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FAQ: What are Proxy Servers

FAQ: What are Proxy Servers?

Have you ever thought about how exactly internet communication works? It gets pretty complicated, but it can also be fascinating.

Amidst the tangle of devices and downloads and communication, a lot of different elements play critical roles in the process. One such element that you can easily overlook is the proxy server.

What Is a Proxy Server?

In simplest terms, a proxy server is a system that sits between a user and the internet. For this reason, proxy servers are often described as “intermediaries.” The general purpose is to introduce another layer in a network between one device and the rest of the internet.

Proxy servers can be made from a number of devices, including computers, routers, gateway devices, and more.

How Are Proxies Used?

Proxy servers are used in a number of ways. Most of those uses fit into two categories: data processing and security. We’re going to focus on security for the most part and circle back to data processing when we discuss reverse proxies.

That said, proxy servers enhance network security in two ways. First, a proxy server is what actually gets attacked in the case of a malicious event. This spares your endpoint device from that attack, helping you to avoid a number of problems.

Consider an example: you’re using your phone on your home Wi-Fi network. While browsing, someone tries to send you malicious files. You have a proxy server, so it actually intercepts those files, and they don’t make it to your phone. The proxy server security just worked.

The second form of security comes from increased capacity. You can install firewalls, virus protection, and other software tools on many proxy servers. So, they can scan traffic for trouble before it has a chance to reach your phone. The proxy serves as a security platform for internet traffic.

How Does a Proxy Server Work?

Proxy servers do a lot of things utilizing many techniques, but for simplicity, we can boil it all down to IP addresses and traffic routing.

Sticking with the phone-at-home example, when your phone connects to the internet. It gets its own IP address. More specifically, your home network will have an IP address, and your phone gets a subnet address, but when you combine the IPs with the subnets and everything else, each device on your phone has its own unique identifier.

This address is what allows devices across the internet to find each other. It’s like a street address but entirely virtual. In order to load a website, you need the site’s address, and it needs yours. That’s how you establish two-way internet communication.

This is where proxy servers come into play. When you use a proxy, your phone doesn’t actually connect to the internet anymore. Instead, it connects to the proxy server, and the server connects to the internet. So, when you download a website, your phone only actually needs to know the proxy’s IP address. Meanwhile, the website also gets the proxy’s IP, so your phone and the website never directly talk. (This works the same way for non-website internet traffic too.)

That’s how the middleman of a proxy server works in networking. All traffic routes through it, creating that deliberate extra layer between endpoint devices on different sides of the internet.

Common Types of Proxy Servers

With the idea of IP address and routing in mind, we can look deeper into how proxy servers really benefit networks. As mentioned before, the servers can enhance security, and they can also offload data processing. We can actually split these concepts into two types of servers: open and reverse.

Open

An open server encompasses most of what we’ve discussed so far. Such a server is open to the general internet, and any device that wants to connect to your network can in fact connect with an open proxy server.

Perhaps the most common type of open server is a forwarding proxy. This intercepts traffic coming into your network and then forwards it to the appropriate endpoint devices. You can use this to anonymize the IP address of those endpoint devices, creating one of those forms of security we discussed before.

Forwarding proxies also allow you to install extra security software and improve network security as discussed.

Not all open servers anonymize IP addresses, though. You can also create transparent open proxies. The point of such a proxy is that it can store a bunch of website data. This makes internet activity faster for the end user, and it’s the first case of offloading data processing through a proxy server. Such a server can potentially cache much more web data than your phone, and that actually helps your phone load sites or run apps faster than without the proxy.

Reverse

Reverse proxies work the other way around. Instead of the proxy sitting between the network and the end user, a reverse proxy actually sends data to the end user before it goes out to the internet.

The most common use is with web servers, and this is where data processing really comes into play.

When you load a website, you use an IP address to connect with a web server. That server then sends the information across the internet, and your device downloads it. Then, you can see whatever is on the website. All internet communication works more or less the same way, but websites and web servers provide easier examples.

If the website you visit has a lot of traffic, it has to process a large volume of information to deal with all of the users. It can employ proxy servers to handle specific tasks involved with managing web traffic. One reverse proxy might do all of the encrypting and decrypting for the web server. Another might compress all of the files before they are sent out.

The main web server still provides the IP address for all of this. The reverse proxies work as a support crew for that server, improving functionality.

You can dive a lot deeper into proxy servers and see tons of specific functions, but they all tie back into these broader concepts.

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