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Understanding Proxy Servers - What is a Proxy Server?

written by: Nicholas•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 2/19/2010

More than likely, you have read about the term "proxy server" at one point or another. Have you wondered what exactly a proxy server is? This article covers all the basics.

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    What is a Proxy Server

    A proxy server, better known as a proxy, is a neutral computer that serves as a filter/mask between local computer networks and larger networks like the internet. In general terms, a proxy server works as the middle man between your computer and the internet. By default, most home computers are not set to use a proxy. However, one can be configured easily using one of the many free proxy softwares and browser add ons.

    Technically, a proxy server computer uses ports to filter connections between your computer and other networks (the internet). When you set your internet to use a proxy, your computer's data is sent to the proxy to be filtered, rather than directly to the internet. In turn, the proxy server receives the data, filters it for you (masking/changing certain variables), and then sends it to the internet using a different port.

    There are several different types of proxy servers, designed for different purposes. Some proxy servers are as simple as an application (on a proxy computer) that is made to block common internet services. For example, a specialized http proxy is used to limit web access vs. a SMTP proxy, which is used to limit and filter email.

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    How Does a Proxy Server Work

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    Proxy servers use network addressing schemes to show one general (organization) IP address to the filter-out network (the internet). The proxy server acts like a funnel, which takes a lot of information from various sources, and filters it all into one specific address. Proxy servers can also be used backwards, as a way to restrict your computer from reaching certain places on the internet (certain web sites). Base proxies, meaning a lightweight, simple proxy, are often times components of computer firewall software.

    Proxys have the ability to cache webpages, which means, store server requests. For example, if a computer is using a proxy to access the internet, the proxy may cache a request for a certain website in order to cut down on access time. By storing a cached copy of the request directly on the proxy, the proxy can operate faster and load web pages more efficiently for the base requesting computer.

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    Why Use a Proxy Server

    Proxy servers are capable of performing many complex tasks; but for the general computer user, a proxy is used for one thing -masking an IP address. What is an IP address? Basically, an IP address is a unique number (variable) that every computer is assigned, if it uses the internet. IP addresses are used by the internet to route data specifically for your computer. Every computer is assigned a unique IP address. IP addresses basically hold two types of information. Where your computer is at, and who your internet provider is. For example, if you are using Comcast cable internet in New York, your IP address may be something like: c-99-99-99-99.hsd1.nj.comcast.net.

    Proxy servers allow you to go through them in order to mask your computer info. Once you are connected to a proxy, it filters your IP address and masks it as a different IP address (whatever address the proxy is set to use).

    Can you use proxy servers? Of course. The main downfall of most proxies is that they slow down your internet connection. Web pages will not load as fast due to the fact that the data is being filtered each time you request a web page. Proxy servers are actually quite simple to use. All that is required is that you find a proxy, enter the information about the proxy, and activate it. There are proxies all over the world that are free to use. You can even have your IP address show up as a computer from a different country.

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    History of Proxy

    Proxy severs have been around for quite a while now. There is not a lot of information about the actual history of proxy servers. Most likely, the history of proxy servers dates back to the beginnings of networking and the internet itself. However, Bright Hub has several other great articles that you can check out to learn more about proxy servers.

    Top New Proxy Servers

    10 Free Proxy Servers

    What is a Mail Proxy

    How to Browse the Web Anonymously with Proxy Servers