Case study: How effective are CDNs for mobile visitors?

Substitute “measuring mobile performance” for “herding cats” in this video, and you’ve pretty much nailed the challenge we’re up against every day.

Fortunately, we like cats. :)

Experiment: Measuring the impact of CDN deployment on 3G performance

As we continue to evolve our mobile treatments, we also monitor their effectiveness alongside other optimization solutions. Today I want to call out some interesting results we noted when, as a fun little in-house exercise, we took the O’Reilly website, de-optimized it, and then iterated through a handful of core performance best practices using our FEO service. The goal was to demonstrate the acceleration benefit (in terms of bytes in, start render time, document complete time, connections, and resources) of each practice for a typical 3G mobile user.

While we saw predictable results for step 1 — enabling keep-alives and compression — we were somewhat surprised by what we saw when we added a content delivery network.

Step 1: Apply fundamental best practices

First we added keep-alive connections:

  • What it does: Lessens the impact of TCP connection setup
  • Benefit: Addresses the problem of having too many TCP connections

Then we added HTTP compression:

  • What it does: Compresses text-based content (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, etc.)
  • Benefit: Easy way to reduce bytes/payload

We got the results we expected: faster start render, and about a 25% reduction in doc complete time. This is fantastic, even more so because both these treatments are really easy to do — usually it’s just a matter of a single configuration option on your server, proxy, or load balancer. However, these two treatments aren’t enough to give you the acceleration you need.

Step 2: Use a content delivery network (CDN)

Here’s the elevator-ride explanation of how a CDN works (for an excellent detailed explainer, go here): Static page assets (images, CSS, etc.) are served from locations near the requesting client (mobile or otherwise). The shorter distance between client and content means smaller time to first byte (TTFB) and, ostensibly, faster start render. This means users start to see content in their browser faster.

How a content delivery network works

In our experiment, we expected that adding a CDN would result in faster average time to first byte, start render, and doc complete time. Here’s what we saw:

Before and after: Document complete (aka load time)

Before and after content delivery network deployment

Before and after: Time to first byte (TTFB)

Before-and-after CDN: Time to first byte (TTFB)What we helped

CDN before and after: What we helpedFindings

With a CDN, the page got faster, but not by much. For the unoptimized page, we forced requests to travel from west coast to east coast. After, we let the CDN naturally select the closest edge. As a result, we saw that:

  • Doc complete time decreased by 10%, compared to a 20% improvement we noted in a similar experiment in desktop optimization.
  • We shaved less than a second off start render time, taking it from 7.059 seconds down to 6.245 seconds.
  • True, we cut time to first byte by 39%, but from an end-user perspective, TTFB doesn’t really mean anything because the user still isn’t seeing anything in the browser.

Five questions about CDNs and mobile acceleration

I’m not making any nutty claims like “CDNs aren’t effective for mobile devices.” (Heresy!) But these results do raise a few questions:

  1. Is edge selection for mobile devices not as effective as for desktop?
  2. Some, if not all, CDNs probably deploy servers near cell network exit points. But what if most of the latency occurs inside the cell network? (I’ll admit I’m not an expert on what happens inside a 3G network. I’m ready to be enlightened.)
  3. Does the meaning of “closeness” change for mobile?
  4. Acknowledging the existence of mobile-specific CDNs, how much more effective are they? How do they compare when it comes to 3G versus WiFi? I’ve been trying to dig up case studies, with no luck.
  5. High CDN costs may be justifiable when you see significant benefit for your desktop traffic, but do they deliver sufficient benefit/ROI for mobile users?

Takeaway

LTE is grabbing a lot of attention, but it’s a mistake to sweep 3G under the rug. There are 256 million 3G subscribers in the US, representing 81% penetration, so 3G performance is still a big deal. We need more research. If you have findings to share, please do.

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