In computer networks, a proxy server is a server (a computer system or an application) that acts as an intermediary for requests from clients seeking resources from other servers. A client connects to the proxy server, requesting some service, such as a file, connection, web page, or other resource available from a different server and the proxy server evaluates the request as a way to simplify and control its complexity. Proxies were invented to add structure and encapsulation to distributed systems. Today, most proxies are web proxies, facilitating access to content on the World Wide Web, providing anonymity and may be used to bypass IP address blocking.
Types of proxy servers
A proxy server may reside on the user’s local computer, or at various points between the user’s computer and destination servers on the Internet.
- A proxy server that passes unmodified requests and responses is usually called a gateway or sometimes a tunneling proxy.
- A forward proxy is an Internet-facing proxy used to retrieve from a wide range of sources (in most cases anywhere on the Internet).
- A reverse proxy is usually an internal-facing proxy used as a front-end to control and protect access to a server on a private network. A reverse proxy commonly also performs tasks such as load-balancing, authentication, decryption or caching.
An open proxy is a forwarding proxy server that is accessible by any Internet user. Gordon Lyon estimates there are “hundreds of thousands” of open proxies on the Internet. An anonymous open proxy allows users to conceal their IP address while browsing the Web or using other Internet services. There are varying degrees of anonymity however, as well as a number of methods of ‘tricking’ the client into revealing itself regardless of the proxy being used.
A reverse proxy (or surrogate) is a proxy server that appears to clients to be an ordinary server. Reverse proxies forward requests to one or more ordinary servers which handle the request. The response from the proxy server is returned as if it came directly from the original server, leaving the client with no knowledge of the origin servers. Reverse proxies are installed in the neighborhood of one or more web servers. All traffic coming from the Internet and with a destination of one of the neighborhood’s web servers goes through the proxy server. The use of “reverse” originates in its counterpart “forward proxy” since the reverse proxy sits closer to the web server and serves only a restricted set of websites. There are several reasons for installing reverse proxy servers:
- Encryption / SSL acceleration: when secure web sites are created, the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption is often not done by the web server itself, but by a reverse proxy that is equipped with SSL acceleration hardware. Furthermore, a host can provide a single “SSL proxy” to provide SSL encryption for an arbitrary number of hosts; removing the need for a separate SSL Server Certificate for each host, with the downside that all hosts behind the SSL proxy have to share a common DNS name or IP address for SSL connections. This problem can partly be overcome by using the SubjectAltName feature of X.509 certificates.
- Load balancing: the reverse proxy can distribute the load to several web servers, each web server serving its own application area. In such a case, the reverse proxy may need to rewrite the URLs in each web page (translation from externally known URLs to the internal locations).
- Serve/cache static content: A reverse proxy can offload the web servers by caching static content like pictures and other static graphical content.
- Compression: the proxy server can optimize and compress the content to speed up the load time.
- Spoon feeding: reduces resource usage caused by slow clients on the web servers by caching the content the web server sent and slowly “spoon feeding” it to the client. This especially benefits dynamically generated pages.
- Security: the proxy server is an additional layer of defence and can protect against some OS and Web Server specific attacks. However, it does not provide any protection from attacks against the web application or service itself, which is generally considered the larger threat.
- Extranet Publishing: a reverse proxy server facing the Internet can be used to communicate to a firewall server internal to an organization, providing extranet access to some functions while keeping the servers behind the firewalls. If used in this way, security measures should be considered to protect the rest of your infrastructure in case this server is compromised, as its web application is exposed to attack from the Internet.