What Is a Reverse Proxy? [All You Need To Know]

Velina Nenova
Velina Nenova

Updated · Oct 16, 2022

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What is a reverse proxy? Why and how would you use it? What are a reverse proxy's benefits and potential risks, and is it safe to use? These questions are likely to cross your mind if you wish to understand reverse proxying basics and try them out on your website. Our guide addresses these questions and provides helpful info on the importance of security, load balancing, and more.

What Is a Reverse Proxy?

A reverse proxy server is located in front of one or more web servers to protect them from attacks—adding a layer of security by protecting the server’s identity. It also enhances server performance by enabling load balancing. There are many reasons for using a reverse proxy.

How It Works?

Similar to using a proxy server or browser to hide your IP address and protect your identity and privacy online while browsing, web servers do the same with reverse proxies. A reverse proxy is placed in front of an origin server to prevent clients from communicating directly with the server

The operation of a reverse proxy:    

  • The reverse proxy sits behind the firewall of a network;
  • When users access a website, the reverse proxy acts as an intermediary between users’ devices and the origin server
  • The proxy sends a request to receive information from the server and passes it on to the users.

There’s no user redirection to the site. A reverse proxy reroutes requests and distributes content to the end-users instead.

Why Use a Reverse Proxy?

Whether you want an additional layer of protection for your website or a good load balancing solution, you’ll need to use a reverse proxy. So what are the reverse proxy benefits? Consider the following top seven uses of a reverse proxy.

  • Content Delivery Network

A content delivery network (CDN) is a geographically distributed network of proxy servers and data centers. This type of reverse proxy configuration provides fast delivery of worldwide internet content by caching content and moving it physically closer to site visitors.

As a result, it can increase content availability, improve website load times, reduce bandwidth costs, and improve website security. Using CDN providers suits anyone wanting to deliver content quickly, reliably, cheaply, and securely.

  • Load Balancing

An HTTP reverse proxy optimizes HTTP traffic, helping content acceleration. Load balancing distributes network traffic evenly across multiple servers. It manages traffic spikes (preventing server overload) and minimizes user request response time.

Another benefit of load balancing is ensuring the performance and reliability of computing resources. Using load balancing is perfect for anyone looking for maximum flexibility, scalability, and built-in redundancy if a server fails. E-commerces often use it to handle all incoming traffic.

  • Web Acceleration

Web acceleration is a standard process of content delivery to end-users. Servers cache (store) commonly requested information to avoid wasting server resources. They can prefetch and refresh cached content instead of continuously fetching it from the backend to deliver it to users. Using web acceleration is convenient for high-traffic site owners.

  • Security

As previously noted, a reverse proxy adds a security layer to web servers. A web application firewall (WAF) protects your website from hackers—particularly layer 7 denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. These attacks target the application layer of data and can cause data loss or worse: entire systems being hijacked.

In addition to layer 7, hackers can attack layers 3 or 4 of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. A reverse proxy can significantly improve a server’s security at multiple levels.

  • Content Encryption

Content encryption converts unencrypted, plaintext data to encrypted ciphertext—another way of protecting your data.

An HTTP is an unsecured protocol. With a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol, you achieve a secure, encrypted connection from a proxy server outside the firewall. 

Effective data encryption boasts multiple benefits, including protecting data in complex environments (e.g., in the cloud), staying compliant with data protection regulations (e.g., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act [HIPAA]), and maintaining data integrity in transit. Content encryption is suitable (and required) for the healthcare, finance, and education industries.

  • API Gateway

App developers typically use API gateways. An API gateway acts as a reverse proxy. In addition to routing client requests, it has various additional functions, including individual group requests into a single request, offloading SSL termination, or authentication from personal services to the gateway. Offloading cross-cutting functions is beneficial, as it centralizes them.

  • A/B Testing

A/B testing (split testing) involves testing two or more page variations for performance. It helps you create content, reduces bounce rates, and increases user engagement and conversion rates. A reverse proxy server supports A/B testing due to its ability to divert routes. Using a reverse proxy for split testing is beneficial for programmers.

Reverse Proxy vs. Proxy Server

A forward proxy server is a gateway between users and the internet. It forwards web requests through a firewall. Similarly, a reverse proxy is an intermediary between web browsers and servers, providing content to end-users. Organizations often use proxy servers to enhance site performance and save bandwidth. Reverse proxies are also used for web acceleration, but they’re most often used to improve security and protect against malware.

How to Implement a Reverse Proxy?

Whether you own a high-traffic website or run an e-commerce platform, you can configure a reverse proxy for your server. It’s best to set it up with Nginx open-source reverse proxy software.

When configuring a reverse proxy in Nginx, first send all the static content from your server to Nginx. Next, determine the IP address of the Nginx Proxy Server. Then, take the following steps.

  1. Install Nginx;
  2. Disable the default virtual host;
  3. Create an Nginx Reverse Proxy file in the directory;
  4. Run a configuration test to check if Nginx is configured properly in your system.

Wrap Up

Now that you’ve learned some reverse proxying basics, you know that as an avid internet user browsing the web, you can’t see if a website has implemented a reverse proxy. It’s placed in an application layer of an origin server behind the firewall. From there, it retrieves all the info and feeds it to the browser and user.

There are many reasons an individual or company would want to implement a reverse proxy, including load balancing, security, and A/B testing. If you need it for your website, it’s best to set it up via Nginx.

FAQ.


What is the purpose of a reverse proxy?

The primary purposes of a reverse proxy include a better flow of data between servers and end-users and protection from web vulnerabilities. Additionally, it can help developers perform split testing or offload cross-cutting functions. Some organizations use it for content encryption to comply with HIPAA data protection regulations.

Is a VPN a reverse proxy?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is not a reverse proxy. While a VPN hides your IP address from websites, a reverse proxy hides the origin server of the websites from the users and acts as an intermediary between client requests and the server.

Should I use a reverse proxy?

Consider using a reverse proxy if you use application programming interface (API) software or you’re an app developer or a high-traffic website owner with server security concerns. Moreover, you’ll likely need to implement a reverse proxy for load balancing and web acceleration purposes.

What is the difference between proxy and reverse proxy?

While forward proxies maintain internet users’ online anonymity, reverse proxies sit in front of servers and handle client requests. They’re typically used for improving security and site performance. They can also reduce bandwidth costs, which is beneficial for various businesses.

Is API gateway a reverse proxy?

An API gateway falls into the category of reverse proxying. It routes client requests and offloads cross-cutting functions, such as SSL termination and authentication. It’s also used for individual request aggregation.

How secure is a reverse proxy?

So what is a reverse proxy in regards to security? Implementing a reverse proxy adds a layer of security to the server and makes DDoS attacks more difficult. On the other hand, a hacker may still find a way to attack the server and abuse vulnerabilities, depending on the proxy settings.

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Velina Nenova

Velina Nenova

Velina describes herself as passionate media savvy and a versatile individual with numerous different interests, most a result of her Media & Communications BA. She has also developed a keen interest in Digital Marketing and Advertising. Her never-ending desire to constantly learn new things and enrich herself and her ultimate dream to go around the globe before 45 are her driving forces.

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