We have a Jeopardy! question for you. The category, “Computers and the Internet.” The stakes, Daily Double. The question: “In computer networking, these server applications act as an intermediary for requests from clients seeking resources from servers that provide them.”
The answer: What are proxies?
If you couldn’t come up with that answer, don’t worry, you aren’t out anything. Even better, you’ve come to the right place to clear up any confusion you have on just what is a proxy. We’ve not only covered a wide range of questions dealing with what proxies are, but also provide you with some common-sense, expert-proven advice to make you feel confident about any related decisions you need to make about them.
If you know proxies pretty well already and you’re just here for a quick refresher, go ahead and use our table of contents to find the information you’re most curious about. For everyone else, let’s get started.
Table of Contents
What Are Proxies?
We’ve written on the importance of using proxies for your business and within your daily internet activity before. Just in case you’re in need of a refresher or if you’ve never actually had a proxy explained to you, however, let us answer the “What are proxies” question.
Proxy servers are intermediary servers which separate end users from the websites they browse.
That is to say, they are a ‘gateway’ or secondary computer through which all your online requests first pass through on their way to retrieving the website or file you’re searching for. The proxy intercepts these requests and makes them on behalf of your computer, in most cases either drawing responses from its local cache or forwarding the request to the desired site server. Once the request is satisfied, the proxy will then return the data back to you.
An even easier way to understand how a proxy functions is to compare it to ordering food at a restaurant. When you eat out at a café or restaurant, you don’t place your order directly with the chef. You instead give your food request to a member of the wait staff who then passes your order along to the cooks in the kitchen. When your food is done, that same waiter or waitress delivers it to you at your table to enjoy. The chef, much like a website, never sees who is placing the orders, only the wait staff—or proxies—handing her the order tickets. In this way you remain anonymous to everyone but your waiter even as your order is fulfilled.
How proxies work
Unsurprisingly, anonymity is one of the primary reasons people use proxies in the first place. That’s because a key function of a proxy involves how it handles IP addresses. Your IP address is how the internet or an internal network recognizes your computer. Similar to the post office using your home address in order to forward your mail, the internet uses your IP address to send the correct data to the correct computer which requested it. Each time you make a request, therefore, your computer shares your IP address so that the website knows where to send the data.
Using a proxy is a bit different. Since a proxy makes requests on behalf of your computer, instead of sharing your computer’s IP address it shares its own. This not only keeps your identity hidden from the network, but also provides you several advantages when it comes to browsing privately. Some of the other reasons beyond greater privacy people use proxies include greater security, faster performance speeds, building and bypassing content restrictions, and avoiding detection when performing competitor research.
Let’s provide an proxy example.
You’re traveling on business from New York to London. While there, you want to unwind at the end of the day by catching up on your favorite television series. Unfortunately, you don’t have access to the streaming service because of content restrictions in London. By connecting to a proxy server in New York you appear as if you’re trying to watch in New York—not London—and the streaming service will allow you to binge watch even while you’re across the pond.
Are Proxies Safe?
As prominent as proxies are in today’s online environment, concerns surrounding their safety are still widespread and one of the main reasons many people are so hesitant to use them. Although it would be easy to say, yes, proxies are safe—use them!—the more accurate answer is that certain proxies are safe.
In general, there are two main types of proxy servers:
- Shared proxies: servers in which clients share server resources and information such as speed, bandwidth, and IP addresses with multiple other clients, which are sometimes limited by the server administrator; typically—though not exclusively—free and open for public use
- Dedicated proxies: servers in which a single client has sole access to the server’s resources and functionality; almost always a paid-for service offered through reputable providers
As any wise man will tell you, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” In other words, stay away from free proxies. These public servers not only suffer from unlimited users drawing upon their limited resources, creating sloth-speed load times and connectivity less reliable than the Smuntz brothers’ cleverness in Mouse Hunt, but they’re ideal hunting grounds for hackers and scam artists who’d readily prey upon your sensitive information the moment you connected to them. Even when a server administrator limits the number of people that can access a specific server, as with semi-dedicated proxies, sharing a proxy’s resources and identity can still lead to unforeseen headaches as the proxy’s IP address is associated with every user’s activity—not just your own.
