Within the world of corporate networking, proxy servers play a very important role. In fact, most businesses accept the need for a proxy as a matter of course, and use one without any hesitation whatsoever.
Outside of major corporations, though, the use of proxy servers isn’t quite as much of a given, and some might question the need to go to the trouble of installing one. Some of this hesitation stems from a lack of understanding of what a proxy server actually is and how it can actually benefit a business. To help with the decision, we’ve put together a simple guide to understanding the basics of proxy servers – and what you should know before you move forward.
What Is a Proxy Server?
For starters, let’s define proxy server. In the simplest terms, a proxy server is a “middleman” between you (meaning your computer or mobile device) and the internet. When you send a request to the internet, such as a command to visit your favorite website, that request is sent to the proxy, which in turn makes the request from that site. The page you requested is then returned to the proxy, which displays it on your screen. Of course, this (usually) happens in a fraction of a second, so you aren’t even aware of the intermediate server.
Virtual private networks (VPN) are also an example of a proxy. These are especially common among those who travel a great deal for business. Instead of logging on to a company network using the internet from a hotel or conference center, which is vulnerable to hacking or spying, you might use a VPN to create a secure, private connection from your device to the home office; that connection is with a dedicated VPN server, which then handles your web inquiries on your behalf. This helps keep your work resources safe from prying eyes – or any other number of malicious attacks that could cause serious problems for your company.
The Many Benefits of a Proxy Server
One of the most common reasons that proxy servers are enabled – and there are even free proxy server options you can easily access and install – is to maintain privacy. When you send web queries through a proxy, the receiving website sees the request as coming from the proxy, not you. While some use this option for nefarious purposes (such as accessing streaming content from unauthorized regions) many businesses prefer this anonymity as a form of security. In fact, security is another major reason for the popularity of proxies. A proxy can be set to block access to malicious websites, prevent websites from installing cookies on your computer, and encrypt data coming to and from the server.
Many businesses also use proxies to control internet usage among employees. Because a proxy server can cache commonly visited pages, block malicious traffic, and prevent traffic to prohibited sites, it can preserve bandwidth. In addition, proxy logs, when used in conjunction with clear internet policies, can help with the enforcement of internet usage policies and identifying issues.
The Drawbacks to a Proxy
For all of the benefits of a proxy server, there are some limitations. Some have reported some slowdowns when using a proxy, since internet traffic must make the extra stops when sending and receiving data. In addition, there is a certain element of trust required when you use a proxy, since the proxy needs to decrypt any traffic send to and from your network, and knows what you are sending and from where. And of course, a proxy does not replace a firewall or any other security protocol.
A Few Things to Consider
A proxy server is a useful tool for protecting your network and your internet data, but you need to be aware of some important points while you select your proxy. Most importantly, because the proxy server is exposed to the internet and is also an important part of your network, it is vitally important that you know how to manage and configure the proxy to reduce risk, and ensure that the server is as secure and protected as possible.
In addition, depending on the complexity of your network and your risk tolerance, you may be better off choosing a more robust proxy that will integrate with your other hardware, than choosing a common open source product. For most individuals and some small businesses, though, an open source proxy service is perfectly adequate. In any case, for a greater degree of privacy and protection, a proxy is a worthwhile investment.