What Is a Proxy and How Does It Work?

Updated · Aug 30, 2022

If you were ever worried about your privacy online and wanted an additional layer of protection, you might have heard of a proxy server or a virtual private network (VPN).

But what is a proxy, how does it work, and does it bestow greater internet privacy than the VPN?

Keep reading, and you’ll learn all about how to use a proxy server, its types, and more.

What Is a Proxy Server?

By definition, a proxy means an intermediary.

In internet terms, a proxy server acts on your behalf in retrieving the data you desire. Instead of accessing, say, a website directly, you connect to the proxy server of choice, and it connects to the web page you want.

In other words, it “sits” between a user and the internet and provides an additional layer of security.

Proxy servers are used by both individuals and companies. Individuals utilize them to hide their location while watching movies, bypass geolocation restrictions and mask their IP.

When it comes to companies, they use proxies to:

  • Boost security
  • Manage sensitive tasks anonymously
  • Monitor broadband
  • Control employee internet usage

Proxy greatly helps to remain anonymous online.

How Does It Work?

Proxies work by routing your connection through a server that acts as a safeguard between you and the online world.

Normally, every time you connect to the global network, your device reaches out directly to the server you wish to access, retrieving the relevant information, be that a web page or a music video.

In practically all user cases, this connection passes through various agents—intermediary servers, CDNs, DNS servers, etc.—who, automatically and naturally, log in your trace. The information collected includes your IP address at the very least, but quite often it contains other data points as well.

When using a proxy, your internet connection first goes to the proxy server, which begins accessing the online locales you desire to visit on your behalf. The proxy server retrieves the info you wish to access and passes it on to you.

This way, the intermediate parties that facilitate the seamless work of the global network log in data associated with the proxy and not with you, personally.

Neat, eh?

Types of Proxies

Proxies come in many forms, but don’t be confused.

We explain them all below so that you can find the one best suited to your needs.

Traffic-Based Proxies

There are two kinds of traffic-based proxies.

Their main difference is in the type of traffic requests they manage and what they protect – the user or the server.

Forward Proxy

A forward proxy is one of the most commonly used proxies out there, especially for private, casual usage. This online proxy server acts as an intermediary between the user and the internet. The forward proxy operates inline, meaning it’s located in the middle of the traffic flow and shows all changes in real time.

This type of proxy is often used together with a firewall to enhance internal network security. A forward proxy acts on behalf of one client or a group of clients.

Reverse Proxy

A reverse proxy connection does the opposite of the forward proxy—it stands on the server side. It’s an intermediary between the users and the application server.

The reverse proxy server receives a user’s request, analyzes it, and then directs it toward the appropriate app or server.

Reverse proxies act as load balancers by distributing incoming traffic to the appropriate servers within a cloud cluster. As such, they also boost performance and security from a server standpoint.

Just like the forward proxy, the reverse proxy is used with firewalls to help users manage traffic directed to the internal servers.

IP/Location

The IP and location-based proxies include residential, data center, and mobile proxies.

The main differences are listed below.

Residential Proxy

Residential proxies use a real IP address provided by Internet Service Providers (ISP) to homeowners. This type of web proxy server is reliable, in demand, and harder to block than data center ones.

Residential proxies also stand between you and the internet, route your traffic through an intermediary server, and hide your IP. They’re often real mobile and desktop devices used as intermediaries.

Data Center Proxy

On the other hand, data center proxies are a cheaper solution, but they won’t always work as advertised. These proxies aren’t affiliated with the Internet Service Provider (ISP). Instead, they come from a secondary corporation and offer private IP authentication.

Still, since these proxies come from data centers and cloud proxy hosts, they’re used by many users at the same time. As a result, these IP addresses get flagged and blocked, so this type of proxy may become useless.

Mobile Proxy

Since mobile traffic is increasing, mobile proxies are becoming more important. Simply said, a mobile proxy is a smartphone or tablet with mobile data to access the internet.

People use these portable devices to mask the IP address from their mobile phones and/or tablets. Mobile proxies have a real 3G or 4G internet connection; they’re always authentic and provide a real proxy IP address to their user.

On the surface, they look like residential proxies, but how mobile networks are set up grants them greater flexibility.

Service Proxies

Based on the service they provide, there are public, shared, and private proxies.

These are their differences.

