Product Reviews

Universal CDN

Universal CDN (UCDN) is a premium content delivery network owned by XBT Holdings, a group which includes companies like Webzilla, Root and Servers.com.

The service caches all the usual static file types, and enables quality video playback with support for HTTP Live Streaming and MPEG-DASH (‘Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP’).

HTTP/2 support improves security and further speeds up your site. You can use it immediately for no extra charge with UCDN’s free shared SSL certificate, or configure it with a certificate of your own. UCDN also says free custom Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates are ‘coming soon’, which sounds good to us, although many services offer them already.

Origin push support enables uploading larger files (>10MB) to the CDN directly, meaning you don’t have to manage or host them yourself. There’s FTP and RSYNC access to the push zones, and you can define a custom caching policy by setting the cache control header.

Powerful access control features enable blocking content by country, IP address, referrer (hotlink protection), security tokens and more.

You’re able to purge content by URL, either through the web interface or by using the service API. Purges should finish in under five minutes.

You can monitor site and cache performance at any time with UCDN’s reports. The company calls these ‘near real-time stats’, which is probably more accurate and honest than you’ll get from most providers, but there’s more than enough to help analyze performance: bandwidth, traffic served, requests by site, status codes and more.

UCDN doesn’t provide any significant details on its network locations, unfortunately. A general map graphic displays dots all over the globe, but the text says only that it ‘includes Points of Presence (POPs) spread throughout the United States and Europe’; not so impressive.

Pricing

UCDN can be purchased by paying for the monthly data transfer you’ll need. This is priced from $0.017 per GB, three or four times what you’ll pay with some budget providers. Costs fall as your transfer needs increase – 10TB to 20TB costs $0.012 per GB – but this clearly isn’t a service for bargain hunters.

You can alternatively pay using a 95th percentile bandwidth metering scheme. That essentially means that 95% of the time, your usage will be at or below a defined amount. Prices range from $4 (£3.20) per Mbps for 0-10Mbps to $1.50 (£1.20) per Mbps for 5000-9999Mbps.

Add-ons include SSL certificates, available from $14 (£11.20) per month per zone.

Priority Support is priced at $17 (£13.60) a month. That may seem expensive, particularly if you’ll rarely need it, but Amazon Cloudfront charges even more at $29 (£23.20) a month.

Best of all, UCDN offers an extremely generous free trial, giving you access to all features and a giant 1000GB to play with. That should be more than enough to run performance tests on even the largest of sites.

Setup

UCDN doesn’t have an automated setup process. Rather, it asks you to send a message to the support team explaining what you’d like to do. While this sounds like an extra hassle, it’ll probably save you time overall. We had a reply within a few minutes asking relevant questions about our requirements – site type, file sizes, bandwidth needs, geographical location of visitors, HTTP usage – and offering to set the system up to suit our requirements.

We provided our details, and shortly afterwards another helpful message arrived with a logon link, username, password, and pointers to various web guides and tutorials.

UCDN’s dashboard is well designed, with all the core CDN reporting and management tools accessible from a left-hand sidebar. Each group of functions is clearly named – Stats, SSL, Purge Files – and if you’ve ever used another CDN you’ll feel at home right away.

This clear and simple approach continued when we created our first zone. Instead of asking for our ‘Origin’ and hoping we understood the term, UCDN just prompted for the location of our files and displayed an example URL.

We were also asked about the size of the files we planned to cache, whether we needed to use SSL, and if we wanted to use an alternative domain name (CNAME), like cdn.yourdomain.com. There are small illustrations to explain each point, and tooltips are available if you need them.

Work through the setup basics and you’re able to tweak other options. For example, a Limit Access tab enables blocking access by country, using a secret key to create secure URLs with a built-in expiry time, or limiting access by referrer to prevent unauthorized sites hotlinking your content.

There’s an option to limit download speeds to a global rate, or via security token (secure URLs can have their own download rate).

You’re able to redirect various HTTP errors – 402, 403, 404, 405, 500, 502 – to their own custom URL.

Other settings include defining the cache expiry time, setting a custom origin protocol or choosing to use SSL via free shared SSL or your own certificate.

Elsewhere, a ‘Purge Files’ tool enables removing specific files from the cache. Conveniently (and unusually), you’re able to upload a text file with a list of URLs to be invalidated.

Additionally, there’s an option to create storage areas to hold your content. This couldn’t be much easier: enter a name, choose the region where the store will be located, and you’re given the FTP details. Upload your files there, and you can refer to that store instead of your origin. The rest of the service works in exactly the same way.

UCDN doesn’t have as many settings and tweaks as some of the more advanced services. There’s no control of compression, no choice over how you handle URLs with query settings, no adding or removing of HTTP headers. But the console covers the basics well, and goes a little further in some places, and overall, it’s a likeable service with some interesting and thoughtful touches.

Performance

It’s always difficult to give any useful measure of CDN performance, as there are so many variables involved. The type and size of files you’re caching, the web apps you’re using, the geographic spread of your visitors – all these factors will affect what you need from a service.

Normally we would fall back to a simple measure like CDN response time, but that’s not possible here. Universal CDN’s performance isn’t covered by Cedexis Radar or anyone else we could find.

There’s no way to be sure how well UCDN will perform, then, but the fact that the company gives you a 30-day, 1000GB trial suggests that it’s confident you’ll be happy. Judge the system on its features rather than any predicted speeds, and if it looks interesting, open a trial account and sample it for yourself.

Final verdict

Universal CDN is a likeable service, which is user-friendly with some thoughtful touches, but just too expensive for what you get. We hear that major updates and rebranding are on the way, though, so keep watching for any developments.


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About the author

Ola Thomas