Simple Questions: What is a proxy server and what does it mean?

If you have worked in a corporate network, you have probably encountered the term proxy server, and you know that without one you cannot access websites and services outside the company's network. However, what exactly are these proxy servers? Should you use one at home? Read this guide to learn why proxy servers are necessary and when you should use a proxy:

NOTE: There are many types of proxy servers that do all kinds of things. In this article, we refer to the most common type - web proxies that facilitate access to the content and services found on the internet.

What is a proxy? What does proxy server mean?

A proxy server is an intermediary between your PC or device and the internet. This server makes requests to websites, servers and services on the internet for you. A concept related and sometimes used together with a proxy server is VPN (Virtual Private Network). Read When to use a proxy and when to use a VPN? to understand the difference.

Let's assume that you are at work. You are using a web browser to visit www.digitalcitizen.life and your browser is set to use a proxy server. After you type www.digitalcitizen.life, the request is sent to the proxy server. The proxy server then sends the request to the server where our website is hosted. The homepage of our website is returned to the proxy server which, in turn, returns it to you. As a result, our website sees the proxy server as the actual visitor, rather than seeing your computer. This exchange of information is illustrated in the image below with the search for an answer to a simple question: what is the current time?

How a proxy server serves our site to a user

Now that you know the basics, let's see the benefits you get by using a proxy server.

What is a proxy server used for?

The concept of the proxy server offers a surprisingly large number of advantages:

  • Control internet usage in corporate networks
  • Bandwidth savings for large networks
  • Improved speed
  • Privacy
  • Security
  • Bypass censorship

Let's take these benefits one by one and clarify how they can work for you.

Control internet usage using proxy servers

One of the most important reasons why proxies are widely used in corporate networks is that they provide control over what employees are accessing and using on the internet. For example, many companies ban certain websites so that employees do not access them during work hours. For example, they may ban adult websites, popular social networks or time-wasting websites like 9gag.com.

Forcing employees to access the internet only through your company's proxy also means that you have detailed logs of all the websites and content that they accessed, when, and for how long. Detailed usage reports are available about each employee, and the company can quickly identify misbehaving users.

Bandwidth savings and improved speed when using a proxy server

Another reason why companies use proxy servers is that it helps them save precious bandwidth. Proxy servers can compress traffic, cache files and web pages from the internet and even strip ads from websites before they reach your computer. It allows companies to save bandwidth, especially when they have hundreds or thousands of employees, accessing mostly the same popular websites (e.g., CNN, New York Times, Wikipedia, etc).

Bandwidth usage

When a web page is accessed, a proxy server can store it and, when the next person requests it, it first checks if the page has changed. If it has not changed, it forwards the local copy without re-downloading the whole page. This both saves bandwidth for the company and makes the loading process faster for the next person that requests the same resource.

Privacy benefits: hide your IP address, location, and other information

When you have a direct connection to the internet, and you load a website, the server where it is hosted can see your IP address. With the help of this address, it can approximate your geographical location. Also, the browser sends its user agent information, and the website knows what browser you are using. On top of this, cookies are stored on your computer, and they provide further personal information.

Private Browsing

Proxy servers can hide your IP address (if they are set to do this), can send a different user agent so that your browser is not identified and can block cookies or accept them but not pass them to your PC or device. Therefore, when using a proxy server, you can be more anonymous than when using a direct connection to the internet.

Proxy servers can improve security

Proxy servers may also have a role in improving security, especially when used in business networks. They can be set to block access to malicious websites that distribute malware, and they can also provide encryption services so that your data is not easily sniffed by third-parties that want to get their hands on it.

Blocking unsafe sites through the proxy server

Proxy servers may provide access to blocked resources on the web

A popular use for proxy servers is the bypassing of internet censorship. For example, countries like China or Iran censor access to many websites and services on the internet. Users in those countries can use proxy servers to circumvent this censorship and get access to them.

Also, there are services which are available only in specific countries. For example, Hulu works only for users based in the US and Japan. People in Europe can use a proxy server based in the US to access it.

Should I use a proxy server? Possible security problems generated by proxy servers.

Using proxy servers is not all about benefits and good stuff. They can pose problems like:

  • When using unencrypted connections, the proxy server can alter the responses you receive, both in good and bad ways. For example, an infected or malicious proxy server can be used to load malware into your browser or redirect you to a phishing website.
  • A proxy can alter the requests you make to a website or service on the internet to generate results that meet someone else's intentions.
  • A proxy server monitors and logs your activity. Therefore, it stores lots of information about you that can be used for identification at a later date.
  • Depending on how it was configured, a proxy server can provide unencrypted data where encrypted data was previously provided by the website or service you are using. It can expose you to network sniffing and having others monitor what you are doing on the internet.

How to use a proxy server on your computers and devices

It is easy to configure the use of a proxy server in all the major operating systems: Windows, Android, iOS, and so on. If you decide to set up a proxy server, see our tutorials for assistance:

What is your reason for looking for a proxy server solution?

As you can see, proxy servers can be great, and they can also be a problem. It all depends on how they are configured, how they are secured and by whom they administered. A proxy server may provide all the benefits mentioned above or none of them. It all depends on how it was set up and why. Before using a proxy server, it is important to understand why you are using it, who controls the proxy server and whether it is administered by a trusted party. Be wary of public proxy servers of which you know next to nothing. Some public proxies can be used for malicious purposes, and they can expose you to problems instead of providing benefits. If you any questions or experiences with proxies that are worth sharing, do not hesitate to leave a comment below.