Reverse Proxy vs. VPN: What’s the Difference?
As the public becomes more aware of internet privacy, the use of proxies is often discussed as a way to keep one’s online activity safe and secure, away from prying ISPs and sneaky webmasters. However, this doesn’t go one way, so VPN proxies have a counterpart on the side of webmasters called a reverse proxy, but what’s the difference between the two?
A VPN connects you to a remote server that acts as your forward proxy when you visit websites. The IP of this server masks your real IP address. In contrast, a reverse proxy acts as the webmaster’s proxy, so people visiting their website don’t access its internal core server but a public-facing one.
In this article, you will learn the many uses of VPNs for visitors and the features of reverse proxies for website owners. You will also learn about the advantages and disadvantages of each and, finally, which one is ideal for you.
Reverse Proxy: A Brief Overview
When you have a website, chances are, you are not using a server in your house. That is because the most efficient way to host a website is through a hosting company like HostGator that handles the server maintenance duties and has economies of scale to offer you web hosting much cheaper than the cost of running your own server.
Most WordPress sites, landing pages, and blogs are hosted on such services. Because people don’t get to handle the hosting-end of the webmaster duties personally, they do not know the risks that must be managed. When the same people have to use dedicated servers for their business needs, the absence of knowledge regarding the threats to their privacy and server availability can pose a severe risk to their business.
One of the key risks is getting hacked, and the second one is servers malfunctioning due to a virus. A reverse proxy is a solution to this. Hosting companies often use such servers by default. Businesses, on the other hand, have to make the conscious choice of opting for one.
A reverse proxy is a proxy on a webmaster’s end, just like a regular proxy (specifically called ‘forward proxy’) is the one used by a website’s visitor. However, their roles are mostly different.
A website’s visitor is giving a small amount of data by generating a request.
As the website owner, you may get their IP address, which you can use IPv4 conventions to reverse engineer their network’s location, but they get access to more of your data. For instance, they can visit your website that has megabytes more of your data than you have theirs.
Therefore, it makes sense for hosts to use reverse proxies much more than visitors, yet proxies continue to become a matter of interest only to the browsing public while server hosts lag behind in this.
If you are here to see the comparison with VPN, you now understand that reverse proxies are a concern of webmasters. If you own a website or a business with its own servers, you may want to know the pros and cons of using a reverse proxy. Even non-hosts intending to run a business in the future would benefit from knowing the information in this section.
Reverse proxies are essential for data hosting companies, online businesses, and extensive networks with public-facing web services. Let’s look at why this is the case.
Creates a Single Point of Audit
When you create a reverse proxy aided by an efficient firewall, you increase your servers’ security. Unwanted traffic can be blocked at the firewall, and the proxy can even host the firewall.
At this point, you may think the firewall can be implemented in front of each server. That solution can work, but it is not only inefficient, it is also not scalable. With companies that have billions of users like Facebook, you can look up the website’s IP address and can clearly see that a single proxy server handles at the very least the redirection.
Imagine having to implement firewalls across thousands of server units and monitor each one of them. By creating one server that you can watch, you reduce your security maintenance costs and make your business open to future success with scalability.
Reduces Server Burden
If you have a server that your employees use for their work, would you like it to be down because some of your visitors were busy uploading or transferring files via your consumer-facing side? Not only is it a bad idea to rely on the same server for internal and external matters, but it also is not acceptable to have your servers be vulnerable to compression and/or decompression of visit data/requests.
This can open you to DDoS type of attacks where deliberate overloading of server kills functionality. By having a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), you protect the server relevant to your employees. A reverse proxy can compress the data before sending it to your relevant departments or servers on your internal network. This way, each server on your internal network would not have to perform the compression.
Let’s simplify this with an analogy of Amazon. Before sending products to hundreds of housing, the packaging occurs at a single facility. This makes the supply chain more efficient. If each delivery driver had to package the shipments individually, it would increase the drivers’ burden and interfere with their job. The same happens when each server is handing compression, so a central compression facility makes everything more efficient.
