Migrating to CloudFlare

www.cloudflare.com

I recently added CloudFlare as cache in front of my website. Not only does it provide worldwide local caching of my website, it also improves security by adding in an easy manner all kinds of features you’d otherwise find hard to arrange. It’s still a hassle, but not as much as it used to be.

The standard CloudFlare plan is free. Yep. And you can’t beat the value. The following features are part of it:

  • Caching at a server that is local to your visitors, improving their browsing speeds. Pretty nice and worth the price all in and of itself.
  • Analytics in an easy dashboard. You can get this by incorporating Google Analytics on your pages, true, but here it’s already in the product. However, CloudFlare also has a nice button that allows you to add Google Analytics to all of your pages, if you really want it, without changing your website in any way.
  • Safe browsing over SSL for people visiting the CloudFlare cache, at no charge.
  • DNSSEC can be turned on, securing your DSN entries (DNS translates the name of your website into the IP-address you need to actually get there) against rogue DNS-servers that change the IP-address to their own sites, so they can intercept the traffic or just spoof your website and change pages around. Could be quite embarassing if you are a dissident or well-known political figure, or a bank.
  • A “web firewall” that tries to catch spambots and scrapers before they even reach your website. The more advanced options are paid, but the free option is pretty nice. It has, for instance, the option of asking suspect browsers to authenticate their “humanity” before allowed to access your site. This is enabled by default.
  • IPv6 to IPv4 translation. If you’re on a provider that does not provide IPv6 website hosting you should move ASAP anyway, but suppose you can’t? In that case you have the option of pretending to your rather outdated server that the request is actually an IPv4 type request. Could be useful.
  • An option called “Apps”. Apps are small features you can enable that are provided by 3rd parties. One of these for instance is “A Better Browser” which warns users of older browsers that they should upgrade. Once again, no code on your website changes and you can turn it on and off quite easily. Other apps provide analytics, more security and monitoring but almost all of these are paid options.
  • Email-address obfuscation. For the truly paranoid, you can turn all your emailadresses on the site into addresses that cannot be harvested by the scrapers they said they would stop. I don’t bother with this, but feel free.
  • Hotlink protection. This is pretty nifty if you have a site with a lot of images, and people blogging about them link directly to your site from their article. That means their pageviews count against your bandwidth. With this option you can prevent those requests from being served.

These options are all easily accessible through a set of buttons as displayed here: cloudflare-buttons

Pretty nice all by itself. But I’ll discuss the setup and two main features in more detail.

Setup

The setup is easy. Just sign up and add your website. The main thing you need to get working is the nameservers. If you cannot change the nameservers for your website, things will get really tough because that is how CloudFlare works. If you cannot change them, contact your provider. If your provider does not allow nameserver changes, move away to another that does support it. Otherwise none of the newer features of the internet will work unless your provider agrees to provide them to you. That won’t be cheap.

After you get the nameservers changed, you have to log out and wait a few hours. By then the change will have been recognized by CloudFlare, and now you can actually use its features. The two most useful features are of course caching and encryption, which I explain below in a bit more detail.

Caching

The caching features of the CloudFlare platform help you in the sense that small DDOS attacks won’t bring down your website or hurt your direct provider. Big ones will mean you have to pay up (a lot), but it’s better than your direct provider shutting down your website for a minor DDOS assault, right? They also have the option named “always online(tm)” that provides a cached copy of your website, if it is offline on your own side. Note that this only goes for the popular (cached) pages but these are the most important ones anyway. Of course, caching can be disabled (temporarily) by turning on “development mode”.

Encryption

Encrypting the website gives you the option to have browsers come in over SSL. And this is very interesting because browsers are now signalling by default that your site is untrusted if it is not protected by SSL. The CloudFlare option provides SSL for your website from visitor browser to CloudFlare, but if you don’t add something more, it will still be unencrypted between CloudFlare and your original website.

If you trust the channel between your website and CloudFlare, this is still pretty safe. For most websites it’s a major improvement because they go from no SSL at all, to SSL between visitor and cache. But if you want more it’s pretty easy. Most website hosting companies provide you with the ability to place a self-signed certificate on your website, and CloudFLare can be set to acknowledge that certificate. You could also set CloudFlare to acknowledge only certificates signed by a trusted authority, increasing the security of your channel either further, or reducing it to zero, depending on who you trusted as certificate provider. In my case, I go with the self-signed certificate.

DNSSEC is however a bit more involved. I was unable to get this working because my hosting provider does not provide me with the ability to add a “DS” record to the DNS-server. I’m still looking into it. HOWEVER… my provider has automatic DNSSEC as long as I use their nameservers… This effectively means that I am going to have to do without DNSSEC *or* CloudFlare. Given the risks involved (minor) I’m going to stick with CloudFlare for a while, but I may be returning to the provider I have. I would really like them to have this though.

Summary

All in all, I can highly recommend CloudFlare. It’s free, it’s easy and provides immediate benefits for most websites. If you’re big enough to already have most of this it may be less interesting, but for 90% of the internet this is a step forward.

Update

Update 09-okt-2016: I’ve written a new article about why you should be careful when moving to CloudFlare, as it is not quite as suitable as I thought for websites that require actual security and encryption.

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