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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How to Setup a Proxy, and When You Should.

How to Put a Proxy Between You and the 'Net 

Without a Proxy, You're Browsing Naked 

Even if you're not familiar with proxies, you've no doubt stumbled across the term once or twice while setting up a network or Internet connection. Simply put, a proxy is an "intermediary" between your computer and the Internet, a tunnel through which all incoming and outgoing traffic must pass. 

To the rest of the world, a proxy "looks and acts" like an individual server, with it's own IP address and associated details. This provides many advantages, some are useful for personal browsing, and many are highly desirable for connecting a larger personal or business network to the Internet. 

Anonymity is a major factor with proxies.
Connecting to the Internet without a proxy might put out more information that you want, up to and including your home location. Many sites and services can be denied or at least limited to you based upon your IP address; this is especially true for site blocking and censorship by ISPs, employers, schools, governments, etc. 

Some people simply want to limit their information out of principle, while others have good reason to keep their activities away from too many prying eyes. These reasons can be as innocuous as needing to see websites whose content is tailored to another region (for example, getting the "homeland" version of a website rather than the "international" version), but there's no doubt that the anonymity can serve much more nefarious purposes as well. 

On the other hand, you can also use proxies to do the blocking and filtering.
If you're running a network and you want to blacklist (or whitelist) sites for security and productivity purposes, a proxy is often far more flexible than a firewall or other similar solutions. By implementing controls and filtering, a proxy can be used to limit the connections that can be made from or to anyone "behind" the proxy. 

You can also use a proxy to keep track of the things that people (for example, employees and children) are doing with the Internet connection (for example, spending half the day on Facebook or porn sites). Browsing history and bandwidth usage statistics are among the things that can be recorded using a proxy server. 

Proxies are also useful to increase performance and make data traffic more efficient.
Caching is the oldest and most common use for a proxy, storing web pages and resources so that they don't need to be "built" from scratch every time they're accessed. With a single gateway or "reverse proxy", the aforementioned security and filtering benefits can be applied once to a single connection rather than to all of the network's servers, as can SSL and encryption controls. Traffic control allows distributing or "load balancing" incoming connections, in addition to managing the bandwidth priority and DNS details of individual servers and internal networks behind the proxy. 

Options for setting up your proxy
There are a few ways to set up a proxy server, and the choice you make depends on your needs, your level of comfort with network tasks, and whether you have some server space available or not. 

Open Yourself Up to Proxies
If anonymity is your sole concern, you can start with an "open proxy". These are freely available services that allow you to connect with any browser to an offsite proxy server for anonymous access to websites. Most of the "IP anonymizers" found on the web are open proxies, and they generally get the job done -- not simply for people exercising their right to privacy, but also for spamming and malware distribution. 

This has led government censors, ISPs, email servers, and other to be suspicious of open proxies, and to block or track traffic from anonymous proxies (open or otherwise). Many servers that run open proxies keep logs of incoming IP addresses, and those logs can be seized or made available. Ironically, this means that you could potentially be less "anonymous" on a proxy server than you would have been by connecting directly. 

Another issue commonly reported is the incompatibility of proxies with certain websites. Java is a particular source of issues, but various complex frameworks (especially apps within a site) can make proxies problematic. You may indeed find that some of your most visited sites have reduced functionality, making a proxy less attractive. 

Personal Proxies
A slightly more involved route would be to install an application or browser plug-in that establishes a proxy server utilizing a specified IP address and port. This is the usual method for personal home networks, but also perfectly suitable for many business network needs. Some applications automatically change settings or walk you through the process, but it's more likely that you'll need to manually enter the correct LAN IP and DNS settings via the Control Panel. 

The method differs between operating systems and versions. Windows 7 conveniently passes along the necessary settings to any browsers or Internet applications, but there still may be some exceptions that need to be entered manually in the apps themselves. 

One final note on VPNs.
If you're looking into proxies, you may also want to consider a VPN (Virtual Private Network) for many of the same benefits and results. VPNs and proxies are not synonymous, but both provide control over IP addresses, with many of the same security, anonymity, and traffic management functions. Bot are also available as free personal software as well as enterprise-level server-based solutions. VPNs also offer additional advantages such as remote access and "thin client" OS booting / emulating options.

About the Author: Porter Olson is a writer and content specialist for UsBundles.

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