Efficiently Restricts Access
Have you ever noticed how Google, Facebook, and other web giants could ‘flag an IP’? That means by noticing suspicious activity, the companies can restrict users’ access to even their consumer-facing servers.
Of course, they don’t have humans looking at millions of visits every hour and manually creating a list for each of their servers to restrict malicious access. That would be very inefficient and would require more time to implement the ban than it would require a user to switch IPs with a VPN and access the company’s services despite a ban.
As a solution, companies resort to using a reverse proxy that is aided by artificial intelligence. Deep learning programs can model the kind of behavior it finds suspicious and leverage Captcha to determine if someone is even a human or just a web-crawling software. This would be very taxing to do on hundreds of servers, so a single server handling such tasks brings efficiency to the whole system.
You Can Make Your Services More Localized
Even creating a single point of access becomes too risky when companies scale to the level of Google. By using a reverse proxy that is geo-specialized, you can make your services more localized. That is why Google has a different homepage depending on where you access it from.
A reverse proxy can be housed in the country you wish to localize your solution to or can be fine-tuned for the region despite being in your usual server farm.
Many server farms are based in India, and webmasters would like to retain their head office address upon reverse lookup. This can be achieved by placing a reverse proxy at your location while your remote servers handle the real work.
Since reverse proxies have become as important as web hosting, one may be compelled to assume no downside. However, it is worth remembering that even the most efficient services unanimously adopted have their drawbacks, and knowing these can help you adopt better solutions as cost-effective ones arise.
Introduces a Single Point of Failure
Having a reverse proxy be the only point of frisking visitors can be like having only a single security guard at the gated community’s outermost gate. While it is cost-efficient and can bring down the community’s staff-management burden, his failure can make every home in the neighborhood vulnerable.
That’s what happens when the reverse proxy fails, and the firewall lets through a self-propagating virus. While hackers may not directly access the servers in your internal network, spyware or malware can make its way through if the services you provide involves human employees opening files from users.
How to fight this drawback: This drawback can be fixed by implementing firewalls in front of your internal network and then in front of each server. At the same time, you can continue to monitor only the reverse proxy, the fact that someone bypasses it does not immediately put every machine at risk.
Leaves the Consumer-Side Vulnerable
A DMZ and a reverse-proxy are great ideas when you want to protect your employees’ data and confidential information (like trade secrets) on your internal network.
However, the single proxy getting taken out by a physical or a DDoS-tier attack can mean that your services would be ‘down.’ Often, this only means that your customers and visitors have to wait a little longer before they can use your online services. Sometimes, this can lead to legal liability.
Suppose you operate a service like the investing app Robinhood. In that case, you do not want to use a single reverse proxy as downtime during trading hours, especially during a rally, which can lead to users suing you.
How to fight this drawback: You can simply use backup proxy servers that remain dormant until one fails. As a result, you aren’t as vulnerable to direct takedowns. Furthermore, you can include (in terms of service) release from legal liability in case of service failure due to server issues.
To be extra cautious, you can make sure your backup reverse proxy is at a different location than your main. This is helpful if your reverse proxy fails because of an act of god or a physical attack.
VPN: A Brief Overview
When you use a VPN, you are employing a forward proxy. This functions in reverse order. You first connect to one of your VPN provider’s remote servers, which then connects you to the website you plan to browse. As a result, the data you give by default is masked and encrypted.
When we browse websites, we can think of the data transaction as a one-way path. We visit a website; we see the data on its server. However, that is not how things work. The request we generate by typing in the address and hitting ‘enter’ have a format and IP address information that can be traced back to you.
So, why don’t internet service providers eliminate this? Because, without knowing your IP address, websites can’t send you the version of the site you view. In other words, you don’t see a website through a window into their servers.
