What Is A Proxy Server? Definition and Usage

  • A proxy server acts as a gateway between you and the internet. 
  • It hides your real IP address from the resource server, adding an extra layer of privacy.
  • It is mostly used for bypassing filters and censorship. 

If you have ever been a part of a company or organization, you have likely used a proxy server. It is the most popular way to avoid data leaks and various kinds of fraud.

But what does ‘proxy’ even mean? How does it work? And what are the advantages of using different types of proxies?

Most people use proxies to stay a bit more secure on an open WiFi network or to unblock website content. However, they don’t truly understand the purpose of a proxy server. In reality, proxy servers can do much more than just unblocking websites.

In this article, we have described different types of proxy servers and what exactly you can expect from them in terms of online privacy and security. Let’s start with the basics.

What Is A Proxy?

Every device connected to the internet has an IP address, which is assigned by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). When you connect with anyone online or reach out to a website, your activity gets tracked by the website you visit and/or by your ISP.

The IP address of your device makes it easier for websites to identify your location, even to a street level. While most users are completely happy with how all of that works, some people treat personal data as currency: they don’t like excessive user profiling and location tracking.

Fortunately, there are few ways to hide personal online activities, and one of them is to use a proxy server, also known as a proxy.

Definition: A proxy server acts as a gateway between you and the internet. It communicates with websites on your behalf.

When you use a proxy, your online requests get rerouted. This means your internet traffic flows through an intermediate server on its way to the requested URL. The data then comes back (from the requested URL) through the same server and is forwarded to your device.

Throughout this process, the proxy hides your real IP address from the resource server, adding an extra layer of privacy. However, you should also know that there are plenty of proxies that provide many more features than just hiding the users’ IP addresses.

7 Most Common Uses of Proxy Servers

1. Firewalls: They act as a barrier between a network and the internet. Think it as a network security device that monitors incoming and outgoing network traffic and blocks or permits data packets based on specific security rules. For example, a firewall can be configured to block access to untrusted files or malware.

Usually, firewalls are hosted on proxy servers to analyze and either block or approve incoming traffic before it reaches the network.

2. Bypassing Filters and Censorship: If the website is using IP-based geolocation to restrict its service to a particular country, you can use proxies located in other countries to access the service. Web proxies are mostly used to bypass government censorship, although only 2% of internet users use such circumvention tools.

An illustration of a proxy setup in networking

3. Caching: Proxy server temporarily stores frequently accessed data to make it easier and faster to access it again in the future. This significantly increases performance while reducing bandwidth usage and latency.

4. Repairing Errors: A proxy can repair common errors in the data and fix accessibility issues. For example, BikiniProxy rewrites buggy HTML and Javascript code on the fly to repair errors happening in the browser.

5. Sharing Internet Connections: Some businesses and organizations use proxy servers to funnel their devices through a single internet connection. This can also be done via WiFi routers.

6. Security: A proxy uses network address translation to enhance the security of the internal network of a company. It makes requests from users and machines on the local network anonymous. If outsiders want to access a particular device on the network, it will be extremely difficult for them to find it.

7. Translation: A translation proxy is used to localize a website experience for the global audience. When implemented, the language of the original content is translated to the visitor’s native language

Types Of Proxies And Their Benefits

Depending on your requirements, there are two types of proxies to choose from: forward proxy and reverse proxy. Both are internet-facing proxies but implement in different ways.

Forward Proxy

A forward proxy (also called an open proxy) resides at any point between the user’s device and public destination servers. It can be used to retrieve content from any source on the internet, and is accessible by all internet users.

Forward proxies can be further divided into two groups:

  • Transparent proxies: provide no additional security or privacy. When you use one, resource servers can tell you are requesting data via a proxy, and they can retrieve your original IP address as well. This type of proxy is mostly used for content filtering or caching purposes.
  • Anonymous proxies: reveal their identity as a proxy server, but do not disclose your original IP address. You can use them if you want to gain some control over your online privacy. Furthermore, there are a few elite proxies that do disguise your use of the proxy, by regularly changing your new IP address.

Reverse Proxy 

A reverse proxy retrieves data on behalf of a client from one or more servers. The data is then returned to the client, appearing as if it originated from the proxy server itself. In this way, the client gets no information about the original server.

Reverse proxy

Unlike a forward proxy that acts on behalf of the client, a reverse proxy act on behalf of the server. It simply sits behind the firewall in a private network, providing better performance and reliability while blocking web server attacks.

Downsides

Proxies do have their limits and disadvantages. For example, they have

Slow speed: Proxies store caches of recently accessed webpages, but since they reroute your internet traffic, they may slow down your connection.

Limited privacy protection and security: While proxies host firewalls and hide your IP address, some do not encrypt your traffic. This means other users on the same network could potentially eavesdrop on your online activity. To avoid this, be sure you are using a proxy that supports HTTPS encryption.

It is highly recommended that you do not use proxies for websites that require you to log in or enter sensitive information.

Restricted access: They are only suitable for light browsing and basic entertainment. For example, you might be able to access YouTube videos or sites blocked by the government, but you won’t be able to do the same for all websites.

Furthermore, web proxies usually offer limited servers on limited locations. And some of them are platform-dependent, so you cannot simply select one proxy to cover all of your devices.

Instability: No proxy can provide rock-solid performance. If you have selected the free account, prepare to experience frequent service disruption, speed issues, and sudden disconnects.

How Are Proxies Different From VPN?

While both VPNs and proxy servers protect user identities and are great for accessing geo-restricted content, VPNs are more effective and secure than proxies.

VPNs work on the operating system levels, which means they redirect all your traffic, whether it’s coming from your browser or a background application. It also encrypts the traffic between your device and the internet.

Most VPNs use 128- or 256-bit AES methods to encrypt data so that content can only be accessed by VPN client(s) and server(s) that are securely connected together.

This encryption not only prevents ISPs from monitoring your internet activity but also protects you from government surveillance and attackers who might try to track your activity. All in all, VPN offers the ultimate online privacy and security.

Read: 8 Best Proxy Servers To Surf Web Anonymously

VPNs that have struct no-logs policy are usually paid and more reliable, while many proxy server connections are free and drop more frequently.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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