What is a proxy server?

We explain what a proxy server is, how it works and the different types available

Networks connected with each other across the world

Proxy servers are an essential tool for staying anonymous while surfing the web, serving as an intermediate between a user's device, whether a phone, tablet or PC, and the server it's requesting information from.

As the name suggests, these tools act as proxies on behalf of the user and mask their true identity by sending false information to a target server. This prevents the server from discovering who is requesting information, including the location from which that request originated.

The main appeal of using proxy servers is they normally block the communication of personal data, however, somewhat understandably, proxy servers have a reputation for facilitating online crime due to the anonymity they provide.

There are plenty of benefits to everyday users and businesses, having said that. Some organisations use proxy servers in order to test the quality of connections to their services from specific regions around the world. Consumers, too, can bypass regional locks on online content, such as Netflix, or simply use them as an added layer of security while using the internet in public settings.

How does a proxy server work?

Each internet user is assigned their own unique IP address whenever they use a device to access the internet, which is then used to accurately assess where the connection is coming from. In a typical case of a user initiating a Google search, the IP address will be sent over to Google.

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Proxy servers behave as intermediaries, switching the IP address when a request is sent through one, before passing this on to the source of information. This effectively tricks Google into thinking that the request came from the proxy server rather than the user.

In this instance, Google will take the IP address sent by the proxy server instead, allowing the user to pretend to be in a different region or country.

What are proxy servers used for?

Proxy servers can be used for a variety of different reasons, including the request web pages, bypassing services controls that block certain IP addresses or protecting the user's identity if they're trying to access a website with sensitive information on it.

Although using a proxy may seem a little suspicious, there are many occasions when a user may want to use one. For example, if they want to access content or a website blocked by an IP (such as from within a school or business network), to bypass censorship or if they want to hide their identity from the website or service they're trying to connect to.

At an organisational level, rather than an individual one, proxy servers can also be used for content filtering, to prevent users from accessing certain sites or to prevent certain data from leaving the corporate network, to improve security by hiding the IP addresses of people using an internal network and by speeding up websites and web-based servers by load-balancing and caching information.

Types of proxy server

Proxy servers come in a number of guises, each boasting varying functions to suit a host of purposes.

For instance, gateway proxy servers, or tunnelling proxies, are used to pass on unmodified requests the source of information, and users deploy a forward proxy to extract information from a source. The latter type is more internet-based normally. Meanwhile, a reverse proxy monitors access to a server via a private network.

Reverse proxies can also be used to hide the IP address of the server at source. A request is forwarded from the proxy to the ordinary server, and then this response is forwarded as if it's coming from the ordinary server - meaning the user won't know the exact origin.

These are normally used in corporate settings to encrypt sites using the secure sockets layer (SSL) cryptographic security protocol. It means that businesses won't need to implement individual SSL Server Certificates for multiple hosts.

Other potential applications include load balancing, in which the server used as a middleman that distributes loads to servers on which applications sit.

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Moreover, reverse proxy servers are key to boosting the operating speed of a website. The mechanism takes advantage of caching to locally load content from the browser rather than the original server and compresses content, such as javascript, to make the content load faster and offer a better user experience.

Open proxy servers are a type of forward proxy that allow anyone to access them. There are hundreds of thousands all across the internet, with some (anonymous open proxy servers) allowing users to hide their IP address while they're browsing. This type will tell the source it's a proxy server, but it won't pass on the user's IP address.

Other IPs that hide a user's identity include a distorting proxy that gives an incorrect IP address, but tells the source it is a proxy server, a transparent proxy that identifies itself as a proxy and passes your address along anyway and a high anonymity proxy that gives a fake IP address and doesn't tell the source server it's hiding the identity of the requester.

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