What is a Proxy Server and How Does it Work? – Varonis
The actual nuts and bolts of how the internet works are not something people often stop to consider. The problem with that is the inherent danger of data security breaches and identity theft that come along with the cute dog pictures, 24-hour news updates, and great deals online.
But what actually happens when you browse the web? You might be using a proxy server at your office, on a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or you could be one of the more tech-savvy who always use a proxy server of some kind or another.
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What’s a Proxy Server?
A proxy server is any machine that translates traffic between networks or protocols. It’s an intermediary server separating end-user clients from the destinations that they browse. Proxy servers provide varying levels of functionality, security, and privacy depending on your use case, needs, or company policy.
If you’re using a proxy server, traffic flows through the proxy server on its way to the address you requested. The request then comes back through that same proxy server (there are exceptions to this rule), and then the proxy server forwards the data received from the website to you.
If that’s all it does, why bother with a proxy server? Why not just go straight from to the website and back?
Modern proxy servers do much more than forward web requests, all in the name of data security and network performance. Proxy servers act as a firewall and web filter, provide shared network connections, and cache data to speed up common requests. A good proxy server keeps users and the internal network protected from the bad stuff that lives out in the wild internet. Lastly, proxy servers can provide a high level of privacy.
How Does a Proxy Server Operate?
Every computer on the internet needs to have a unique Internet Protocol (IP) Address. Think of this IP address as your computer’s street address. Just as the post office knows to deliver your mail to your street address, the internet knows how to send the correct data to the correct computer by the IP address.
A proxy server is basically a computer on the internet with its own IP address that your computer knows. When you send a web request, your request goes to the proxy server first. The proxy server then makes your web request on your behalf, collects the response from the web server, and forwards you the web page data so you can see the page in your browser.
When the proxy server forwards your web requests, it can make changes to the data you send and still get you the information that you expect to see. A proxy server can change your IP address, so the web server doesn’t know exactly where you are in the world. It can encrypt your data, so your data is unreadable in transit. And lastly, a proxy server can block access to certain web pages, based on IP address.
What are Forward Proxies
A forward proxy server sits between the client and an external network. It evaluates the outbound requests and takes action on them before relaying that request to the external resource.
Most proxy services that you’re likely to encounter are forward proxies. Virtual Private Networks and Web content filters are both examples of forward proxies.
What are Reverse Proxies
A reverse proxy server sits between a network and multiple other internal resources. A large website might have dozens of servers that collectively serve requests from a single domain. To accomplish that, client requests would resolve to a machine that would act as a load balancer. The load balancer would then proxy that traffic back to the individual servers.
Some popular open source reverse proxies are:
Why Should You Use a Proxy Server?
There are several reasons organizations and individuals use a proxy server.
To control internet usage of employees and children: Organizations and parents set up proxy servers to control and monitor how their employees or kids use the internet. Most organizations don’t want you looking at specific websites on company time, and they can configure the proxy server to deny access to specific sites, instead redirecting you with a nice note asking you to refrain from looking at said sites on the company network. They can also monitor and log all web requests, so even though they might not block the site, they know how much time you spend cyberloafing.
Bandwidth savings and improved speeds: Organizations can also get better overall network performance with a good proxy server. Proxy servers can cache (save a copy of the website locally) popular websites – so when you ask for, the proxy server will check to see if it has the most recent copy of the site, and then send you the saved copy. What this means is that when hundreds of people hit at the same time from the same proxy server, the proxy server only sends one request to This saves bandwidth for the company and improves the network performance.
Privacy benefits: Individuals and organizations alike use proxy servers to browse the internet more privately. Some proxy servers will change the IP address and other identifying information the web request contains. This means the destination server doesn’t know who actually made the original request, which helps keeps your personal information and browsing habits more private.
Improved security: Proxy servers provide security benefits on top of the privacy benefits. You can configure your proxy server to encrypt your web requests to keep prying eyes from reading your transactions. You can also prevent known malware sites from any access through the proxy server. Additionally, organizations can couple their proxy server with a Virtual Private Network (VPN), so remote users always access the internet through the company proxy. A VPN is a direct connection to the company network that companies provide to external or remote users. By using a VPN, the company can control and verify that their users have access to the resources (email, internal data) they need, while also providing a secure connection for the user to protect the company data.
Get access to blocked resources: Proxy servers allow users to circumvent content restrictions imposed by companies or governments. Is the local sportsball team’s game blacked out online? Log into a proxy server on the other side of the country and watch from there. The proxy server makes it look like you are in California, but you actually live in North Carolina. Several governments around the world closely monitor and restrict access to the internet, and proxy servers offer their citizens access to an uncensored internet.
