When you spend so much time building and optimizing your site, ensuring it loads fast for your visitors is a top priority. CloudFlare is a popular choice for boosting site performance – we even use it here at WPMU DEV.

CloudFlare is a Content Delivery Network (CDN) that sends traffic through its global network to automatically optimize the delivery of your site so your visitors can browse your site at top speeds. It’s also set up to block threats from hackers and abusive bots and crawlers to help keep your site secure while also saving you bandwidth.

CloudFlare boasts that sites that use its service can expected a 60% saving in bandwidth, 65% fewer requests and a level up in site security. But does the service really live up to these claims?

In this review I’ll put CloudFlare’s free service to the test and also walk you through how to set it up for your site. I’ll also give some insight into our experience with CloudFlare’s premium service.

If you’re wondering if CloudFlare is a good option for your site, read on.

CloudFlare

WPMU DEV Rating

3.6/5

The Good

  • Many features are available for free.
  • Setup is quick and painless.
  • It runs well and quietly in the background.
  • Technical support is fast, courteous and accurate.
  • Configuring settings is easy with the extensive documentation.

The Bad

  • There are some advanced settings that could make your site inaccessible.
  • Enabling certain settings and Add-ons injects Javascript into your site.
  • Can’t save on server load for dynamic sites.
  • There’s an upload limit for visitors and users.
  • The performance results vary greatly from site to site.

CloudFlare

  • Learning Curve / Ease of Use: 5/5
  • Features: 3/5
  • Out of the Box: 1.5/5
  • Value for Money: 3.5/5
  • Support: 5/5
  • Overall: 3.6/5

The Bottom Line

It’s difficult to fault Cloudflare when you get an abundance of otherwise premium services for free from performance boosting tools to SSL certificates. The trouble is, these free features aren’t without great limitations and almost makes the service almost not worth it since you may not save much on bandwidth or other services. Still, something is better than nothing.

While you should notice an improvement in your site’s speed and a fairly generous boost in security it’s worth it for the price of zero dollars, but if your site is large or you rank performance and security as your number one concern, consider upgrading, using other services in tandem or other services all together since CloudFlare free isn’t enough to make a sizable difference.

CloudFlare: Company History

CloudFlare was co-founded by Matthew Prince, Lee Holloway and Michelle Zatlyn and the initial idea started out as a way to completely block internet threats for Prince and Holloway’s already existing and fast-growing pursuit called Project Honeypot, which tracks threats that lead to spam and hacking.

While Matthew and Michelle attended Harvard Business School, they formed their business plan with the guidance of faculty, began building a prototype and later won Harvard’s Business Plan competition. In November 2009, they set up shop in California and began their efforts to officially launch their service at TechCrunch Disrupt, which they succeeded in doing on September 27, 2010.

Their original concern about latency was unfounded when beta testers excitedly noticed their sites were more secure and loaded an average of 30% faster. Since then, the CloudFlare team has worked at improving the average performance enhancement given to the sites, which enable it and have also designed their system to scale so latency shouldn’t ever be a concern again.

Cost

You can sign up for an account at CloudFlare for free and it comes with a ton of features. Many of them would normally cost a pretty penny so the zero-dollar price tag is a plus.

Here are just some of the benefits of a free CloudFlare membership:

  • CDN service – Your site is displayed from CloudFlare’s servers based all around the world so your site can be viewed faster.
  • SSL Certificate – Encrypt your website’s connection to prevent the theft of you and your visitors’ personal information.
  • Analytics – See how well your site is performing with CloudFlare enabled.
  • Many third party widgets – You can optimize your site with many of the free add-ons that are included.
  • Website Application Firewall – Online threats can be automatically blocked.
  • Fast DNS service – Your site could load quickly with CloudFlare’s powerful DNS.
  • Access Rules – Easily block visitors who you view as a threat.
  • Minifying – Javascript, CSS and HTML minification is available.
  • Caching – Serve up a cached copy of your site to increase your site’s speed.
  • Always Online™ service – If your site goes down, your visitors see a cached copy of your site and the most popular posts and pages.
  • Email Address Encryption – Keep your email away from hackers by making it unreadable to them.
  • Hotlink Protection – Help keep your images safe from being linked to on a different site to save your bandwidth usage from skyrocketing.

