considerations or technical ones, many have made the move to Amazon CDN services in recent years.

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