One of the best features of Airtable is the ability to drag images, files, and even videos (i.e., digital artefacts) right into an attachment field. When you do this, Airtable makes a copy of your image and stores metadata about the image into your base. It also quietly moves the copy of your image to its content delivery network (CDN). The URL to your image has been openly accessible providing a wonderful way to share access to your assets For almost eight years, this has been possible but that’s going to change in significant ways later this fall.
Long Time Coming
I predicted this would happen in 2019. They warned us then and they are giving you almost a year to make plans. A lot of folks complained here, but this change is most certainly going to happen and it is in everyone’s best interest.
Now that Airtable has officially announced new specifications for its CDN, any solutions that depend heavily on images that need to be accessed outside the Airtable UI will probably require that you host them in your own CDN.
What’s a CDN?
Cloudflare provides one of the better definitions:
Airtable, of course, has its own CDN to provide access to the images and files you upload to attachment fields. The intent of this CDN is for it’s paying customers; not as a global hosting server. If you need to host your Airtable-bound digital artifacts, you’re going to need to essentially replicate Airtable’s CDN, so you might want to read on.
Thanks Google Drive!
One might think that Google Drive, or other services such as DropBox or Box will host these files for me, but that could be a mistake. These services don’t want to be your CDN any more than Airtable does. They include ToS clauses that allow them to throttle open access to your documents despite being fully shared to the open Internet.
There are many ways to create a CDN for your attachment files. In fact, Cloudinary is an ideal ready-made CDN that also provides many features for sizing and rendering images in custom formats and styles. However, it’s not a magic bullet and the pricing might be a little steep depending on your needs.
The complex part requires that you create some sort of an integration that pulls (or pushed) your attachments from Airtable (perhaps using the API or script automation) and upload yet another copy into your CDN environment. If you have a serious commitment to attachments, this could be a sizeable challenge. There’s also the issue of keeping your CDN updated in near-real-time, a key requirement that is more easily addressed with Firebase.
These complexities may not be easy to build depending on your selection of a premade SaaS CDN solution. And, you might also get lucky with Zapier or another glue-factory approach. Experiment a little and see what works best for your situation.
I have already helped a few friends design an approach that uses Firebase, a Google Cloud Platform service that is very fast and provides a generous free tier and an integrated CDN.
WARNING - CDNs are not universal in features. Some are globally distributed while others provide localized servers in your country. The costs vary greatly as well. And it also depends on your hosting and delivery requirements.