There are a few more settings you get for free as well – these are just the best of the bunch. If you need more, you can upgrade and get many more professional features like DDoS protection and many more performance options. This is a more suitable option for site admins who run large sites that get a lot of traffic.

Their premium plans start at $20 a month for one site and $5 per month for each extra site you add. If you want even more advanced features and a 100% uptime guarantee, the Business plan is worth considering at $200 a month per site. For larger companies who also require 24/7 technical support and multi-user access, you can contact CloudFlare for specific pricing.

Setting It Up

Possibly one of the best features CloudFlare has to offer is the easy setup. The service claims it only five minutes to get CloudFlare set up on your site and it’s no lie – for the most part.

While I would argue that it takes even less time to set up your domain with them, you also may have to wait up to 24 hours for your site to fully switch over to its system. That being said, it’s a seamless switch and you shouldn’t notice any actual downtime during this DNS transfer. Overall, five minutes is generally quite accurate.

To set up CloudFlare, start by clicking the Sign Up link at the top of their home page. Enter your email address, desired password, confirm it by typing it in again, agree to their Terms of Service and privacy policy, then click the Create Account button.

On the next page, enter your domain names and separate them with commas.

The first of four steps to setting up CloudFlare is entering your domain name.

Next, click the Scan DNS Records so CloudFlare can grab as much information as it can to transfer everything over to their system. It takes about a minute to scan your records and when it’s complete, click Continue.

Review all the records that were pulled up and if there are any missing from the list, click the Add Record button to add them in. You can tell if any are missing by viewing your DNS records in your hosting account. In cPanel, click on Domains > Advanced Zone Editor to view all your DNS records.

The inline pop-up for adding a DNS record.
Adding DNS records is quick and easy.

When you add a record, you can select from any type and enter its information into the inline pop-up that appears. When you’re done, click Save.

But before you do, click the gray cloud icon with the arrow moving around it. This activates CloudFlare’s security feature.

It hides your server’s IP address and increases overall security. It’s recommended that you click this button on all records on the list where this icon appears and isn’t orange, indicating that this option is enabled.

This service also ensures your site goes through CloudFlare’s service instead of bypassing it to speed up your site.

When you’re done entering all your DNS settings that are missing from the list, click Continue at the bottom of the page. On the next page, choose the Free plan option and click Continue.

The CloudFlare nameservers are listed on this part of the setup process.
You are required to change your nameservers manually.

Next, the CloudFlare nameservers you need to use are displayed for you. This is the trickiest part of the setup process because you need to manually change your nameservers.

For security reasons, this can’t be automated. If you’re not sure how to do this yourself, contact your hosting provider.

When you’re done, click Continue to go to your account page and view the status of your domain. Right off the bat, the status of your site is usually Pending while your DNS settings are resolved. To double-check whether everything went through okay, click the Recheck Nameservers button.

When your DNS settings have resolved, your site name should have a green background.

It may be important to note that you can only recheck the status of your domain once per minute so feel free to wander around the internet while you wait or you can go right ahead and start configuring the settings which are listed vertically toward the top of the page.

Once your settings are entered, CloudFlare is setup and your site can start using the service right away. If at any point you want to pause or delete your domain from CloudFlare, you can click the Overview icon toward the top, then click on the Advanced link underneath the status section of the page.

Finally, click Pause to temporarily suspend the CloudFlare service or Delete to remove your website completely. If you choose to delete your site, your settings aren’t saved and once you click it, you can’t undo it so be sure you absolutely want to do this before making use of this button.

Other than that, your site is ready to go.

Ratings

Learning Curve / Ease of Use

CloudFlare is setup in a simple and modern way. It’s easy to setup domains and the settings are straightforward. If you get stuck wondering what a feature does, you can click the Help link underneath the option to learn more before making a selection in the drop down box, radio button, checkbox, or toggle switch.

