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A reverse proxy makes different servers and services appear as though they are a single unit. It allows you to hide several different servers behind the same name. In this article, you'll learn how to use a reverse proxy to keep your internet presence agile. Here’s how reverse proxies work.
In a computer network, a basic reverse proxy sits between a group of servers and the clients who want to use them. A client is any hardware or software that can submit requests to a server — for example, your web browser is the client you’re using to read this article, which is hosted on our servers. The reverse proxy fields all requests from the clients to the servers, and it also delivers all responses and services back from the servers to the clients. From the client’s point of view, this makes it look as though everything is coming from one place.
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Organizations and businesses use reverse proxies to consolidate their internet presence. Depending on how you configure it, a reverse proxy can provide one of several functions within a single server. It’s part receptionist, directing incoming requests to the right department, and part bouncer, keeping intrusive eyes away from your internal infrastructure.
A proxy server (or “forward proxy”) acts as an intermediary between you and the server of your choice. A proxy forwards a connection for you — it passes on your requests, receives the replies from the sites and services you’re using, then sends them to you.
In contrast, a reverse proxy receives requests from a client on another network, passes it to an internal server, receives the result, then relays it back to the client. That’s the basics of how proxies work: they pass data back and forth between clients and servers.
In other words, for anyone trying to discern the difference between a forward and reverse proxy, a reverse proxy is exactly the same as a proxy, only backwards: A forward proxy acts on behalf of a client, while a reverse proxy acts on behalf of the server.
Reverse proxies stand between clients and a network service, such as a website. The three most important features that reverse proxies provide are security, load balancing, and ease of maintenance. Reverse proxies can also play a role in identity branding and optimization.
You can create and configure a reverse proxy to forward requests to one or more internal servers based on the nature of the client’s request. If it’s a website, one URL might be served by your customer support pages, while another might go to your shopping cart. The reverse proxy only forwards requests you want to serve. If you’re only serving web content, configure your reverse proxy to exclude all requests other than those for ports 80 and 443 — the default ports responsible for HTTP and HTTPS, respectively. This lets you divert traffic based on type, and it also means ne’er-do-wells can’t directly attack your internal services.
You can also upgrade a reverse proxy to a firewall, which is a type of proxy server with extra teeth, or additional security features.
If an excessive amount of internet traffic is slowing down your system, you can use load balancing, which distributes your traffic over one or more servers to improve overall performance.
Load balancing lets you replace your single overworked backend service with a more resilient cluster. This technique also ensures that your application no longer has a single point of failure. If one server goes down, its siblings can take over. That’s just good common sense.
A reverse proxy can use a technique called round-robin DNS to direct requests through a rotating list of internal servers. It’s crude, but surprisingly effective. If you grow to have more demanding requirements, you can swap to a more sophisticated setup that incorporates load-balancing features.
When your internal services are hidden from public view, it’s easier to remove services, add new ones, upgrade them, or roll them back. With a reverse proxy, the site visitor only sees mybusiness.com and not myawkwardinternalservername.mybusiness.com or h30565.3wtf.mybusiness.com.
This makes improvements less stressful for both customers as well as professional IT staff. Rather than upgrade your one and only e-commerce site and pray it still works, you can just bring another server online with the new release. Then, configure your proxy to direct new customer sessions to the new server. Once you’re sure it works, shut down the old one. Since users are talking to your proxy and not directly to those internal services, they won’t notice the change.
This process works with load-balanced servers, too. Upgrade one of them, test, and then upgrade the rest in turn. Reverse proxies mean never getting a 3 a.m. phone call because your IT department needs to restore your old website from backup.
Businesses commonly host their website’s content management system or shopping cart apps with an external service outside their own network. Rather than tell site visitors that you’re sending them to another URL for payment, you can use a reverse proxy to conceal that detail. A reverse proxy can hide the presence of external vendors, such as your cloud service provider, who provide components of your customer experience.
If you serve a lot of static content, such as images and videos, you can set up a reverse proxy to cache some that content. Doing so can relieve pressure on your internal services.
Adding a welcome layer of security, a reverse proxy is effective in protecting systems against web vulnerabilities. The reverse proxy sits between external clients and your internal services, preventing anyone from directly accessing your network. The less of your IT infrastructure you expose, the less traction hackers will have against your important proprietary or customer data.
This lowers the risk of attacks for two reasons:
Your server is better protected from bad actors.
Hackers who prefer easy-to-crack websites will find yours slightly more secure and move on.
Because a reverse proxy acts as the face of your web presence, it can host the certificate and handle the SSL negotiation on behalf of all your internal servers. That means you don’t need to manage multiple certificates, nor do you need encryption on your internal network.
For even more security, construct an internet firewall, which is really just a proxy with extra teeth and a suspicious mind. You can swap out a basic reverse proxy with one that adds firewall features without changing how any of your internal services work.
For maximum security, consider using a VPN or Tor.
Reverse proxies offer a number of advantages for businesses and website administrators. Not only do they improve server efficiency and ease of maintenance, but they also provide an important layer of additional cybersecurity. It’s important to ensure that you’re receiving a similar degree of protection at home.
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