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.
Coming at CDN Service From Two Markedly Different Angles
Of course, there are plenty of more specific reasons to prefer Akamai’s CDN over Amazon’s CloudFront–or vice versa. Despite being the two established leaders in the CDN space, Akamai and Amazon have come at it from very different starting points.
For quite some time after Akamai first began offering CDN hosting decades ago, major media brands and other large corporations were its primary sources of business. Even as recently as ten years ago, only companies that needed to serve notably large amounts of web traffic were likely to bother signing up for CDN services.
Akamai has become a lot more accommodating of smaller-scale users and more casual projects since. Plenty of traces of its enterprise-focused background remain in evidence–for better and worse–within its CDN platform and terms of service.
Amazon famously launched its CloudFront-encompassing Web Services platform with a very different focus. Right from the start, Amazon emphasized making all of its IAAS offerings as easy to sign up and pay for as possible. That has helped AWS become the first choice of not only many major corporations, but also at least a million startups, individual developers, small-time website owners, and others.
So while Akamai serves up a lot more CDN traffic than CloudFront does today, it does so in large part because of a relatively small group of especially active clients. Research firm Intricately figures that AWS CloudFront has far more individual customers than Akamai, despite serving up quite a bit less data through its CDN overall.
Akamai versus Cloudfront: Delving Into the Details
As might be expected, these broad differences 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’s Akamai competitor.
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 in recent years.