What Is a Proxy Server & How Does It Work?

This guide covers everything you will ever need to know about proxy servers including ‘how they work’, ‘the different types of proxies currently available’, as well as comparing proxies with VPNs to enable your company to choose the tool that is right for your business
What is a proxy server & how does it work?
Daniel Shashko
Daniel Shashko | SEO Specialist

In this post we will discuss:

Define: proxy server 

A proxy server acts as an intermediary between a client, and a ‘target website’. This essentially means that traffic is routed through servers on its way to/from destination sites. This architecture may be put into place for a variety of reasons:

  • Increased network performance 
  • Achieving better data/information security (i.e. serving as a firewall or filter of sorts) 
  • Caching data in a way that helps streamline requests that often repeat themselves 
  • Enabling better privacy
  • Enhancing data collection success rates by routing requests for information through local IP addresses 

How do proxies work 

Every computer has an Internet Protocol (IP) address. This means that other computers/ devices can communicate with you as they know who is requesting/receiving information. But individuals or companies that are interested in using a proxy do so for a reason. They are not interested in direct communication. This is where a third entity, the proxy, is introduced. This functions as a computer in the sense that proxies too have their own IP address. Beyond this proxies have some very useful capabilities in that they can:

  • Ensure that other devices do not see your real source IP address
  • Route traffic through other IP addresses so that the target site thinks that a local device is looking to access information
  • Encrypt information/data that you are interested in receiving or transmitting so that it does not get intercepted by an undesirable third-party 
  • Block access to certain websites for certain IP addresses (this can be used by places of business or universities who want to maximize use of computers for work instead of play). 

All in all, different location proxies function as a sort of umbrella that helps shield your location, and identity from the world while still being able to retrieve open source web data without being discriminated against based on geolocation, or any other factor. 

Advantages of a proxy server 

Proxy servers come with several benefits that can give businesses an advantage. They can act as a firewall between systems and the internet, helping to keep hackers out. They can also provide an opportunity to collect  IP-specific data, as well as giving users access to location-specific content. By designating a proxy server with an address associated with another country, businesses can functionally operate in multiple locations (e.g. managing various eCommerce stores using a local IP address or collecting Google search trends specific to a certain city). This can be a valuable tool for companies looking to expand their reach, discovering new target markets/audiences, as well as operating in multiple markets.

To simplify, some key benefits include: 

  • Better security: A proxy server can be used to improve security by using IP addresses not currently identified with the company. 
  • Quicker performance: A proxy server can improve performance by caching web pages and files.
  • Heightened security: A proxy server can help protect the company from Denial-of-service attacks (DDoS), for example.
  • Monitoring traffic: A proxy server can be used to filter traffic.
  • Data collection: Proxies enable companies to gain access to information that is correct from a user / geolocation perspective. For example, if obtaining the correct pricing for a competitor’s product being sold in San Diego. 

Questions you should be asking proxy providers 

  1. Be sure to ask your proxy provider if they log and/or save your IP address as well as your web request information?
  2.  Is this information encrypted, and saved locally? 
  3. Do they comply with international data collection regulations such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA),  and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)?

What are the different types of proxy servers currently available

There are many different types of proxy servers currently available, each with its own unique capabilities and features.

Reverse Proxy: A reverse proxy is a type of proxy server that takes requests from clients and forwards them to another server. A reverse proxy can be used to load balance traffic or improve performance by caching content from the destination server. It can mainly help improve server performance, security, and reliability. 

Forward Proxy: A forward proxy is one of the most common types of proxy servers currently in use. Typically, it is used in order to transfer requests from a ‘sheltered’ network vis-a-vis a firewall (that decides whether or not a request should be allowed to pass through). Forward proxies are most commonly used to boost internal network security by filtering internal/external exchange of information between ‘clients’ and ‘target sites’ on the web. 

SSL Proxy: An SSL proxy is a type of transparent proxy server that encrypts/decrypts traffic between the client and the proxy server. SSL proxies are typically beneficial in obtaining granular application information so that companies can implement advanced/strong security protocols, as well as client/server ciphers. It also gives security teams improved visibility of potential threats that may be embedded in SSL encrypted traffic. 

Anonymous Proxy: An anonymous proxy is a type of proxy server that does not reveal the identity of the client to the destination server. By hiding the origin IP address, ‘anonymizers’, as they are often called, enable companies to geo/IP-based-blocks as well as misrepresentation of target data. They are also sometimes used in order to avoid having competitor marketing material or search results being tailored to your IP’s browsing history. This enables companies to get a non-biased view of the internet and avoid things like ‘cookies’ or other identifiers from impacting information being collected.  

Transparent Proxy: A transparent proxy is a type of proxy server that can intercept a ‘client’s activity’ with a target site. For example, a student browsing Wikipedia on the university’s network may think he or she is viewing the original article but really it is being served to them via a transparent proxy running on the university’s network. Transparent proxies are typically used in order to  control user access to certain websites, protocols, or ports. 

Public Proxy: A public proxy is a type of proxy server that is accessible to anyone on the Internet. It allows users to browse the web anonymously, but is typically considered unsafe and is not an option that should be considered by businesses. This is because security tends to be weak, defeating the purpose of using a proxy in the first place. 

