What are proxy servers used for?

Proxy servers have become abundant, and today they serve a large portion of the world’s combined online traffic. Why exactly do people find them so useful?

What is a proxy server?

A proxy server, in its essence, is a form of anonymity network that hides a user’s IP address from the internet. Proxy IP locations can originate from data centers, ISP’s, residential households and mobile carriers. Regardless of the proxy type and how they differentiate with each other, they fundamentally serve a main purpose – which is to obscure users personal IP addresses with external ones.

What are they used for?

The first thought that comes to mind is privacy, where individuals simply seek to add a layer of anonymity on their internet activities. On a closer look, proxy servers are used by a wide range of people – from programmers that seek improved network speeds for testing purposes, to data-collecting marketing professionals that need a way to bypass website request limits. The use cases for proxies are multiple and the demand is growing. To understand why, let’s look at some reasons people use proxy servers.

Data collection

Since the early days of the internet, web scraping has been a thing. The main objective is to collect information from websites, which then can be used for different purposes. Corporate analysts and marketers typically rely on such externally gathered information for important decision making.

Web scraping is made possible with the help of custom scrips or bots that visits a website, crawls through relevant pages and extracts content therein. This information retrieval happens at a rate much faster than any human could hope to accomplish – and in turn causes great strain on the targeted website server. So much in fact that sometimes the website can become unavailable due to the network’s inability to handle the incoming traffic volume – commonly known as a DDoS attack.

In response, websites utilize anti-scraping protection which severely reduces the amount of requests that individual IP addresses can make. While a web scraper could make 100 website requests per second without issue in the past, the request load would now need to be spread over hundreds if not thousand separate IP addresses. A rotating proxy server does exactly this, allowing one user to route traffic via thousands of unique devices and IP addresses.

Privacy and security

Without a proxy server to conceal the web traffic, internet service providers can see the surfing history of any of their customers. The benefits of staying anonymous is undeniable for anyone who simply wants privacy in their digital life. There are also more serious reasons for staying anonymous – particularly for people living in countries like China or Iran. Oppressive governments in countries with limited free speech tend to monitor their citizens’ online activity, meaning that proxies are simply a must-have for seemingly normal things like browsing a foreign newspaper.

Security is strongly correlated here as well, as proxy servers provide a defense against malware-infected websites. A proxy of decent quality will effectively protect a user’s device from malicious web requests, either by blocking such connections altogether or preventing the user’s device from being affected by any suspicious packets that may leak through.

Better network speeds

A proxy server can greatly improve network speeds and save on bandwidth. When a user visits a website for the first time, all resources have to finish loading before the page can be fully interacted with. This takes time and requires bandwidth usage, which quickly can stack up to significant amounts. Proxy servers will instead do the heavy lifting by saving cached versions of websites for the benefit of users, who then can connect to the websites with little to no time delay and not consume nearly as much bandwidth as they otherwise would have.

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