What Is a Proxy Server? Working, Types, Benefits, and Challenges

Advanced in Tech & Business

What Is a Proxy Server? Working, Types, Benefits, and Challenges

A proxy server is defined as a remotely hosted software application that sits between the client device and the wider internet to govern and, often, regulate how requests are sent and responses and resources are received while masking the requester’s IP address. This article explains how proxy servers work and discusses the benefits and challenges of using one. 

What Is a Proxy Server?

Every device on a computer network has an internet protocol (IP) address that specifically identifies the device. Similarly, the proxy server is a networked computer with a unique IP address. This allows the proxy server to serve as a bridge between users and the internet. Essentially, it is a server acting as a middleman between visitors and the websites they visit. Depending on the use case, demands, or company policy, proxy servers offer varying degrees of functionality, security, and privacy. 

The history of networking and the internet itself, dating back to the 1970s, is probably where the history of proxy servers begins. The first proxy servers provided a functional and secure separation layer between local-area networks (LAN) and external networks. Early proxies allowed the shared use of single connections between various computing units by establishing a physical connection between the client application and the computer, where they received and transmitted commands.

Over the years, developers continued to produce increasingly promising proxy technologies. This has resulted in advanced proxy servers that can support customization, extension, and simple deployment. Users can even find programmable proxies in the market that can perform high-end networking functions.

Why are proxies necessary?

Cybersecurity is one of the key reasons to use proxy servers today. They shield endpoints from threats like malware by enforcing web filters or firewalls that can be configured. When someone uses a proxy server, all internet traffic going to the IP they requested passes through the proxy server. The request is then redirected through the same proxy server, and the proxy server sends the information from the website to users. This prevents fraudsters from intercepting your traffic or monitoring online transactions without authorization. 

This added security is also beneficial when used with a secure web gateway or other email security tools. You can factor in the amount of traffic that a network or specific computers can handle, its level of safety, or both when filtering traffic in this way. 

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Types of Proxy Servers

Proxy servers can be classified into six types:

Proxy Server Types

 

Proxy Server Types

1. Transparent proxies

Most transparent proxies can be detected close to a corporate network’s external perimeter. It is called transparent because it relays the connection between the user or client and the web without modifying either the request or its response. Transparent proxies are installed mainly to filter or cache content. Such technology may be used by businesses and educational institutions to restrict access to specific websites. To cache data and filter content, libraries may also employ transparent proxies.

2. Forward proxies

In forward proxies, a client’s requests are forwarded by forwarding proxies to a web server. A forward proxy is used to deliver data from groups of users on an internal network, acting as an intermediary between the clients and the internet. It examines each request that’s sent before determining whether or not to establish a connection and also takes actions on the user’s behalf, such as routing the request to the correct destination. 

Internal networks that require a single point of entry are best suited for forwarding proxies. It offers network security for users and enables simple administrative control. A forward proxy, however, might make it more difficult for an organization to meet each end-user’s specific needs.

3. Anonymous proxies

Anonymous proxies are servers that conceal the client’s IP address, allowing access to resources blocked by firewalls or IP address bans. They could be utilized to increase privacy or as a defense against cyber attacks. 

Internet activity cannot be tracked or intercepted when using an anonymous proxy. This is the best option if a user wants to access the internet completely anonymously. While anonymous proxies offer some of the best identity protection available, there are some disadvantages as well – that is why high anonymity proxies are essential in certain use cases. 

4. High anonymity proxies

Highly anonymous proxies display a non-proxy public IP address and conceal the fact that clients are using them. As a result, they not only conceal the client’s IP address but also enable access to websites that might restrict proxy servers. A high anonymity proxy goes one step beyond standard anonymity.

Users’ information is deleted before the proxy attempts to connect to the target website, which is how it operates. The server is best suited for users who require absolute anonymity, such as employees who don’t want their activity linked to their employer.

5. Distorting proxies

While concealing its actual identity, the proxy presents itself to a website as a different IP address. Users who want to conceal their location when using the internet – for example, when running an investigation or penetration test – can consider using this technology. 

This kind of proxy gives people the benefit of masking not only their identity but also the proxy’s identity, giving the impression that users are browsing from a particular country. Nevertheless, some websites automatically prohibit distorted proxies, which may prevent end users from accessing those websites.

6. Reverse proxy servers

Reverse proxies are effectively forward proxies in reverse; they are like a proxy server that often forwards requests from the internet to users in an internal network via a firewall. 

Users’ access to web servers hosting sensitive data is controlled and tracked by reverse proxies. A firewall routes user requests to the reverse proxy across the internet. If the proxy approves the user’s request, it obtains this data from the web server and responds to the user. Before receiving the requested data from the server, a reverse proxy will first see if it is already cached.

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How Do Proxy Servers Work?

As seen in the previous section, different types of proxies work differently. However, their overall operations can be broken down as follows. 

The proxy server is undetectable to the user; all requests made to the internet and responses received appear to be sent directly to the addressed internet server. However, the proxy is not technically invisible, and you need to select a configuration setting in the browser or other network protocol program to specify the proxy’s IP address. 