Public (Open) Proxy

Public web proxy servers are used by thousands of people at the same time.

Unfortunately, this type of proxies also rarely works well, often crashes, and can’t provide the same reliability as private proxies.

If you decide to use an open proxy, chances are you’ll risk getting your IP and private information exposed.

This can open your network to ID theft and other cyber attacks.

Shared Proxy

Shared proxies are similar to public proxies, but they’re used by a smaller, defined group of people, for example, within a company. Shared proxies are often unused (virgin) before the group of people that gets them and starts using them.

Additionally, shared proxies are more stable than open proxies and are more exclusive than public ones. A shared proxy network is more expensive than the public but more affordable than a private proxy.

Private (Dedicated) Proxy

Finally, there are private or dedicated proxies.

These proxies come with an exclusive unused IP address and are suitable for web and application developers and marketers.

Private proxies are the most expensive type, but they last the longest and give the most value.

They’re also the fastest of the three, as there’s no traffic congestion on the proxy server address.

Anonymous Proxies

When it comes to the level of online anonymity that a proxy provides, there are different kinds of proxies out there.

Let’s see their characteristics.

Anonymous Proxy

This proxy server will hide your IP address and assume the role of the IP address provider instead. This internet proxy server is used for all kinds of online browsing and accelerating data transfer while keeping the user hidden.

Anonymous proxies come with software that will remove your IP address from the page requests and instead show its own. 

Highly Anonymous Proxies

This type of proxy works just like a regular anonymous proxy, but it will also hide its own IP address from the internet. Highly anonymous types of proxies are perfect solutions for circumventing unavailable websites and have the highest security level.

A highly anonymous proxy displays the following message:

REMOTE_ADDR = Proxy IP address, HTTP_VIA = blank, or HTTP_X_FORWARDED_FOR = blank

It means the web server won’t know you’re accessing it via a single IP address.

Elite Proxy

When it comes to an elite proxy, it sends the REMOTE_ADDR header, but all the other headers are empty. This makes you appear as a regular internet user who is not connecting via proxy at all.

However, websites may still detect you as a proxy user, depending on how you set up your elite proxy and what their firewalls are up to.

Transparent Proxy

A transparent proxy is also known as a forced, intercepting, or inline proxy. This type of web server proxies is created to intercept traffic at the network level without any client browser configuration.

They are still located between the user and the internet and are often used to enforce usage policies within an organization or network.

Additionally, transparent proxies are used by the ISPs in some countries to help them save bandwidth time.

Distorting Proxy

When it comes to distorting proxies, they pass along a false IP address instead of your real one. This can help you get around geo-locked content, as your IP can appear to come from a different country.

Still, distorting proxies identify themselves as such, meaning the sites will know you’re using a proxy server.

Rotating Proxy

This type of computer proxy assigns different addresses to each user every time they connect. What’s more, the new address is also different from the IP of a device that was connected beforehand.

The IP rotating feature makes these proxies ideal for high-volume web scraping, as they allow users to return to the same website multiple times without restrictions.

Proxy Protocols

Different proxies utilize different protocols for data transfer. Which one you’ll use depends on the reason you’ll need a proxy in the first place.

HTTP/HTTPS Proxy

This type of proxy IP is used for internet access. HTTP internet proxies use port 80, while HTTPS go through 456. Most people will use HTTP proxies, while HTTPS is more secure and therefore used in payment systems.

SOCKS Proxy

Socket Secure protocol routes the network packets between a client and a server via the proxy. SOCKS proxy IP addresses are usually used for emailing, bypassing web filters, and gaining access to resources.

Its other name is SOCKS5, as this protocol utilizes the fifth layer of the OSI model internet connections use. As such, it can handle a variety of requests. 

SIP Proxy

SIP stands for Session Initiation Protocol. SIP basically has everything you need to make phone calls via the internet—most Voice over IP (VoIP) services use it. SIP connection enables audio and video data transfer, and everyone who connects can participate in the call.

Even though VoIP is the most common SIP technology, the power of SIP goes beyond just phone calls – SIP can also handle instant messaging to video and other types of media.

SMTP Proxy

SMTP proxies are Mail Transfer Agents (MTAs). They’re similar to other types of internet proxies that generate sessions without using the store-and-forward models of MTAs.

The most common use of SMTP proxies is filtering and managing email traffic. Additionally, SMTP proxies don’t store messages, which helps them pass content or reject the SMTP links in real time.

