Although the anonymity and security provided by Proxies and VPNs make these two technologies similar, in reality, they are both completely different animals.
VPNs and proxies are often mistaken because their anonymity and security are a byproduct of their design. But in reality, they were built for different purposes.
In this article, we’ll define proxies and VPNs, their cons and pros, and a brief comparison.
In This Corner: Proxy
A proxy in the networking world, is an intermediary between two disparate networks. The proxy centralizes requests, and in most cases, performs some kind of processing, such as masking an IP address, altering protocol headers, or just forwarding data.
A normal proxy scenario would require a client, proxy server, and destination. The proxy server is the one acting as the intermediary between the client’s network and the destination’s network.
Let’s see what a proxy is, using the next picture:
Refer to the diagram above. Alice wants to access Bob’s time services, which is most likely to be in another network (it could be across the Internet or in the same building). So, Alice could ask Bob directly, which is a normal request for service, but there is a proxy between Alice and Bob. This proxy could be there for any of the following reasons:
- To hide Alice behind the proxy, so Bob would believe the request for time is coming from “Proxy” and not from “Alice”.
- The proxy could also be there for protecting Bob’s timing services from poisonous requests or Malware coming from other networks.
- It could also be helping control the incoming and outgoing flows between these two networks, to avoid overloading or make things faster.
- No additional software. A proxy does not require you to install specific software, you only need to instruct the client where to forward particular data flows.
- Proxies can be anonymous. They can hide the source IP address from the destination and whatever is on its way. Some proxies, such as the HTTP anonymous proxy, can also change some fields in the header, such as Via or X-Forwarded For (XFF).
- Proxies work based on application or service. Proxies work at the OSI model layer 5, so they need to be configured according to application or service. Proxies will not hide all Internet traffic (layer 3), only application traffic such as web browsers, torrent client, media player, etc. This helps you ensure granular control over what’s hidden and what’s not.
- Proxies tend to be fast. The majority of proxies have low overhead and require few resources. Client and server-wise there are no extra computations such as encryption, or authentication (aside from SOCKS5). This is why proxies are generally better for applications that require speed, such as web scraping or torrenting.
- Proxies can forward your request from another country. A big percentage of websites and services tailor their content based on geography. When a proxy is based on another country (where source traffic is), all content tailored for that country will be available. Proxies can also help bypass regional or institutional network limitations.
- Proxies can be vulnerable when sending sensitive information. Proxies just mask IP, change some headers, and forward data. They do not encrypt data. So any middle-man that intercepts traffic should be able to see data in plain text, especially HTTP and FTP.
- Privacy can’t be guaranteed. If the proxy server is hired from a third-party provider, your privacy also goes third-party. Proxy servers may retain traffic logs that can contain sensitive data, like source IP and destination maps, timestamps, data transferred, etc.
In This Corner: VPN.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a network of computers, servers, or IT resources that are not necessarily bound to a specific location. VPNs were created to connect remote workers or branch offices (elements of a network) located somewhere else to a central network on headquarters.
VPNs use clients and servers to establish communication. The client, usually located remotely, opens up a secure communication channel to the VPN server, usually located in a headquarters. Since VPNs use public or risky networks (such as the Internet) as transport, they need to encrypt data. In an office scenario, all remote and distributed workers would connect to the same VPN server on headquarters.
Let’s see what a VPN is, using the following screenshot.
The client on a “Local network”, uses the physical channel (risky) via the Internet “Public Network” to connect to the VPN server on another “Local network”. To ensure security and privacy across risky networks, the VPN client and server use an encryption key to establish the VPN secure tunnel (in red).
- VPNs encrypt data. The VPN client and server (peers) use certificates or pre-shared secrets (keys) to encrypt traffic. They exchange a set of public/private keys to ensure a secure and private connection. Although a middle-man could still intercept traffic, without the key, no one could decipher it.
- Bypass network limitations. Same as proxies, VPNs located somewhere else (other than the local network) can help bypass network limitations, such as firewalls, censorship, bandwidth throttling, and geo-restricted content.
- VPNs work at the network layer. VPN encrypts the entire Internet connection. Since VPNs work at layer 3 of the OSI model, your entire connection is encrypted.
- Privacy can’t be guaranteed. Although your data is private from the local network, ISP, and any third-party agency or government, there is still someone with access to your data logs. Same as proxies, a VPN service provider still has access to your logs.
- VPNs may compromise speed. VPNs provide encryption, which is an additional overhead in terms of resource utilization. Your client (computer or smartphone) has to use the VPN protocol to encrypt every packet. You would not feel this decrease in speed by only web browsing, but you’ll likely feel it when streaming media or downloading.
- Premium VPNs can be more expensive. VPNs tend to use more resources, more infrastructure, software, etc. Some premium VPN with large distributed networks and extra features can get really expensive.
Final Verdict: VPN vs Proxy
Which one is better VPN or Proxy?
It depends on your requirements and resources.
If you are looking for full anonymity when handling sensitive information, go for a VPN. VPNs are far better for banking or trading in coffee shops. But if you are looking for more speed, and still need some degree of anonymity go for a proxy. Proxies such as IPv6 rotating proxies are highly efficient for data scraping, gaming, and bypassing network restrictions.