What is a forward proxy and how do they work?

Written by: Lisa Whelan

A forward proxy manages requests between your device and the internet. It is called a “forward” proxy because it “forwards” requests from your device to the internet instead of your device making them directly. Using a forward proxy as an intermediary between your device and the internet can protect your privacy, enhance your security, or help businesses enforce internet usage policies. 

Aside from some specialized use cases, all proxies are either forward or reverse proxies, with the various types of proxy falling into one of those two groups.

What is a forward proxy?

A forward proxy is a proxy server that sits between your device (or client - such as your web browser or a mobile application) and the internet. Instead of the client making requests directly to the web resource you want to access, your client makes the request to the proxy server, which then sends the request on (or "forwards" it) to the web resource on your behalf.

When the web resource receives your request, it sends its response back to the proxy server, which then "forwards" that response to you. The forwarding process follows these steps:

  1. You initiate a request to access a website or other online resource
  2. Your request is sent to the forward proxy server (instead of directly to the destination server)
  3. The proxy forwards the request to the destination server on your behalf (hiding your real IP address)
  4. The destination server processes your request
  5. The destination server sends its response back to the forward proxy
  6. The proxy server forwards the response from the destination server back to your device
  7. You receive the content you requested

How does a forward proxy work?

A forward proxy receives your internet traffic, which then passes through the proxy server and enters the internet using the proxy server’s IP address and physical location. This has the effect of masking your real IP address and location, which is why proxies can be used to increase privacy and security.

Depending on the type of proxy you are using and what you want to use it for, you may connect to your forward proxy via your browser or by configuring your operating system settings. Once connected, the proxy directs your internet requests to go through the proxy server before reaching the wider internet. For example, when you request a web page, the proxy receives the traffic from your device and then forwards the request to the internet server that hosts the web page. The internet server sees the request coming from the proxy, not directly from you.

Forward proxies also handle responses. When the internet server sends data back, the proxy intercepts it. It can then inspect the content for security purposes, ensuring no malware or unwanted content reaches your device. After the forward proxy has inspected the data, it sends the verified clean and safe data to your browser.

Forward Proxy - 1

The process of using a forward proxy follows these steps:

  1. You set up and connect to your forward proxy server. For this example, lets say your proxy server's IP address is 192.0.2.1 and port 8080.
  2. You type example.com into your web browser's address bar and hit enter. Instead of your browser connecting to example.com directly, it sends the request to the proxy server at 192.0.2.1:8080.
  3. The proxy server at 192.0.2.1 receives your request to access example.com, and then makes a request to example.com on your behalf. From the perspective of example.com, the request appears to come from the proxy server's IP address.
  4. Example.com processes the request from the proxy server and sends the data (e.g., the web page content) back to the proxy server.
  5. The proxy server receives the data from example.com and forwards this data back to your browser.
  6. Your browser receives the data from the proxy server and displays the content of example.com to you.

Note: Depending on what you are using a forward proxy for, there may be extra steps added to this process. For example, if you are using a proxy for content filtering, access control, or security measures, it will inspect and filter the incoming traffic between steps 5 and 6.

 

Types of forward proxy

There are multiple types of forward proxy, some of which are integrated with our everyday online activities, others that are widely implemented by businesses, and some that are extremely specialized for niche use cases. Some of the most common types of forward proxies are:

  • Residential proxies
  • Datacenter proxies
  • Transparent proxies 

Residential proxies

Residential proxies are forward proxies that use real IP addresses from Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Because residential proxies originate from actual devices in real homes or offices, they are less likely to be flagged or blocked by websites. There are multiple subcategories of residential proxy, including mobile, rotating, and static.

Datacenter proxies

Datacenter proxies are proxy servers hosted in a data center. The IP addresses from datacenter proxies are not associated with an ISP. Datacenter proxies will forward multiple requests to a website from many different IP addresses, which is particularly useful when scraping websites as it allows you to avoid bot detection. However, as these addresses are not associated with an ISP, they are more easily detected and blocked than residential proxies.

Transparent proxies

Transparent proxies do not modify your request before forwarding it to the online resource you are trying to use. These kinds of proxies are often used for content filtering, for example to prevent employees from accessing inappropriate content in the workplace. Transparent proxies do not hide or modify your IP address.

