What is the Difference Between CDN and Nginx? AWS Cloudfront vs Nginx Comparison - ByteScout
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What is the Difference Between CDN and Nginx? AWS Cloudfront vs Nginx Comparison

Nginx is the open-source server app (its source code is here) that you can install and run on your own server. It is specifically optimized to serve static content from your server like images or static files (i.e. not rendered by some code). Usually, the developer setting it up to run before a dynamic web server so it can serve static files first. Thanks to its speed and low memory consumption, it is extensively used by high-load applications like Facebook and many others (including adult websites). While the Nginx server works faster than other static servers but it does not mean it can work without CPU, RAM, or hard-drive space at all. The common scenario ten years ago was that if you are running a web application or a website it means you should run and manage your own server (for example, to run a WordPress-based website). And one of the first steps for optimizing the server was to install and run a so-called “reverse” proxy. This “reverse” proxy is usually based on an Nginx server to serve static files like images, CSS, JS, PDF from your server with max speed. That was the popular way to optimize the speed and performance of websites before CDN came into the game.

Then CDN services got their foot in the door. For example, Amazon AWS CloudFront (as well as CloudFare and others) is the scalable content delivery network (CDN) that can cache static files from your server and deliver them faster. It also uses dozens of servers worldwide in all continents so your files are actually downloaded from the very nearest server and served faster to a user who requested this file.

Amazon AWS CloudFront servers - (from https://aws.amazon.com/cloudfront/features/)
Amazon AWS CloudFront servers – (from https://aws.amazon.com/cloudfront/features/)

When to use CDN like Amazon AWS Cloudfront

    • You run your app on a platform like Heroku where you don’t have a bare-bones server but just some scalable virtual hosting with no access to config files;
    • You have users worldwide and want to provide them all with the fastest download speed for your files or media.

For example, your website runs on hosting in the United States but you want to have your video files to download as fast as possible from both San Francisco and Mumbai.

  • You don’t want to manage your own servers. In most cases you just pointing your users to links from CDN and CDN caches your files automatically on a very first load. It updates the cache automatically after some periods of time.
  • You have variable demand for your static files. One month you have 100 downloads, another month you can have 1M downloads. With CDN services like AWS Cloudfront, you pay only for the actual traffic and storage consumed.
  • You don’t have billions of users (like YouTube or Facebook) so the cost of running files through CDN will be cheaper than keeping your own servers and managing them.
  • You don’t have time and resources to set up and manage server-side software for your own CDN.


When to use Nginx

  • You have your own server(s) that you pay for monthly / yearly and you want to optimize how static content is served from your server. For example, you run Ruby on Rails application or WordPress and you want to make images, CSS, JS files load faster from your server;
  • Your users are located at one location and one server provides a necessary download speed for these users.
  • You are proficient in managing servers and proxy servers, you can track and keep up to date configuration for your server and apps on it;
  • You run your own data centers with servers that you build and set up on your own and paying for them (like Facebook, Google, or YouTube);
  • You have high traffic and a lot of cheap servers that you want to use to deliver static files;
  • You are ready to update and maintain the latest versions of the server software when needed;

Other popular CDN Services and AWS Cloudfront alternatives worth checking:

  • Cloudflare
  • Microsoft Azure CDN.
  • Google Cloud CDN.
  • KeyCDN
  • Akamai

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