Data Center Proxy: A datacenter proxy is a type of proxy server that is located in a data center, and is not affiliated with any Internet Service Provider (ISP). A high number of IP addresses are typically assigned to a single server through which all designated traffic will then be routed.  

Data center proxies are chosen by companies due to their speed, low operating costs, as well as maintaining data origin uniformity for use cases where this is integral. 

Residential Proxy: A residential proxy is a type of proxy server that is based on an international network of real user IPs. Real individuals choose to opt their devices into the network in exchange for a benefit such as an ad-free app experience. In exchange, they allow businesses to route traffic vis-a-vis their devices. 

Residential proxies can be used to collect data from sophisticated target sites, view information from a real/local consumer perspective, as well as enabling an increased quantity of concurrent data requests. 

Internet Service Provider (ISP) Proxy: An ISP proxy is a type of proxy server that leverages IPs that are assigned real places of residence but are designated for commercial use. Target sites view, and treat requests as if they originated from real places of residence meaning companies can gain access to quicker speeds coupled with higher success rates. 

ISP proxies can be used to manage social media/eCommerce accounts located in different geographies, as well as geo-specific web data collection regarding social sentiment, and product trends/pricing. As well as any other use case that can benefit from real domestic IPs in different geolocations.

Mobile Proxy:  A mobile proxy is a type of proxy server that leverages 3/4G cellular devices, enabling users to choose from different mobile carriers. 

Mobile proxies can be used to applications, ads, and mobile-based programs directly from a desktop in order to perform Quality Assurance (QA), as well as test geo-specific User Experiences (UX). 

Proxy servers Vs. VPNs 

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a private network that extends across a public network or the Internet. It enables users to send and receive data while remaining anonymous and secure. A VPN is often used by businesses to protect sensitive data, and by individuals who want to access content that may be blocked in their country. 

A proxy server is a computer that acts as an intermediary between clients and servers. It can be used to forward requests from one server to another, or to cache frequently requested content. Proxy servers are often used by businesses in order to:

  • improve performance and security
  • bypass target site restrictions such as geographic blocks, and rate limitations
  • Collect accurate competitive industry data 

There are a few key differences between VPNs and proxy servers that users should be aware of:

VPNs are great for manual tasks and for individuals who are looking to view remote content or shop on an eCommerce site locally. This is because VPNs encrypt traffic and tunnel it through a secure network, making it difficult for anyone to intercept or tamper with the data. Additionally, VPNs can be used to bypass geo-restrictions and access content that would otherwise be unavailable in a user’s current location.

Proxies are often used by businesses that want to collect large amounts of data by using local IPs and devices. This lets businesses get accurate information, like prices, ads from competitors, and social sentiment data. Additionally, proxy servers enable concurrent requests, as well as scaling data collection up or down based on company needs.

How to gain access to proxies 

When it comes to gaining access to proxies, companies have three different options: a free proxy server, an in-house system, or a paid third-party proxy network provider.

The free proxy server option is the most dangerous because of network vulnerabilities. Additionally, this option does not provide any security or encryption, which can leave companies open to attacks.

Building an in-house system helps accomplish what needs to be done but comes along with high operational development and maintenance costs. In contrast, a paid third-party proxy network provider reduces in-house costs, ensures high network security, and encryption, and enables companies to gain access to different types of proxies, as well as an open-source proxy manager. For these reasons, the paid third-party proxy network provider is the recommended course of action.

Proxy server FAQs

What is a proxy server?

A proxy server is a computer that acts as an intermediary between your computer and the Internet. When you connect to the Internet, you are actually connecting to the proxy server, which then connects you to the website or service you want to use. Proxy servers can be used for a variety of purposes, such as improving security/performance, as well as collecting accurate client-facing data points.

When do I need to use the proxy server?

If you are accessing the Internet from behind a firewall, you will need to use a proxy server in order to be able to view certain websites. A proxy server is a computer that acts as an intermediary between your computer and the Internet. It allows you to access, and collect data from websites that might otherwise be blocked, or serve you misleading information. 

There are many different types of proxy servers available. Some are free, while others must be purchased. If you are not sure which type of proxy server to use, you can have a look at Bright Data’s Proxy Types page.

What is a proxy service?

A proxy service is an intermediary that allows communication between two services or applications. It acts as a go-between, providing a layer of security and shielding the identity of the source user.

Proxy services provide a number of benefits, including increased security and privacy, as well as the ability to bypass censorship and content restrictions. Additionally, proxy services can be used to improve performance by caching content and reducing the number of requests that need to be made to the server. And lastly, proxy services can be used in order to gain access to data sets that help businesses make strategic decisions such as:

1. How to price products in real-time (enabling dynamic pricing strategies across the board) 

2. How to compete with companies in their space as far as marketing campaigns as well as which products are currently on offer

3. How to engineer a potential user/buyer journey based on current search engine trends/queries

Daniel Shashko
Daniel Shashko | SEO Specialist

Daniel is an SEO specialist here at Bright Data with a B2C background. He is in charge of ensuring that businesses get exposed to articles that help them become more data-driven. He is fascinated by the intricate inner workings that the digital world is comprised of and how these can be navigated for hypergrowth.