Other types of proxies

The benefits and use cases of forward proxies are virtually limitless, and you will find that a range of different types of forward proxies are used for a large number of your everyday online activities, for example:

  • FTP (File Transfer Protocol) proxies facilitate secure file transfers
  • HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) proxies link together websites and other resources on the internet
  • Caching proxies cache and serve static content to make websites that you frequently visit load more quickly

Forward proxy uses and benefits

Residential, datacenter, and transparent proxies are most often used by businesses, although there are some use cases where individuals may benefit from using them too. Some of the most common reasons for using forward proxies are:

  • Increased security and privacy
  • Efficient web scraping
  • Geo-location spoofing
  • Content filtering and access control

Increased security and privacy

Forward proxies can inspect incoming web traffic in order to block malicious content and protect against cyber threats. This is a common use case for forward proxies in corporate environments, where they act as a proactive defense mechanism against malware, viruses, and phishing attempts.

Web scraping

You can use forward proxies to programmatically extract large amounts of data from websites. This is called “web scraping”. Proxies can make a large number of requests to a website from different IP addresses to gather information on competitors or for market research. Gathering this information manually could lead to a website blocking your real IP address, and would take much longer.

Geo-location spoofing

In regions where certain websites or online services are blocked, you can use a forward proxy to access this information indirectly. By connecting to a forward proxy server in another country, your requests to any geo-restricted online resources will come from that location, rather than your own. This is commonly employed in countries with internet censorship.

Content filtering and access control

In an organization or educational institution, IT administrators often use forward proxies for content filtering. The forward proxy can restrict access to certain websites or content categories by inspecting incoming traffic and not forwarding it to your device if it meets set criteria. For example, a network administrator could set up a forward proxy to block access to social media sites during working hours.

Forward proxies vs. Traditional firewalls

Although forward proxies and traditional firewalls perform some of the same actions, it's important to understand the differences. 

A traditional firewall operates on a passthrough approach, where it acts as a barrier between your internal network and the rest of the internet. Firewalls filter incoming and outgoing traffic based on predetermined security rules. This means that it checks the data packets against these rules and decides whether to allow or block them.

In contrast, a forward proxy adds an additional layer by acting on behalf of clients or users within the internal network. Before forwarding traffic to the internet, it can authenticate user requests, providing an extra security checkpoint. The proxy server evaluates requests from clients, and if the requests meet the necessary criteria, it then sends them to the requested server on the internet. This process helps in enforcing company policies and also in hiding the internal users' identities, adding a level of privacy and security.

Forward proxies can also handle encrypted traffic. With the rise of HTTPS, most of today's internet traffic is encrypted, which poses a challenge for traditional firewalls, which are not designed to inspect the contents of encrypted packets. Cloud-based forward proxies have the capability to decrypt, inspect, and re-encrypt traffic, ensuring that even encrypted communications adhere to security policies.

SOAX forward proxies

At SOAX, we provide access to residential, mobile, and datacenter forward proxy servers. You can easily integrate SOAX into your workflow and benefit from a huge pool of more than 150 million proxies.

Our automatically rotating residential proxies can avoid restrictions, bot blocks, and interruptions (such as CAPTCHAs) when web scraping. If you get stuck, our global team of expert support specialists will be on hand to help you around the clock.

Sign up for a 3-day trial for just $1.99.

 

Frequently asked questions

What is a forward proxy?

A forward proxy, also known as a web proxy, acts as an intermediary between your device and the internet. When you request a web resource, the forward proxy forwards the request on your behalf to the target server. The server sends its response back to the proxy, which, in turn, delivers it to you. This process helps conceal your IP address, cache content for faster access, and implement content filtering.

What are the primary use cases for forward proxies?

Forward proxies serve various purposes in network management, including:

  • Content filtering: Forward proxies can block access to certain websites or content categories, enhancing security and compliance.
  • Bandwidth optimization: By caching frequently requested content, forward proxies reduce the need to fetch the same data repeatedly from the internet, optimizing bandwidth usage.
  • Anonymity and privacy: Users can leverage forward proxies to mask their IP addresses, adding a layer of anonymity and privacy while accessing online resources.

How do forward proxies enhance cyber security?

Forward proxies play a crucial role in cybersecurity and user privacy by:

  • Filtering malicious content: Proxies can block access to malicious websites and prevent you from inadvertently downloading harmful content.
  • Anonymizing your identity: Forward proxies mask your IP address, making it challenging for websites to trace your identity.
  • SSL inspection: Some proxies offer SSL inspection, allowing them to decrypt and inspect encrypted traffic for potential threats, ensuring a higher level of security.

Lisa Whelan

Lisa is a content professional, specializing in tech and cybersecurity. She's here to share valuable insights and break down complex technical concepts for the SOAX audience.

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