As proxies have an IP address, they behave like a regular endpoint. All in all, different location proxies serve as a shield that keeps the user’s identity and location hidden from the public while allowing them to access open-source web data without facing any kind of geolocation-based discrimination.

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Benefits and Challenges of Using Proxy Servers

To maintain online privacy, proxy servers are a crucial tool. Proxy servers function as a go-between for computers and the websites users access. Due to this, it’s challenging for cybercriminals to track users’ activities. Although not foolproof, using a proxy server can help shield users from many common cyberattacks. Yet, proxy servers have several shortcomings of their own. Before we discuss the challenges of using proxy servers, let us discuss their benefits. 

Benefits of using proxy servers 

Proxy servers are beneficial for organizations as they: 

  • Enhance security: Proxy servers function like a firewall between users’ systems and the internet. Without them, hackers can obtain users’ IP addresses and exploit them to access users’ networks. Certain proxy server types can be set up to use encryption to offer secure connections. Businesses can employ transparent proxies to block specific websites that have been identified as containing malware.
  • Regulate internet usage: Businesses and parents use proxy servers to monitor and manage their children’s or employees’ internet use. Companies can set up a proxy server to block access to such websites rather than redirecting and politely requesting them not to visit them while using company resources.
  • Save bandwidth and improve speeds: A good proxy server can help organizations improve their network’s performance. Popular websites can be cached by proxy servers, checking to see if they have the most recent version of the site before sending users the saved version. The same proxy server only sends one request to a website when hundreds of users access it.
  • Enforce privacy: Proxy servers are used by individuals and businesses to browse the internet more privately. Some proxy servers will modify the web request’s IP address and other identifying data. This helps keep users browsing history and personal information more private because the destination server doesn’t know who made the original request.
  • Help access blocked resources: Users can get around access restrictions with the help of proxy servers, which is helpful for ethical hacking as well as digital forensics investigations. The proxy server gives the impression that the investigator is somewhere other than where they actually are. 
  • Improve performance through caching: Any web page that users often access can be downloaded and stored locally by proxy servers. Additionally, they continuously monitor the pages and, when the live form of the website is amended, instantly update the cached version. Web page caches can be accessed whenever and without an internet connection.
  • Aid in geolocation testing: Today, many websites use geolocation technology to adapt their content and reroute visitors to the most relevant page based on where they are coming from. Businesses employ rotating proxies to test marketing campaigns where the location of the data is essential. This can include pricing aggregation, online scraping, market analysis, and SEO.

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Challenges of using proxy servers

Now let us look at the potential shortcomings of proxies. 

  • Risk of exposing the information recorded through data logging: Users’ IP addresses are stored on proxy servers with their web request information. Some proxies fail to encrypt this data, and depending on the provider, they might even sell the information to third parties, placing consumers in danger of data breaches once more. Before using a proxy, users should carefully read the terms and conditions.
  • Lack of encryption: A proxy cannot function over an insecure connection unless encryption is set. Attackers can quickly intercept communications using unprotected proxies, putting any sensitive information like usernames and passwords at risk. Users are also more vulnerable to data breaches when using unsecured connections. To maximize network security, users must be sure to use encrypted proxies or switch to virtual private networks (VPNs).
  • Limited privacy: Although proxy servers mask users’ IP addresses, this anonymity isn’t always extended past web requests. For example, free proxies frequently use unprotected networks and ad-based business strategies. These adverts may contain malware and viruses that may quickly infect machines.
  • Need for additional configurations: The proxy configurations are pre-programmed with a single objective in mind. As a result, manual coding is required to satisfy one’s unique needs. However, setting up a proxy can be fairly challenging. To prevent hackers from tracking users’ personal information, it must be made perfect in a way that leaves no ports open.
  • Chances of incompatibility: Some proxies might not operate with your current local network. Users may need to seek out unique setups if the configurations are too complex for their IT assistance. However, one can prevent compatibility problems by selecting a provider compatible with their network setup.
  • Sluggish performance: Traffic on unsecured channels is very high since thousands to millions of user devices’ data are stored on them. Maintaining internet speed requires a lot of bandwidth with such a high volume of traffic. Unfortunately, the majority of proxy servers have limited bandwidth. Even premium proxy servers may have this issue.
  • Spam attacks: When users start using a proxy server, their provider starts a session. At this time, they may also post banners and advertisements. Too many ads may hamper endpoint security. They could expose your endpoints to viral attacks and even unwanted applications. 

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Takeaway

Proxy servers are now a staple for internal security. Not only are proxies used by individuals looking to ensure online privacy, but they are also beneficial for enterprise users. For instance, software developers can check if an app complies with regional internet rules with the help of a proxy. Penetration testing can show if a hidden vulnerability appears when (seemingly) exploiting an app from a different location. When deployed intelligently, proxy servers can open up new opportunities and optimize the resources needed for frequently accessed web pages. 

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