Dedicated proxy servers are the only option that allows you complete control and access to the proxy while also receiving greater security, faster speeds, and total anonymity while browsing. The best part? It won’t even cost you that much to buy them.
Different Types of Proxies
Regardless of your decision to use public or private proxies, proxy servers are classified into several types based on purpose and functionality. Some of the most common types and their uses are described below:
The most common type of proxy application, web proxies respond to the user requests by accessing resources from cached web pages and files available on remote web servers.
Caching files and previously visited websites means clients requests for these same files are fulfilled much quicker and reliably. If the requested resource is not found in the cache, then a web proxy fetches the file from the remote server and saves a copy in the cache before returning it to the client.
Residential proxies are servers that are associated to a physical address. They are hard to detect as a proxy by websites and therefore, if not abused, rarely banned by networks. Because they are attached to real locations, these proxies help clients to bypass geo-blocked content or website cloaking—the process of sites to provide false data to clients accessing the site.
Data center proxies
Unlike residential proxies, data center proxies have no physical IP address. Instead, the IP address is artificially created by the data center network. The proxy will also share the data center’s IP sub-network, meaning all these proxies will look very similar which increases the likelihood of identification by website restrictions and IP bans. However, because of the data center’s enviable network connection, these proxies provide some of the fastest speeds.
Transparent proxies are most often used today in authenticating your device’s internet connection on public Wi-fi networks or other servers. As their name suggests, these proxies are transparent, meaning they do not hide your identity or afford any additional protections from the network you’re accessing.
These proxy servers forward a user’s request without providing any identifying information about the user. This provides users with much needed anonymity and therefore freedom while browsing.
These proxies are servers that assign a new IP address for every web connection. Since the changes to IP addresses are randomly made, this allows for greater anonymity and security, particularly when utilizing a large proxy pool. The continuous identity shifting functionality—i.e. a script accessing 10,000 web pages returns 10,000 IP addresses—means these proxies are ideal for performing sensitive web activity such as web scraping, data mining, and competitor research.
This list of course is not exhaustive of the different types of proxies, and there are many other specialized proxies for niche applications. In general, however, the above types are the most widely used and supported.
Proxy Server FAQs
What are proxies?
Proxy servers are intermediary servers which separate end users from the websites they browse, acting as a ‘gateway’ through which all user requests first pass through on their way to retrieving the desired web page or file.
How do proxies work?
Proxies work by making internet requests on behalf of an end user’s device and swap out swap out a user’s home IP address for the proxy server’s IP address to help mask where the requests originated from. This provides the user with several advantages while browsing including added privacy, enhanced security, faster performance, and greater access to restricted content.
What is a proxy IP address?
A proxy IP address is the IP address provided to a website by the proxy server in place of a user’s own computer IP address.
Your proxy IP address can be found by accessing your “Internet Options” from your Control Panel on your PC. From there, select the “Connections” tab and click on the “LAN Settings” button, under which your proxy information will be detailed.
Are proxies safe?
Proxies are only as safe as the type you choose to use. You should never use free or public proxies, as these are often used by hackers and scammers to steal your personal information. Using dedicated private proxies ensures you have optimal security, server support, and data encryption to guarantee safe browsing.
Is my identity hidden when using a proxy?
Yes, in most cases your identity is hidden while using a proxy, though it does depend on the type of proxy you’re using. Most proxies function by substituting their IP address for your home IP address so websites or other users cannot identify you. Some proxies, such as transparent proxies, do not keep your identity anonymous, however.
We hope this article has shed some light on the common practice of using proxies. Proxy servers are incredible tools to manage your online activity whether you’re a business administrator or a private browser. The key is understanding which type of proxy is best for you and also remembering to pay for dedicated proxies instead of falling for the enticing option of free ones. Following that advice and our information provided here will ensure you never draw a blank on “What are proxies” again.
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