Help and clarification is easy to find.

The additional information is clear, helpful and precise. Even the most technical of settings are explained well so it’s not out of reach to most – if not all – users.

When you go through the settings, it’s quite intuitive so the idea of breezing through the settings in a few minutes as I did isn’t out of the question. Overall, the learning curve is small – perhaps even non-existent – and the service is as easy to use as it could get. In fact, if it gets easier I’ll buy them a piece of cake.

Features

The sheer amount of professional-sounding features is downright incredible. Perhaps too incredible to be actually true. I set up several of my own WordPress sites and compared the statistics with those from sites belonging to other WPMU DEV support staff members. I took a look at the stats for an average week of use and I can’t say what I found was shocking, but it was more than a tad disappointing.

Both high and lower-traffic sites I compared saw only an average of 13.6% of bandwidth saved. A far cry from the 65% savings that CloudFlare has displayed on their site, although, they don’t specify whether this is for free or paid users.

Since dynamic sites can’t be cached and this makes up about 95% of server load and most WordPress sites are dynamic, especially with the many features and capabilities plugins bring to an installation, you likely won’t be too impressed when it comes to the percentage of fewer servers you need to run your site, either.

I performed Google’s PageSpeed Insights test on the sites I set up with CloudFlare and the results varied.

On one of my sites that I hadn’t optimized yet, CloudFlare was the difference between a passing and failing grade according to Google.

On the other hand, one of my sites actually saw a three point increase when removing CloudFlare. Since some of the apps and settings CloudFlare uses actually injects Javascript into your site, Google detects this as a possible factor that slows down your site.

While your Google PageSpeed Insights test may give you a less generous score when using CloudFlare, it only calculated the front-end of your site. Some users with already well-established sites may be okay with taking this hit in exchange for a generous boost in back-end page speed.

Before enabling CloudFlare, my page speed score for the desktop version of my site was 85/100 and after adding CloudFlare, it was 82/100.
On the left, my site’s Google PageSpeed Insights score before CloudFlare and on the right, my score after enabling CloudFlare.

Unfortunately, free accounts have a limit of 100 MB of file uploads for all users, including admins, though, this is quite a large amount and fine for most users. It is possible to increase this amount if you upgrade, but you can also remove this cap for site admins by creating a “gray-clouded” DNS record to bypass their proxy and access your site to upload your content.

There are also some options that can render your site inaccessible to visitors such as the HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) feature, which is supposed to improve the security of your site. Unfortunately, if you turn on this feature and you don’t have an SSL certificate installed or you leave CloudFlare, it can break your site.

It’s a scary thought, but fortunately, CloudFlare does warn you of these risks before you enable this setting.

For the sites I compared, CloudFlare reported only an average of 23.8% of fewer servers needed. As for security, an average of only 4.8 threats were detected and blocked. It was fairly typical for no threats at all to be blocked during the course of a week.

Sure, there could have been a low level of attacks on these sites, meaning there would be nothing to report, but that’s why I carefully chose one of the sites I set up.

One of my sites gets frequent attacks. Nothing out of the ordinary that you wouldn’t expect from an incredibly popular platform like WordPress that attracts hackers due to it’s large market share. I added CloudFlare to my site that frequently gets at least 10 attempts on a really good day.

One week went by and no threats were reportedly blocked by CloudFlare. I went on to putting all my custom security settings back up.

Fortunately, WordPress is fairly secure on its own so it’s possible that there were no threats to be blocked that week. CloudFlare is still able to prevent hackers and spammers for WordPress sites with great security practices, which I found when I compared statistics for several sites.

At the end of the day, what can you really expect from a free service? If CloudFlare is able to save you even 1% of your bandwidth, I would take it and even though it doesn’t save you as much as promised, it’s far, far better than not having it at all.

