A Proxy Server is computer that functions as an intermediary between a web browser (such as Internet Explorer) and the Internet. Proxy servers help improve web performance by storing a copy of frequently used webpages. When a browser requests a webpage stored in the proxy server’s collection (its cache), it is provided by the proxy server, which is faster than going to the web. Proxy servers also help improve security by filtering out some web content and malicious software.
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 and providing anonymity.
Proxy Servers have these main purposes:
- Improve Performance: Proxy servers can dramatically improve performance for groups of users. This is because it saves the results of all requests for a certain amount of time. Consider the case where both user X and user Y access the World Wide Web through a proxy server. First user X requests a certain Web page, which we’ll call Page 1. Sometime later, user Y requests the same page. Instead of forwarding the request to the Web server where Page 1 resides, which can be a time-consuming operation, the proxy server simply returns the Page 1 that it already fetched for user X. Since the proxy server is often on the same network as the user, this is a much faster operation. Real proxy servers support hundreds or thousands of users. The major online services such as America Online, MSN and Yahoo, for example, employ an array of proxy servers.
- Filter Requests: Proxy servers can also be used to filter requests. For example, a company might use a proxy server to prevent its employees from accessing a specific set of Web sites.
- Translation: A translation proxy is a proxy server that is used to localize a website experience for different markets. Traffic from global audiences is routed through the translation proxy to the source website. As visitors browse the proxy site, requests go back to the source site where pages are rendered. Original language content in the response is replaced by translated content as it passes back through the proxy. The translations used in a translation proxy can be either machine translation, human translation, or a combination of machine and human translation. Different translation proxy implementations have different capabilities. Some allow further customization of the source site for local audiences such as excluding source content or substituting source content with original local content.
- Accessing Services Anonymously: An anonymous proxy server (sometimes called a web proxy) generally attempts to anonymize web surfing. There are different varieties of anonymizers. The destination server (the server that ultimately satisfies the web request) receives requests from the anonymizing proxy server, and thus does not receive information about the end user’s address. The requests are not anonymous to the anonymizing proxy server, however, and so a degree of trust is present between the proxy server and the user. Many proxy servers are funded through a continued advertising link to the user.
- Security: A proxy can keep the internal network structure of a company secret by using network address translation, which can help the security of the internal network. This makes requests from machines and users on the local network anonymous. Proxies can also be combined with firewalls.
An incorrectly configured proxy can provide access to a network otherwise isolated from the Internet.
Types of Proxy
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 requests and responses unmodified 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 Internet-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. 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. Requests are forwarded to one or more proxy servers which handle the request. The response from the proxy server is returned as if it came directly from the origin server, leaving the client 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 SSL encryption is often not done by the web server itself, but by a reverse proxy that is equipped with SSL acceleration hardware. See Secure Sockets Layer. 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 defense 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.
Proxy Server vs. NAT
Most of the time ‘proxy’ refers to a layer-7 application on the OSI reference model. However, another way of proxying is through layer-3 and is known as Network Address Translation (NAT). The difference between these two proxy technologies is the layer in which they operate, and the procedure to configuring the proxy clients and proxy servers.
In client configuration of layer-3 proxy (NAT), configuring the gateway is sufficient. However, for client configuration of a layer-7 proxy, the destination of the packets that the client generates must always be the proxy server (layer-7), then the proxy server reads each packet and finds out the true destination.
Because NAT operates at layer-3, it is less resource-intensive than the layer-7 proxy, but also less flexible. As we compare these two technologies, we might encounter a terminology known as ‘transparent firewall’. Transparent firewall means that the layer-3 proxy uses the layer-7 proxy advantages without the knowledge of the client. The client presumes that the gateway is a NAT in layer-3, and it does not have any idea about the inside of the packet, but through this method the layer-3 packets are sent to the layer-7 proxy for investigation.