What is a Proxy Server?

A proxy server is an go-between server that sends content requests multiple users to different servers on the Internet. Most workers are unaware that when they access their employee’s network from home or on the road, they are actually using proxy servers in the form of virtual private networks (VPNs), according to Microsoft.

How Proxy Servers Work

In a business environment, proxy servers receive requests for Internet pages and content from employees that originate from the company’s network. Whenever an internal user tries to access Internet content, the request goes through a proxy server that masks the server’s IP address. This anonymity provides security by limiting the amount of exposed data about the user and network to potential hackers. Proxy servers perform caching functions, which means that they download and store copies of content onto local hard drives. Thus, if users frequently access certain Web pages, the server will access and load the Web page. Caching drastically increases speed and decreases server requests. From a technical standpoint, proxy servers are a type of application gateways that serve as telecommunication points between local networks and the Internet. A proxy server intercepts data between senders and receivers. All incoming data enters through one port and then exits through another port.

Control Features

Certain proxy servers block specific Internet access points. For example, an HTTP proxy intercepts web access requests while an SMTP proxy intercepts email requests. A proxy server presents a centralized IP address to the Internet through funneling all user requests and returns responses through management software programs. This means that IT administrators can restrict access from outside by integrating the proxy server’s functions into the firewall. It can also prevent internal users from access specific Internet websites. As a result, internal proxy servers are used by companies in order to enforce company policies and restrictions regarding Web use. IT administrators may set specific times that allow unlimited personal use, such as during lunchtimes, but they also target specific websites, such as gambling and social media sites. If left unchecked, proxy servers may actually restrict employees from performing their duties.

How to Choose the Right Proxy

The type proxy server that is right for you depends on a number of elements, such as budget, risk tolerance and internal requirements. Companies with tech-savvy and responsible employees can use free, open source proxy server software because they provide basic security, functions, simple caching and light filtering. However, a company with thousands of employees will have less risk tolerance and more demand for heavy filtering and high-volume caching solutions. This is why most companies select proxy server software programs that integrate well with Microsoft, Cisco and other common products. Even though proxy servers reduce hacking vulnerabilities, they are integral parts of internal infrastructures. Proxy servers, like all software programs, need to be continually updated with security patches. As an alternative, there are free or low-cost proxy services available for personal and commercial use.

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In closing, companies that host web servers for clients and the public to access will need a reverse proxy server to perform a similar set of security and performance related tasks. A reverse proxy server is connected behind firewalls and directs requests to the right server. Reverse proxy servers are commonly used for load balancing, which means they re-distribute requests to groups of servers in order to maximize speed and performance.