Out-of-the-Box

When you first add a domain, there aren’t many security settings that are added automatically. Out-of-the-box, you can’t rely on CloudFlare to protect and speed up your site all that much. While you may see some positive changes, you should go through the settings to enable more options in order to see a sizeable change.

It’s also important to run your site through CloudFlare for a minimum of a month to get a more accurate picture of how well CloudFlare is working on your sites.

Value for Money

Can you really beat a non-existent price tag? Since a free account with CloudFlare doesn’t cost you a dime, it’s as good a deal as you’re going to get.

Since your PageSpeed Insight’s score is a representation of the factors used to rank your site on search engines (read: Google), some users may rank this a higher priority than the speed of their back-end.

In the event that CloudFlare brings down your Google PageSpeed Insights score and you’re trying to get on Google’s good side to help boost traffic to your site and gain popularity, the free version of CloudFlare may not be worth it at all, even though it’s free.

Support

The front page of CloudFlare's support site.
CloudFlare’s Support site.

There’s an extensive documentation library on CloudFlare’s support site and in most cases, it’s more than enough to get you well on your way.

Each section has several articles and they cover not only hot to start using CloudFlare, but also how to use each and every single setting.

Even if you look through the documentation and you still have questions, you can ask their email support team. To do this, you can start by searching the knowledge base. Go to the end of any documentation article and enter your question in the Still not finding what you need? text field, then hit enter on your keyboard.

You can search their knowledge base before submitting a ticket.

I wanted to know whether site administrators could upload more than 100 MB since there’s a setting that can be found at Network > Maximum Upload Size which displays 100 MB as the only free option. The description suggested it applied to all users, but I wanted to test out the service’s support.

I searched CloudFlare’s knowledge base and found a few articles I could look through, but I wanted to open a ticket to see just how well the service’s support team could handle simple requests. I often use this as a marker for good support because it’s important for customers to feel valued and respected while also receiving the help you need, even if your question is ridiculously basic.

To open a ticket, you can click the Submit a request button in the same section where you would search their knowledge base.

On the next page, fill out the form with the necessary details including your email address, name, your domain names, the issue you’re experiencing, the subject line, your message and any files you could include to accompany your ticket. When you’re done, click Submit.

If all goes well, you should receive an email response from the support team to help you out. I received my reply within hours and it was detailed and accurate, but it was also short and to the point so I didn’t have to read a novel of a response.

Here’s the response I received:

Hi, It would apply to anyone who is uploading files through the Cloudflare proxy. If you are the site admin, you can create a grey-clouded DNS record to bypass our proxy and access the site to do your uploads.

It was a quick and painless process. There’s no way I can rate CloudFlare’s support negatively. I thought itwas phenomenal.

Is Free Really Better than Premium?

At WPMU DEV, we use CloudFlare’s premium service and while we don’t typically see significant savings on our server’s load since our site is dynamic, we do see a fair amount of saved bandwidth.

It’s not usually an average of 65% as CloudFlare advertises on their site, but it’s fairly close at about 48%. That translates into over 100 GB of bandwidth saved on average which is valuable.

Overall, CloudFlare has been an important part of our site optimization and performance tool belt and we wouldn’t want to live without it. With the great gains we have seen using CloudFlare, it’s clear to us that free isn’t better when it comes to CloudFlare.

If you need to see significant increases in your site’s speed and security, you should consider upgrading your account to a premium one.

Final Thoughts

While the free version of CloudFlare doesn’t quite live up to its rep, it’s still nothing to sneeze at. CloudFlare can help boost your site’s speed and security.

While it may not be the best solution for everyone and may not give your site a massive improvement, it’s still an excellent service to have because it’s certainly better than not having it all in most cases. Usually, it does boost your site’s speed fairly noticeably and also significantly increases your Google PageSpeed ranking.

For a more detailed look into increasing your Google PageSpeed Insights Score and speed up your site, check out one of our other posts Why Trying to Get 95+ on Google PageSpeed Insights for Your WordPress Site Will Drive You Mad!

Do you use CloudFlare? Has it boosted your site’s performance? Let us know what you think in the comments below.