You see a version of the website on your device. When you click a specific button on Facebook, for example, it results in a corresponding response for you. The website must track where the request came from to make sure your clicks don’t create consequences for your neighbor.
Since this is the minimum requirement for online functionality, VPNs like ExpressVPN have become crucial in protecting visitors’ privacy. When you generate a website visit request, the VPN masks your location by sending the same request through a forward proxy. When the website’s response is generated, it gets sent to the remote server of the VPN, which sends it back to your IP address.
VPNs are being adopted by more users every day. However, many get their subscriptions for a single result, like unblocking content. It is essential to know all the drawbacks and advantages of service before getting a subscription. Below we explore the pros and cons of this service.
Let’s explore why VPN apps are among the most downloaded ones on App Store and Google Play Store.
Protects Your Identity From Webmasters
Often, webmasters aren’t malicious or motivated to track their users in identifiable ways. However, because advertising analytics and other tracking tools have become readily available, such tracking can happen with intentions to advertise.
When you visit a website, your IP address gets logged with the web host’s guestbook. While an IP address can’t directly identify you as an individual, it usually does trace back to your personal network if you use WiFi internet.
A VPN helps mask this by giving not your IP address out to webmasters but the IP address of one of its remote servers. Using a remote server to access a website, therefore, keeps your identity safer.
Suppose you do not use this type of masking and the website’s owner saves your IP address. In that case, a malicious data aggregator can easily buy data from hundreds of thousands of websites and get a complete picture of your web browsing history.
As long as each site has your IP address, your website history is out in the world just in fragmented PCs. Considering that data is becoming the next oil, thanks to big tech leading the charge, you have to protect yours.
Protects Your Activity From Your ISP
If you use WiFi, your home’s IP address can be looked up by your webmaster, and your location can be identified, but if you use your mobile data, every user on the network has the same IP address. This makes you safe from webmasters because they can only identify that users from a specific carrier, like AT&T, have visited their website.
How is your web visit request delivered to your device and not to one of hundreds of thousands of other users? Because your request’s response is delivered to your carrier from where it is sent to a private IP assigned to your device. In other words, your Internet Provider can keep track of your activity and has to do so just for your internet access to function.
To understand how much of your information your internet provider has, let me remind you that not only can your provider see the websites you visit, but it can see some of the pages within the websites. To make it scarier, most ISPs keep a log of this data for months after you have made the visits.
There have been instances of court subpoenas that have forced ISPs to hand over their users’ web history to the legal system. If you use a VPN, you create a secure tunnel with the right encryption to the remote server from where you can browse the internet.
Since VPN providers would get overwhelmed if they keep track of users’ history after the individual logs off, they routinely clear their records. Furthermore, using a remote proxy server also usually means that thousands of others share it. This means your activity is mixed with others in terms of record-keeping. If there is any, the chances of your individual web history being saved outside of your device become slimmer.
Unblocks Access to the Internet
Have you ever connected to an ‘open WiFi’ only for all your browsing activity to be redirected to a ‘login’ page? Often, this is achieved by redirecting all requests over port 80 to the payment page.
Instead of logging in to get access to port 80 (the one responsible for web browsing via HTTP://), you can simply turn on your VPN to create a tunnel (that uses a different port). The tunnel would allow you to browse the internet via the remote server, which doesn’t redirect to port 80.
This same type of port restriction often applies in offices with overbearing internet use policies. While your access to apps that don’t use port 80 (like Outlook) is open so you can work, your internet browser may be virtually useless. Your VPN, in such instances, can come handy.
Unblocks Geo-Restricted Web Services
Most VPN users subscribe to the service for this reason. Services like Netflix have certain titles that are available in specific countries. This is not because Netflix prefers some users over others. It is only for legal reasons because TV rights can be distributed with location-contingent clauses.
So, Netflix may have the right to show anime in Japan, but if you’re in the USA, the same studios would rather you bought their DVD sets. To access a geo-specific service like Netflix Japan, you can connect to a remote server in Japan and create your account through it.
