How do proxy servers work? What can you use them for?
The notion of proxy or proxy server has probably been common to all of us, whether in the settings of a web browser, email client or computer. In this article we will look at what a proxy is, how to use it and whether it is worth doing it at all.
What is a proxy server and what is it for?
The English phrase "proxy" means a proxy in Polish. This is what a proxy server is - a proxy between us, the users, and the target server we want to contact. It works both ways, i.e. it concerns both incoming and outgoing calls, blocking direct connection with the server. However, the intermediary is unequal - there are different types of proxy servers that differ in what data they send to the target server, and which they hide or swap.
What are proxy servers for? They have a number of different uses, such as:
- Hiding your location and other data
- ensuring protection against cyber-attacks
- speeding up the loading of websites
- Blocking access to certain sites (e.g., on company computers).
Proxy servers (although not all of the things that will be discussed further in this article) hide your location by "swapping" your IP address for your own, and it's this fake address that the server you've connected to will save in its logs. Depending on the type of proxy, the proxy will either knowingly change it or not notice it. By not sharing your IP address with random sites on the Internet, we minimize the risk of someone finding it and wanting to launch a cyber attack against us.
An important function of the proxy is also to cache web pages, by making a copy of them the first time you visit the site, and then loading them the next time you visit. This means that we do not have to download new data every time we visit the site and can see the content we are interested in faster.
As mentioned above, a proxy server can filter both inbound and outbound traffic, for example by blocking some sites. What does this mean in practice? For example, you can block social media on your company's computers, and block inappropriate sites on your child's computer.
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The most important types of proxy servers
There are a lot of types of proxy servers and a lot depends on how much you want to group them. For example, you can divide proxy servers according to how many users they support - there are those that support only one, but there are also intermediaries shared between many different users. However, the most important feature that distinguishes most types of proxy servers is the level of security and anonymity they provide. In this respect we can speak of a proxy:
A transparent proxy server will come in handy when our goal is not to protect your privacy at all, but simply to speed up caching. Thanks to such a proxy, the first time you visit a given page, it will create a copy of it, and the next time you visit it, it will load it, thus reducing your waiting time. Importantly, the transparent proxy does not hide any of our data, such as the IP address. Instead, it can bypass blocking access to content.
Anonymous proxy is a frequent choice for users who want to keep their privacy online. It makes us safer and harder to locate, while an anonymous proxy masks our real IP, but lets you know that the connection is filtered by the proxy. The other party does not know our real location, but knows that we are hiding it.
Highly anonymous proxies
As you can easily guess, there is no such problem with a high anonymity proxy. Thanks to the modification of HTTP headers it is able to convince the server you want to connect to, that the changed IP address is the real one and does not reveal that you are using such a service.
It is worth mentioning that proxy is not exactly the same as VPN. More specifically, a VPN is only one of the proxy subtypes, so characteristic and different that these terms are not used as identical. A VPN is more flexible, secure and robust, but it is also generally more expensive than a simple proxy, which generally does not require the download of additional programs, but only the addition of server data. If you just want to load websites faster or access blocked sites, a proxy may be sufficient, but for privacy and security maniacs on the Internet, a VPN is usually a better choice.
How do I use a proxy?
Using a proxy server requires some configuration, but fortunately this is a relatively easy process to follow. All you have to do is enter the settings of your web browser, mail client, system or any other place where you want to use a proxy and locate the possibility of using a proxy. Then we will be required to provide two basic data: a false IP address and a server port.
We can't just enter anything in these places, because of course the proxy won't work in this case. The above data can be found on the Internet, both for free and for a fee. The individual proxy servers will differ mainly in anonymity, speed and access time. Free proxies will, of course, usually be less secure and slower than the ones you choose to pay for (although paid proxies also sometimes turn out to be false and not as expected).
Is it worth using a proxy server?
Proxies, like basically everything in this world, have their advantages and disadvantages. It is relatively easy to use (as long as we follow the instructions - by digging through the settings yourself we can easily break something), and at the same time it increases our security, improves the speed of loading websites, and even allows you to block websites that you wouldn't want your computer user to visit.
The downside is that, unlike a VPN that "masks" all our network traffic, a proxy may need to be set for each application separately. In addition, proxy servers are subject to delays or instability, which can be an occasional annoyance, depending on whether you are using a random, free, publicly available proxy or a premium service.
Given the above, there's really no particular reason not to use a proxy, either if you want to speed up the loading of pages or to take care of your privacy (although in the latter case a VPN may be a better option). So it's worth taking an interest in this solution.
Do you use a proxy or a VPN? Or do you think that such solutions are completely unnecessary to you?