Web content delivery network has a P.A. connection

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Matt Gardner
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The co-founder of one of the world’s fastest growing Internet content delivery networks has strong Prince Albert roots.

Prince Albert native Michelle Zatlyn is the co-founder of and head of user experience at CloudFlare, an Internet content delivery network that aims to improve website performance, speed and security. The growing service has an estimated 1.5 million customers worldwide.

Born and raised in P.A., Michelle Zatlyn is currently based in San Francisco, where she serves as head of user experience at CloudFlare -- a content delivery network that seeks to improve website performance and speed as well as providing security.

“At a really high level, what we’re doing is we’re building a better Internet,” Zatlyn said. “That’s why we come to work every day.”

Since launching three-and-a-half years ago, CloudFlare has grown to serve an estimated 1.5 million customers, ranging from bloggers and small businesses to major enterprises and large corporations. Users can sign up for CloudFlare online at www.cloudflare.com.

Zatlyn’s background did not immediately suggest a career in web performance and security.

Growing up in Prince Albert, she attended Holy Cross School and Carlton Comprehensive High School before moving to Montreal to study chemistry at McGill University.

For six years after graduating, she worked in a variety of positions in Toronto, from financial services analyst to product management at Toshiba, before deciding to go back to school.

In the process of earning her MBA from Harvard, Zatlyn worked at Google for a summer internship before a school project transformed into her future career.

“While I was at Harvard I actually started to work on CloudFlare as a school project with a classmate and it …started to gain a lot of traction,” she recalled.

Though she initially planned to work in Vancouver after graduation, Zatlyn ended up moving to San Francisco almost five years ago to pursue CloudFlare full-time.

CloudFlare grew out of an open-source project for web security by Zatlyn’s co-founders called Project Honeypot, which helped track spammers online.

Despite the project’s lack of flash or polish, Zatlyn was astounded when her business partner informed her that 80,000 users had signed up in its first six years.

“This project had like no budget, it was really hard to use, the website was very ugly, and I couldn’t understand how 80,000 people signed up for it or heard about it,” she said.

But while large corporations can easily afford the resources to ensure websites are fast, safe and accessible, the cost of such services can often be prohibitive for individuals and small businesses.

“That’s basically where we decided -- could we build a service that would not only protect your website from online attackers, but also speed it up and make anybody with a web presence the same as if they were running Google.com, and make that really simple and affordable for anybody?” Zatlyn said. “And that’s what we did.”

The average Internet surfer may assume that all websites load at the same rate, when in fact there are often noticeable differences in speeds.

Larger companies may have entire teams working full-time to make their web properties load faster.

“There’s lots of research that shows for every extra 100 milliseconds -- that’s not very much -- that you lose two per cent of your visitors on your page,” Zatlyn said.

“So if you can make your website 100 milliseconds faster, people will stay there and read more or interact longer.”

Major websites such as Amazon or Google generally target one-second load times, which is considered very fast. The average small business website, on the other hand, may take anywhere between four and eight seconds to load.

At a really high level, what we’re doing is we’re building a better Internet. That’s why we come to work every day. Michelle Zatlyn

In either case, CloudFlare can cut that loading time in half, Zatlyn said.

The network offers a range of options for customers, starting with free service and extending to $20 per month and $200 per month.

Some of their largest customers, however, will spend tens of thousands or even millions of dollars per year on CloudFlare service.

Noting that 95 per cent of their customers use the free plan, Zatlyn pointing to various incentives for the widespread adoption of CloudFlare besides additional revenue.

“We do performance, speeding things up -- that’s really important -- but we also protect websites from online attackers, and the way we do that is that we crowdsource the security data,” Zatlyn said.

“So we want as many websites using CloudFlare as possible, because if one website gets attacked, we share that attack information across all the other websites so everybody’s protected from it … If someone attacks, let’s say, the P.A. Raiders website, then all of a sudden we share that information across all of the other websites using CloudFlare.”

Zatlyn likened the crowdsourcing of security data to a neighbourhood watch.

While most users adopt the free service, large enterprises will often pay CloudFlare more money in order to obtain custom engineering on top of the core service.

Among the high-profile CloudFlare customers who have purchased business/enterprise plans are the World Economic Forum, Franklin Mint, the Eurovision Song Contest and heavy metal band Metallica.

“They were one of our customers from the very beginning,” Zatlyn said of Metallica.

“They would release a new concert date and they’d get this massive spike of traffic to their website because (of) all these fans wanting to figure out when their next concert date was or to sign up for tickets, and it would always crash their web server and take their site offline.

“That’s really a hard thing for the website to have to handle -- these spikes in traffic -- and so Metallica signed up to make sure the site’s always online. And while I like Metallica, lots of people don’t, and so people constantly attack that website. So they like the security aspect too.”

CloudFlare has proven increasingly popular around the world, with Zatlyn pointed to an estimated 3,000 new customers every day.

As a globally distributed network, CloudFlare has 25 different locations around the world to help increase website speed.

“We have, any given month, about five per cent of the web’s requests,” Zatlyn said. “The whole Internet’s requests pass through the network that we run.

“That’s amazing, and that’s all happened in the last three-and-a-half years.”

Going forward, the company plans to continue expanding the availability of service as well as the cryptographic protocol Security Sockets Layer (SSL).

“Right now, if you’re a website, it’s really expensive to implement SSL, and so we’re going to make SSL free for everyone by the end of this year so anyone who has a website can get SSL,” Zatlyn said.

“That’s amazing for web surfers that they know that their information will be secure and it’s not cost getting in the way.”

Organizations: Harvard, Google, Holy Cross School Carlton Comprehensive High School McGill University Toshiba Amazon World Economic Forum

Geographic location: San Francisco, Prince Albert, Montreal Toronto Vancouver

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