Now that you have an idea about why organizations and individuals use a proxy server, take a look at the risks below.
Proxy Server Risks
You do need to be cautious when you choose a proxy server: a few common risks can negate any of the potential benefits:
Free proxy server risks
You know the old saying “you get what you pay for? ” Well, using one of the many free proxy server services can be quite risky, even the services using ad-based revenue models.
Free usually means they aren’t investing heavily in backend hardware or encryption. You’ll likely see performance issues and potential data security issues. If you ever find a completely “free” proxy server, tread very carefully. Some of those are just looking to steal your credit card numbers.
Browsing history log
The proxy server has your original IP address and web request information possibly unencrypted, saved locally. Make sure to check if your proxy server logs and saves that data – and what kind of retention or law enforcement cooperation policies they follow.
If you expect to use a proxy server for privacy, but the vendor is just logging and selling your data you might not be receiving the expected value for the service.
If you use a proxy server without encryption, you might as well not use a proxy server. No encryption means you are sending your requests as plain text. Anyone who is listening will be able to pull usernames and passwords and account information really easily. Make sure whatever proxy server you use provides full encryption capability.
Types of Proxy Servers
Not all proxy servers work the same way. It’s important to understand exactly what functionality you’re getting from the proxy server, and ensure that the proxy server meets your use case.
A transparent proxy tells websites that it is a proxy server and it will still pass along your IP address, identifying you to the web server. Businesses, public libraries, and schools often use transparent proxies for content filtering: they’re easy to set up both client and server side.
An anonymous proxy will identify itself as a proxy, but it won’t pass your IP address to the website – this helps prevent identity theft and keep your browsing habits private. They can also prevent a website from serving you targeted marketing content based on your location. For example, if knows you live in Raleigh, NC, they will show you news stories they feel are relevant to Raleigh, NC. Browsing anonymously will prevent a website from using some ad targeting techniques, but is not a 100% guarantee.
A distorting proxy server passes along a false IP address for you while identifying itself as a proxy. This serves similar purposes as the anonymous proxy, but by passing a false IP address, you can appear to be from a different location to get around content restrictions.
High Anonymity proxy
High Anonymity proxy servers periodically change the IP address they present to the web server, making it very difficult to keep track of what traffic belongs to who. High anonymity proxies, like the TOR Network, is the most private and secure way to read the internet.
Proxy servers are a hot item in the news these days with the controversies around Net Neutrality and censorship. By removing net neutrality protections in the United States, Internet Service Providers (ISP) are now able to control your bandwidth and internet traffic. ISPs can potentially tell you what sites you can and cannot see. While there’s a great amount of uncertainty around what is going to happen with Net Neutrality, it’s possible that proxy servers will provide some ability to work around an ISPs restrictions.
Varonis analyzes data from proxy servers to protect you from data breaches and cyber attacks. The addition of proxy data gives more context to better analyze user behavior trends for abnormalities. You can get an alert on that suspicious activity with actionable intelligence to investigate and deal with the incident.
For example, a user accessing GDPR data might not be significant on its own. But if they access GDPR data and then try to upload it to an external website, it could be an exfiltration attempt and potential data breach. Without the context provided by file system monitoring, proxy monitoring, and Varonis threat models, you might see these events in a vacuum and not realize you need to prevent a data breach.
Get a 1:1 demo to see these threat models in action – and see what your proxy data could be telling you.
About proxy servers – Indiana University Knowledge Base
A proxy server, also known as a “proxy” or “application-level gateway”, is a computer that acts as a gateway between a local network (for example, all the computers at one company or in one building) and a larger-scale network such as the internet. Proxy servers provide increased performance and security. In some cases, they monitor employees’ use of outside resources.
A proxy server works by intercepting connections between sender and receiver. All incoming data enters through one port and is forwarded to the rest of the network via another port. By blocking direct access between two networks, proxy servers make it much more difficult for hackers to get internal addresses and details of a private network.
Some proxy servers are a group of applications or servers that block common internet services. For example, an HTTP proxy intercepts web access, and an SMTP proxy intercepts email. A proxy server uses a network addressing scheme to present one organization-wide IP address to the internet. The server funnels all user requests to the internet and returns responses to the appropriate users. In addition to restricting access from outside, this mechanism can prevent inside users from reaching specific internet resources (for example, certain websites). A proxy server can also be one of the components of a firewall.
