Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?

VPN vs. Proxy
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With the number of internet safety issues popping up today, protecting yourself online is quickly becoming a necessity instead of a precaution.

Proxies and VPNs are two of the most popular ways to protect yourself in the internet environment. Well, what's the difference between them?

Proxies mask your IP address, while VPNs perform the same function along with masking your web activity through encryption. Essentially, a VPN performs the same functions as a proxy but provides an added layer of security. Thanks to the added encryption, VPNs are typically costlier.

Although some people use the terms interchangeably, there's a significant difference between proxies and VPNs. If you'd like to learn more about these two security measures and which one you should opt for, you've come to the right place.

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What is a Proxy Server?

Proxy is a common word both in tech and outside of it. In general terms, proxy refers to something that stands as a substitute for something else.

Although the tech version of the word is a bit more complicated than that, a proxy is still a sort of substitute in some sense.  A proxy server is an intermediary between the client and server that masks the client's IP address

While proxy servers are primarily used for added security and IP masking, these systems can fulfill other duties like load balancing and compression.

It would be challenging to understand what a proxy server is without knowing the function of a server in the first place.

What is a Server?

A server is a computer or software program that fulfills the requests of other nodes on the online network. The other nodes, which can be other servers or personal computers, are called clients, and this interlinking between servers and clients are the basic building blocks of the internet.

Essentially, a server is a node on the network for the primary purpose of fulfilling your needs. An easy way to understand this is to think of the network as a restaurant and the clients as diners. 

In this example, the servers would be the waiters (servers, basically). If you need water or food, the server brings it for you from the kitchen. 

Servers on a network are essentially the same. Whenever you access a network, you make a request, and your device sends this request to the server which fulfills your needs.

Now, with a better understanding of servers, let’s get back to proxies.  Since each computer has to connect to a server to make a request, proxies work by standing as a middleman between yourself and the server and masking your IP address.

Taking the example of a restaurant again, this would be the equivalent of telling a friend to make a request to the server instead of doing it directly.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is a popular app these days. A Google PlayStore search will bring up hundreds if not thousands of VPN apps you can instantly use.

So what exactly are VPNs, and why are they so popular?  A VPN is a method of establishing a secure private connection on a public network.

VPNs use encapsulation and encryption to pass private data through a public network. The data sent through the private network passes through the public network but is kept safe by encryption.

The easiest way to think of VPNs is to imagine it as a private network working through a public one. Thanks to this setup, you get the benefits of being on a public network while staying private and masking your IP. 

Differences Between a Proxy Server and VPN

Now that you have a basic understanding of both terms, let’s take a look at the most obvious differences between a proxy and a VPN.

Scope

The first key difference between the two is how they work. Both proxies and VPNs can mask your location to give you some level of protection, but they do it in different ways. 

  • A proxy server simply bounces your requests off of itself. In essence, it's a more complicated form of misdirection.
  • VPNs, however, have a wider scope. To protect you, they create a safe environment on a public server by encrypting all your internet traffic while tunneling and relaying your data across servers.

Types

The types of proxies and VPNs are also different as they break down into different specifications based on utility. 

Proxies can be classified as:

  • Open proxies: These are proxies that are accessible by anyone on the internet. They are the 'regular' proxies that most users are aware of and have a wide range of uses. They are also known as forward proxies.
  • Reverse proxies: These are servers that appear normal even though they're proxies. All the traffic passing through the reverse proxy is made to look like it came from the reverse proxy server. 

Essentially, while an open proxy ensures that the server cannot directly contact the client, a reverse proxy ensures that clients cannot access the origin server.

On the other hand, VPNs are divided into other classifications:

  • Host-to-Network/Remote access: This type of VPN refers to a network that primarily caters to single users. Although it is used mostly by single users, it can cater to a wide range of them at the same time.
  • Site-to-site: This setup connects existing networks. In contrast to remote access VPNs, these VPNs are built with multiple users in mind.

Use

Proxies and VPNs have many intersecting functions, the main one being to protect your identity while online. However, both systems also have a few differences in the way they are utilized.

Proxies are used for:

  • Filtering content on a network. Companies and schools usually set up proxies to block specific websites from being used on their network.
  • Monitoring traffic on a network. Since the traffic through the network passes the proxy first, it can be used as a log of activities.
  • Load balancing. By distributing the requests on the network to different servers, proxies can be used to unburden the network.

VPNs are used for:

  • Connecting workplaces: Since VPNs allow linking between networks, they can merge large networks into single ones. This merger is useful in workplaces where different networks can be set up under the same umbrella.
  • Encryption Services: Unlike proxies, VPNs hide what you're doing from prying eyes. This extra layer of security shields all your traffic through encryption.

It's crucial to mention that whether you're using a proxy or VPN, it’s easy for the network owner or server to access whatever you're doing with it.

This lack of security can be dangerous and any sensitive information can be easily leaked.  As such, it's important to stay safe by making the right choice when choosing your proxy or VPN.

While there is no hard and fast rule for choosing, it’s widely agreed that 'free' VPNs and proxies are typically riskier than paid ones.

Takeaways

VPNs and proxies can both be used to protect yourself while you're online. However, if you want complete protection that follows you regardless of the app or service you're using, VPNs are the way to go.

But beware, because some VPNs and proxies are set up to farm your data, which can then be used to influence consumer decisions.

As such, it's best to opt for a paid option so you can keep your data secure. 

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