In this showdown we will analyze 2 of the largest players in not just the CDN world, but the Internet as a whole. Akamai is the originator of the content delivery network, and in 2017 has over 6,000 employees and 200,000 servers deployed across the globe. Their 2015 revenue was over $2 billion and they still serve many of the largest web properties in the world, including the majority of the top 50 ecommerce sites. And while CDN is still their core business much of their revenue growth in recent years has come from value-added features, primarily security products.
Amazon Web Services remains the largest public cloud in the world with a reported $3.53 billion in revenue just in Q4 2016, up 47 percent from the year before.
AWS now makes up about 10% of Amazon’s total revenues. While these revenue numbers are much larger than Akamai it is important to note that AWS also offers a much larger suite of cloud services like S3 (storage) and EC2 (computing). They have grown faster than any other cloud provider in history by becoming a one-stop shop for all things cloud and making it all self-service with transparent up-front pricing. Just a few years ago CloudFront was considered a middle of the line CDN best suited for SMB and not a true competitor to Akamai. Today, CloudFront is now controlling more and more of the Internet’s top websites and applications, primarily due to their SMB customers engaging in a cloud-first approach and growing along with Amazon into the giants of today.
Akamai vs CloudFront Round 1 – Market Share and Revenue
As we discussed in the previous section, Akamai and AWS are both giants in the cloud services world, but let’s dive into CDN market share alone. The chart below (courtesy of Datanyze) shows the number of websites in the Alexa top 1 million using Akamai vs Amazon CloudFront:
Note that the above table is based purely on the number of websites served on each platform and not revenue, but you still may be surprised to see that CloudFront hosts more than 3x the number of websites in the Alexa 1M. As you go down the list the numbers shift in Akamai’s favor, with Akamai serving more than double the number of websites in the top 1,000. A significant chunk of those are high end websites consisting of large ecommerce, media & entertainment, and gaming companies. These are all verticals where Akamai tends to beat CloudFront due to better performance, security, and optimization features.
If you want to drill down even further, the table below shows a breakout of the top 100 websites among all major CDNs (courtesy of PacketZoom). As you can see, Akamai control’s the lion’s share at over 35% with CloudFront coming in at less than 10%. Even smaller CDNs like Fastly and Edgecast beat out CloudFront when you reach the top of the top.
But websites aren’t the only Internet companies in town any more. Below you can see a breakout of the top 100 mobile apps by CDN. In this space Akamai controls a much smaller portion of the market share with CloudFront owning a whopping 40%+. This is up for debate, but we believe it is primarily due to the fact that most new mobile startups are adopting a cloud-first strategy with AWS and rapidly growing into massive companies. By this time they are deeply integrated with Amazon’s stack, making it difficult to move away from CloudFront. Akamai’s legacy network also makes it more difficult to quickly load and purge content at the edge, which is critical for dynamic mobile applications.
Akamai has for a long time been king of the Enterprise and that is still true today. They offer a white gloved managed service that caters to high revenue, high market cap companies that don’t mind paying extra for the best performance, reliability, and security. A very significant chunk of their revenue comes from just a handful of massive enterprise clients, and more and more of that revenue is now coming from security products.
CloudFront, on the other hand, has grown rapidly in the startup and mid-market space because of their simple pay-as-you go pricing options and fast and easy setup without the need for customer support or PS interaction. For most companies using AWS it is simply too easy to stick with CloudFront since it is relatively low cost and integrates seamlessly with their other Amazon services.
Akamai vs CloudFront Round 2 – CDN Performance
CloudFront has never been the fastest, cheapest, or most reliable CDN on the market. They generally tend to fall in the middle of the pack when it comes to CDN performance, depending on the country or region.
Akamai, on the other hand, has long been known for being the most reliable CDN on the planet. They consistently perform at or near the top in most countries and have reach into many regions CloudFront does not. Let’s take a look at some performance data comparing the two (all charts courtesy of Cedexis):
The above table shows CDN response time in the United States. As you can see, CloudFront comes in near the bottom of the pack at 39ms with Akamai closer to the top at 34ms. This isn’t a huge difference, mainly because Akamai uses DNS triangulation for the lookup rather than Anycast like most newer CDNs. If you’re serving a lot of small objects then first byte response can add up, but it isn’t the only important performance metric.
The table above shows CDN throughput, also for the USA. Here Akamai is near the top at #3 with CloudFront rounding out the top 10. This metric can make a bigger different if you’re transferring a lot of data, particularly for media or software downloads.
Since most CDNs are performing well in the United States in 2017, the above table shows CDN response time in the UK for reference. Here, Akamai comes in first, with CloudFront lagging behind at 30ms+. You’ll see a similar trend in many other countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. Not to mention, CloudFront does not have any POPs in mainland China.
And finally, CDN throughput in the UK. Again, Akamai comes in first with CloudFront nearing the bottom of the pack.
