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What is a Reverse Proxy?

Summary

A reverse proxy sits in-between a client and an origin web server. It intercepts requests at the network edge, ensuring no client can communicate directly with the server. Instead, the client sends its requests to the reverse proxy, which forwards them to the server. Similarly, the reverse proxy receives the responses from the server, and forwards them to the client. Essentially, a reverse proxy is a middleman who stands at the edge between user requests and the network.

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Summary

A reverse proxy sits in-between a client and an origin web server. It intercepts requests at the network edge, ensuring no client can communicate directly with the server. Instead, the client sends its requests to the reverse proxy, which forwards them to the server. Similarly, the reverse proxy receives the responses from the server, and forwards them to the client. Essentially, a reverse proxy is a middleman who stands at the edge between user requests and the network.

What is a Reverse Proxy?

A reverse proxy sits in-between a client and an origin web server. It intercepts requests at the network edge, ensuring no client can communicate directly with the server. Instead, the client sends its requests to the reverse proxy, which forwards them to the server. Similarly, the reverse proxy receives the responses from the server, and forwards them to the client. Essentially, a reverse proxy is a middleman who stands at the edge between user requests and the network.

How Does a Reverse Proxy Work?

When a reverse proxy is being used, the DNS is configured to route incoming requests to the proxy instead of the server. The client does not know the location or address of the server; instead, client connections are terminated at the proxy. Almost always, the client-proxy connection will use TLS (Transport Layer Security).

A separate connection is used between the proxy and server. To increase performance, in some configurations the proxy-server connection might not use TLS.

What is a Reverse Proxy Useful for?

Because the proxy masks the identity of the server, a number of different use cases are possible. Benefits of using a reverse proxy can include: 

  • Load balancing: A common use of a reverse proxy is load balancing, where the proxy can intelligently distribute workloads across multiple servers. This improves performance, and thus, user experience. It also provides other benefits, including high availability and redundancy; if one server goes down, the proxy can reroute traffic automatically. More info: How Load Balancing Works.
  • Autoscaling: A reverse proxy can provide autoscaling, so that the site or application can optimize resources automatically as demand conditions change. An extreme example of this is when a DDoS attack occurs; autoscaling plays an important role in mitigating DDoS while preserving network performance for legitimate users.
  • Caching and performance acceleration: A CDN (Content Delivery Network) is usually set up as a reverse proxy.  A common usage is for the CDN to cache content from the server; therefore, the CDN can serve many requests directly to the client without the server being involved. This can reduce the amount of time it takes to respond to a client request and increase perceived server responsiveness, while simultaneously decreasing the workload on the server. More info: How a CDN Works.
  • API Gateway: Sitting between clients and services, an API Gateway acts as a reverse proxy between clients and services. Along with tasks such as SSL termination, it can also provide many elements of API security, such as blocking IP addresses, throttling, logging and monitoring, or authentication services. An API Gateway decouples clients from services, and can perform specific functions, routing requests to backend services, aggregating requests into a single request to reduce chatter, or offloading specific functionality. 
  • Security: By standing in front of the origin server, and hiding its IP address from clients, a reverse proxy can be used for web application security. For example, a next-generation WAF can be deployed in the cloud as a reverse proxy, so that it can filter incoming traffic and remove threats such as hostile bots, API attacks, vulnerability scans, credential attacks, and so on.

How is a Reverse Web Proxy Structured?

A reverse proxy can be a single entity, or it can be a network of connected entities. A common example of the latter is a cloud CDN that has a collection of nodes distributed across a broad geographic region. 

There are a large number of possible reverse proxy structures. The optimal choice is driven by available technology, resource constraints, and business requirements. 

What is a Forward Proxy?

A forward proxy is the opposite of a reverse proxy; it sits in front of clients instead of servers. Reverse proxies are much more common than forwarding proxies.

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