Proxies may also cache web pages. Each time an internal user requests a URL from outside, a temporary copy is stored locally. The next time an internal user requests the same URL, the proxy can serve the local copy instead of retrieving the original across the network, improving performance.
Do not confuse a proxy server with a
NAT (Network Address Translation) device. A proxy server connects to, responds to, and receives traffic from the internet, acting on behalf of the client computer, while a NAT device transparently changes the origination address of traffic coming through it before passing it to the internet.
For those who understand the OSI (Open System Interconnection) model of networking, the technical difference between a proxy and a NAT is that the proxy server works on the transport layer (layer 4) or higher of the OSI model, whereas a NAT works on the network layer (layer 3).
This is document ahoo in the Knowledge Base.
Last modified on 2018-11-15 11:25:00.
How to Use a Proxy Server for Enhanced Security and Performance
March 15, 2016 What is a Proxy Server Address?
A proxy is a substitute, an alternate, or stand-in. In the Internet world, a proxy server acts as an intermediary between a web browser (computer) with a private IP address and another server on the Internet. A proxy server has its own address, an IP address.
You might run a proxy server for 3 reasons: proxy server for security, proxy server for identity protection or proxy server for load balancing.
Proxy Servers can:
Obscure a client’s private IP
Block malicious traffic
Block specific sites
Log a server’s activity
Speed up performance
How to Use a Proxy Server
A proxy server receives requests for information from a particular URL, and passes the request to another server. Then it forwards the answer back to the computer that posed the question.
Think about this analogy.
A receptionist at a dentist’s office gets a call from a patient asking if they can continue taking Tylenol. He asks the dentist, who answers the question. Then the receptionist relays the answer to the patient caller. The receptionist is the proxy.
A Reverse Proxy Server Acts as a Buffer
Within an organization, like a college or business, proxy servers can face the Internet (outward) and relay requests from computers on the campus network to destination computers outside the network.
Or, they can face inward, receiving requests for information and sending them to computers located on the campus or businesses network.
Hackers can get to your proxy server – but not the server that is actually running the web software.
How Secure Proxy Servers Boost Security
The Internet can be a nasty place, and you may not want bad people accessing your servers. One way to prevent such access, while at the same time making the information from your servers available, is to run a proxy server.
One primary job of a secure proxy server is to hide your IP address. The proxy server has its own IP, which acts as a shield by masking the user’s IP.
Considering today’s security landscape, the proxy server security can be a valuable extra layer of protection for your sensitive core business systems from prowling Internet forces.
How Proxy Servers Hide Searcher Identity
If you work at the NY Times or MIT, you may not want people to know the databases you’re searching or the people you are talking with on Skype.
So running requests through a proxy server shields end user identity by shielding the identity (IP address) of your computer.
Load Balancing When Demand is High
If a bazillion people are asking to watch the latest episode of House of Cards, it can’t be loaded on just one server. In fact, it’s loaded on dozens of servers all over the world.
But people can access this network of servers using a single URL:. Netflix runs a proxy server, which balances the requests to each one of those servers so there is no single server overload. It also means that if one of those servers goes down or is taken off-line, Netflix customers can still get to the other servers to see House of Cards. That’s load balancing.
Peering is typically part of the equation to enhance performance and speed.
In closing, understanding how to use a proxy server and knowing what makes the proxy server unique is not only its hardware, but its role in the health of your enterprise.
Security—a proxy server is a great way to add a layer between your enterprise and the Internet.
Identity—if you are someone like a journalist or researcher who needs to surf the web anonymously, you can also use a proxy service—such as TOR.
Load Balancing—a proxy server alone is not nearly as effective as one where Peering is usually part of the configuration.
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Frequently Asked Questions about proxy networking
What is proxy example?
Some proxy servers are a group of applications or servers that block common internet services. For example, an HTTP proxy intercepts web access, and an SMTP proxy intercepts email. A proxy server uses a network addressing scheme to present one organization-wide IP address to the internet.Nov 15, 2018
What is proxy in network security?
A proxy is a substitute, an alternate, or stand-in. In the Internet world, a proxy server acts as an intermediary between a web browser (computer) with a private IP address and another server on the Internet. A proxy server has its own address, an IP address.Mar 15, 2016
What is a proxy and how does it work?
A proxy server or proxy is a server that works as an intermediate connection point between you and the web page you visit. Proxy servers process your web request and the website data, making your web browsing secure and private.Feb 12, 2020