*note: the above benchmarks provided by Cedexis are based on their large network of RUM data around the world and fluctuate on a day to day basis. This is only one resource and RUM data can be impacted by a number of different factors so use it with a grain of salt. It also does not take into account other performance enhancing features like application acceleration, front-end optimization, etc which are offered by both companies.
Akamai vs CloudFront Round 3 – Security
Security is one area where Akamai has maintained a strong foothold for years and still do today. It is one of the primary reasons they still control the biggest chunk of the Internet Retailer 100 and are able to maintain their revenue even as CDN bandwidth pricing continues to plummet. Like most of their other services, Akamai security is somewhat of a black box that is typically managed by Akamai engineers rather than the customer. For large enterprises this is often welcome since they have large security budgets and it is often simpler to outsource complex services like security to experts. For smaller companies who want to have more control over their own security policies or don’t have budget for large monthly platform fees and professional services this can be an issue.
Akamai was the first in the CDN space to offer DDoS and WAF services, beating most competitors by years. In fact, it wasn’t until relatively recently that Amazon began offering their own WAF product, while Akamai released Kona Site Defender in early 2012. They also have the largest network capacity of any CDN which allows them to handle any size DDoS attack, although volumetric attacks are becoming less of a problem as more complex attacks at the application layer become the norm. Still, Akamai offers the most robust security offering on the market today and continues to release new security products and features through a combination of ongoing acquisitions and in-house product engineering.
Amazon, on the other hand, has lagged behind the majority of their competitors when it comes to security. It wasn’t until late 2015 when Amazon finally released the AWS WAF product into their lineup. And while even many startup CDNs have been offering DDoS protection for years, it wasn’t until the end of 2016 that Amazon released their managed DDoS service, AWS Shield.
AWS Shield is a managed DDoS protection service that safeguards web applications running on AWS. There are two tiers of AWS Shield – Standard and Advanced. All AWS customers now benefit from the automatic protections of AWS Shield Standard at no additional charge. AWS Shield Standard defends against most common, frequently occurring network and transport layer DDoS attacks. For additional layers of protection against attacks targeting web applications running on ELB, CloudFront, and Route 53 resources, you must subscribe to AWS Shield Advanced. AWS Shield Advanced is available globally on all CloudFront and Route 53 edge locations and provides additional detection and mitigation against large and sophisticated DDoS attacks and is also integrated with the AWS WAF.
The AWS WAF gives you control over which traffic to allow or block to your web applications by defining customizable web security rules. You can create rules that block common attack patterns like SQL injection or cross-site scripting, and new rules can be deployed within minutes. It also has a full-featured API that you can use to automate the creation, deployment, and maintenance of your security rules.
The AWS WAF is certainly more cost effective than Akamai’s offering, with pricing based on how many rules you deploy and how many requests your web application receives. There are no upfront costs or monthly platform fees. This makes it attractive for some companies, particularly those who are already utilizing other AWS services. However, it is still quite primitive in comparison to most other edge security offerings, even young companies like CloudFlare and Incapsula. Setting up security rules is somewhat clunky and it does not offer protection against the wide assortment of threats and zero-day attacks that Akamai Kona does. Simply put, it is best suited for those who are already on AWS and are looking for basic protection.
Akamai vs CloudFront Round 4 – Pricing
AWS CloudFront was the first CDN in the market to offer transparent pay-as-you-go pricing posted right on their websites. Many other companies have since followed suit, but not before CloudFront was able to gain significant market share from their early competitors. This strategy has proven to work well for them, even though their pricing is generally not the most cost effective you will find. There are many cheaper options out there with similar or better performance, but again, Amazon continues to win business by being a one-stop shop with a low barrier to entry.
In comparison to Akamai pricing, CloudFront is generally lower cost. This should be expected, since the Akamai network is signficantly larger, faster, and more reliable. That said, Akamai CDN pricing has come down signficantly in recent years due to downward pricing pressure from the dozens of other CDNs on the market. In 2017, one can negotiate very reasonable data transfer rates from Akamai, but they are often packaged with other higher value services like security, front-end optimization, etc.
With Akamai pricing is completely custom. You will need to contact a sales representative to get a quote and your costs generally depend on your traffic volume, geography, type of traffic (media, ecommerce, gaming) and length of contract. All pricing is negotiable and rates can often vary dramatically from one company to another, even if they share a similar traffic profile. For smaller companies who wish to gain access to the Akamai network they do have a number of resellers, such as Rackspace, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, etc.
So which CDN is best? As you may have guessed, that depends on your individual needs. In terms of sheer scale, performance, and reliability Akamai remains the market leader for a reason. Their network simply does not go down and they offer more value-added features and stronger security than any other CDN. For companies that care less about budget and more about performance and security, Akamai is the easy choice in this lineup.
For companies that value a more turnkey solution that requires less setup time, less engineering support, and has the world’s largest public cloud behind it, CloudFront is your choice. While they are not the fastest nor the cheapest option out there, they do offer a relatively complete service that can accommodate most online businesses and have a name that people trust. For those already using other AWS services, you will have a hard time finding a simpler solution to your content delivery needs.