DHCP Proxy

Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) automatically assigns IP addresses to fixed and mobile hosts. The DHCP proxy mode is used for better security and control of the DHCP transactions between the server and clients.

However, the DHCP proxy is not a DHCP relay agent. Instead, it acts as a helper that utilizes some relay features to manage DHCP transactions.

CGI Proxy

CGI proxies are a type of browser proxy service which is easily used online. It opens up a webpage with a search field, where users enter the URL of the website they want to visit.

CGI proxies help people browse the internet anonymously. Plus, they work with HTTP and FTP protocols, and can join multiple proxy servers in a chain. The key difference between CGI and other proxies is the absence of open ports while the application is running.

DNS Proxy

The Domain Name System (DNS) type of proxy is used for managing queries and forwarding requests to a specific server. They store clients’ queries in the device, which speeds up the traffic connection for repeated searches.

DNS proxies reduce network latency and help users obtain fast responses. Plus, the benefits of such proxy server include keeping the network secure by hiding the network details when an attacker wants to obtain internal IP addresses.

SMART DNS Proxy

SMART DNS proxies are used to bypass geo-restricted websites and services.

This type of proxy directs a part of your DNS queries to its servers. SMART DNS proxies are ideal for avoiding lags.

This proxy doesn’t affect your device’s traffic and doesn’t mask your IP, but you can still use it like any other type of proxy to browse the internet.

Proxy vs VPN

When comparing proxy services and VPNs, one key difference is that proxies mask your IP, while the VPN encrypts your data and secures your network traffic. 

Additionally, VPN services are a more secure and robust solution to keeping your online presence private since they establish a secure tunnel to browse online.

VPNs come with more features but also cost more than proxies.

The Benefits of a Proxy

There are many benefits of proxy services that may help you decide on using a proxy instead of a VPN. Check them out below.

  • Security - Proxy security levels are great when configured correctly, especially to block malicious websites.
  • Partial Privacy - One of the best benefits of using a proxy is having your IP hidden while browsing the web.
  • Access Geo-Locked Content - With the right configuration, proxy users can easily access geo-blocked sites. 
  • Loads a web page faster - Proxies can speed up data transmission. 
  • Has multiple commercial uses - Website proxies often utilize firewalls and filters, which makes them suitable for commercial use.

The Risks of a Proxy

Besides the many proxy server benefits, there are some risks you should be aware of. For example, it lacks the encryption that VPN offers.

  • Lacks Encryption - Proxy services only mask the user’s IP address and don’t encrypt the data that gets transferred online.
  • Open Ports - Using proxies can result in open connectivity ports. 
  • Requires manual configuration - Some proxy services may be hard to set up for people who are not tech-savvy. 

Wrap Up

Proxy services are an ideal way to procure a more secure online presence.

The proxy server stands between you and the internet and masks your IP, allowing you to browse the internet safely. Proxy server use also grants protection from cyber attacks.

What’s more, there are many kinds of proxies, and they all serve different purposes. Some can even be used by organizations to manage files or make phone calls, while others belong only to one user and keep them protected.

Still, proxies are different from VPNs in terms of functionality, ease of use, configuration, and types.

All the same, proxies are a good choice if you’re looking to explore the online world anonymously.

FAQ
What does a proxy do?

The proxy server acts as an intermediary between the internet user and the internet. It creates a gateway through which the user can browse the Web without revealing their IP address. The proxy, therefore, improves the user’s internet privacy.

Do I need a proxy server at home?

If you often find yourself unable to see certain websites or wish to browse the internet anonymously, then you should get a proxy server. There are many types of proxy servers, and you should pick the one that fits your budget and needs.

Why would a hacker use a proxy server?

Hackers often need to remain anonymous online. This is why they may use a proxy server, as some of the best proxies help mask their IP and hide malicious activity on the network.

Is VPN better than proxy?

VPN and proxy have many differences, but overall, using a VPN is a safer choice. VPNs encrypt the transferred data, often are easier to use, and are more customizable. With VPN, you won’t have to wonder “what is a proxy” and whether you need it. On the downside, VPNs are costlier.

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Nick Galov
Nick Galov

Unaware that life beyond the internet exists, Nick is poking servers and control panels, playing with WordPress add-ons, and helping people get the hosting that suits them.