Bypasses IP-Specific Restrictions
When you unlock a website’s geo-restricted content, you bypass its restrictions on a group of IP addresses (that identify countries). However, sometimes a service might restrict your IP address directly for any number of reasons. You can use the same tunneling and IP masking mentioned above to access the services anyway.
Protects Your Web History From Hackers
ISPs are often regulated, and the FTC has started to make sure your web history isn’t sold to advertisers. However, individual hackers can get your website visit account from your WiFi router. Whenever you make a website visit, the request gets logged on a record with your WiFi just so it can return its result to your device.
This record can chronicle your personal history if you use WiFi and live alone. In a larger family or a workplace environment, the router can indicate what your overall network has been up to. Either way, you can secure this information by simply opting for a VPN with reliable encryption.
Now that you are acquainted with VPNs’ many benefits, let’s go over its disadvantages to make an informed decision.
Yes, hundreds of ad-powered VPNs and free trial software give you low speeds and poor encryption. If you want to use VPNs for privacy and security, you will need to pay the provider. In fact, if the VPN provider doesn’t charge money, you have a reason not to trust it.
After all, why would you let an unpaid security guard handle your valuables? While reverse proxies cost money and a general webmaster using HostGator or similar shared server hosting services, you will likely get the reverse-proxy service with the hosting as the price includes infrastructure.
VPNs can leak your location. Getting a VPN to mask your location only to find out that a WebRTC leak is leading to your true IP address being discovered is like hiring a security guard who ends up robbing you or abandoning the post. Unfortunately, this happens because a VPN provider does not have the right privacy infrastructure.
How to fight this drawback: You can simply opt for a premium VPN and run a WebRTC leak test to learn whether or not your real address is leaking.
May Get Blocked by Websites
More and more websites are investing in anti-VPN shields, and ironically, their reverse proxies handle VPN-blockage. This usually happens with websites that do not want proxy users messing with their ad revenue. For instance, Google AdSense has a policy that doesn’t count clicks on ads when a user connects with a proxy.
That is because Google delivers geo-targeted ads, and a proxy click could be occurring elsewhere. Furthermore, the same webmaster could click their own ads using multiple proxies to drive up their ad revenue. Therefore most advertising marketplaces actively penalize ad clicks of people using VPNs.
This, in addition to websites like Netflix investing in VPN tracking technology, has led to a rise in the anti-VPN shields.
How to fight this drawback: Fortunately, with the rise of anti-VPN technology, the superior VPN services like NordVPN and ExpressVPN remain mostly unaffected. You can fight the VPN-blocking shields by opting for a premium VPN that keeps improving every time VPN detection gets better.
Your ISP May Find Out What You Are Up To
In certain countries, certain content is censored. If you use a VPN to access said content, the internet service provider may use URL fingerprinting to find out that you have been accessing banned content.
Thankfully, this is not a concern for US citizens, but you should be aware if you are in a country that prohibits access to specific sites. With fingerprinting, the ISP may not know precisely the pages you visit as you are visiting websites it does not own; it will still be able to track behavior, indicating that you are accessing blocked content.
Which One Should You Use?
With a complete picture of VPNs and reverse proxies, you understand the advantages and the disadvantages of each, so you may find both services great and wonder which one would be the right choice.
You should use a VPN if you browse the web and are concerned about your privacy. On the other hand, a reverse proxy is ideal if you are a web host with your own physical servers. If you use a hosting company, you already use a reverse proxy.
Reverse proxies and VPNs are crucial for one’s privacy, and while one helps users stay anonymous online, the other makes sure people don’t harm servers under the guide of being website visitors.
You can use a VPN to make sure your online activity is encrypted, but make sure you use a premium VPN. If you are a website owner or want to host one in the future, opt for hosting services like HostGator, so you have a reverse proxy by default.