You use the internet every day, but you likely don’t think about what it takes for you to visit your favorite websites, check sports scores and watch movies. The internet is a complex network made of many individual parts that work together to get you online. One of the key pieces of the puzzle is a proxy server. While you likely use a proxy server all the time, you may not know what it is and you may be wondering “what is a proxy server?”

What is a proxy server?

In the simplest of terms, a proxy server is a “middleman” between you and the websites you visit. In more technical terms, it is an intermediary server that separates you, as the end user, to the internet. Not proxy servers are equal, and the level of functionality, security, and privacy in each proxy is dependent on various factors, which include your use case or your company’s policies if you’re browsing on hardware issued by your employer.

When there’s not a proxy server in use, traffic flows directly from your internet device to the websites you visit. With a proxy server, the traffic goes from your device to the proxy before going to your requested URL. The site then sends the data to the proxy, which is forwarded from the proxy to you.

What are the different types of proxy servers?

There are several types of proxy servers, each of which has a specific purpose. Among the different proxy servers are:

  • A SSL, or secure sockets layer, proxy is a protocol that is used to protect your data during transmission, such as when you make a transaction when making an online purchase.
  • A FTP, or file transfer protocol, proxy is used when you’re uploading data to a server, such as when you upload your pictures to the cloud or add music files to online music services. A FTP proxy can offer enhanced security for your uploaded files.
  • A HTTP, or hypertext transfer protocol, proxy caches web pages and files so that you can access them faster on sites that you visit frequently. But if the cache builds up too much, it can ultimately slow down your browsing so it is recommended that you clear your cache on a regular basis.
  • A SOCKS proxy is different than the other types because it is an application that establishes a connection through the exchange of messages. The requests from a SOCKS proxy originate from a firewall.
  • An anonymous proxy provides privacy while browsing the internet by hiding your IP address from sites and other sources that are looking to find out information about you for targeted advertising and other uses. Some anonymous proxies are more effective than others, which is likely tied to the fact that some are free to use while others charge a fee.

How do proxy servers work?

Every device that accesses the internet has an IP address, which is a unique identifier tied to that specific device. A proxy server is acting as a computer in a way and thus has its own IP address as well. When the proxy receives your address, it can make changes to it — such as masking your IP address to hide your identity and location — before sending your request onto your requested website. It can also encrypt your data to make it unreadable and can block access to certain websites, which is most often utilized in a corporate or school environment to make sure employees or students can’t access questionable or illegal sites. And all of this is done virtually instantaneously so that there is minimal delay in your Internet speed when using a proxy server.

Why should you use a proxy server?

There are different reasons why people may choose to use a proxy, and they vary depending on conditions that include whether it’s a personal device, a public device or a device that’s part of a larger network. Some reasons to use a proxy include:

  • Control other people’s usage: Whether you’re a parent with kids in the house or run a corporate network, you can use a proxy server to limit the websites that other people on your network can access. If you don’t want them to access adult content or illegal sites, for example, you can set the proxy to restrict access to specific sites of your choosing.
  • Save on bandwidth and improve speeds: Using an HTTP proxy that can cache data can save on your network’s bandwidth usage by only having to request information from a frequently accessed site once for multiple users, and it can speed up the network by taking advantage of the cached data to access sites more quickly.
  • Privacy and security: Proxies can improve your online privacy by changing your IP address, and it provides an extra layer of security by encrypting your data requests and by preventing known malware sites from gaining access to your proxy.

What are the risks of using a proxy server?

Like with most things in life, the benefits of using proxy servers can be somewhat mitigated by the risks involved. The biggest risk comes from using a free proxy because, as the cliche says, you get what you pay for. Free proxy servers often don’t invest as much in their hardware or encryption services as paid proxy services do. That can result in performance issues or, a bigger issue, potential data security risks. And if you’re using a proxy with little or no encryption, you won’t be getting the majority of the benefits that proxy servers should be giving you under ideal circumstances.

Are proxy servers legal?

Are proxies legal? Yes, but they can also be used for illegal practices, such as illegally downloading copyrighted material so some uses of proxy servers aren’t allowed under the laws of certain countries. But as long as you stick to the accepted uses of proxies, you can use them.

Is VPN a proxy?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is not a proxy. They are similar in that both technologies hide your IP address, but there are key differences between the two. While a proxy serves as the middleman between your device and the sites you visit for a single application, such as your web browser, a VPN is set up at the operating system level so it can capture the traffic being sent by all the applications on your device, from your browser to your streaming music and video services and your online games — and everything else on your device. So instead of a proxy protecting whatever application it’s attached to, a VPN protects everything on your device that you use for your online activity. Like with proxies, there are free and paid VPNs, and the level of protection and security you get varies depending on the VPN you use.

Conclusions

So if you’re looking to keep your information secure when you’re browsing the internet, a VPN is the way to go because whenever you go online on your device, you will be protected because the VPN works with every application on your device, not specific applications as is the case when using a proxy server. Even though VPNs and proxies serve similar functions, they are very different when you look at the details of how they work and VPNs are better if you’re looking for the best privacy and security you can get while online.

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