Proxy vs Firewall: Usage & Differences [2023 Guide]

Proxy vs Firewall: Usage & Differences [2023 Guide] image

The most common questions cyber security newbies ask are: “What are the differences between proxy vs firewall applications?” and “How do they protect you”?

While a proxy server is a type of server application that functions as an intermediary between two internet addresses, a firewall is a software app that regulates access to and from a certain network—both of which are necessary digital security measures.

Below, we review their differences and how they complement each other.

What Is the Use of a Proxy Server?

Proxy servers are server applications implemented to serve as gateways between a device and all other servers on the internet. Clients use proxy servers to hide their identities (IP addresses) and indirectly connect to less-than-secure outside networks.

For instance, if you need a file or another resource, the proxy server will receive your request, relay it to the final destination, obtain the asked-for resource, and send it back to you. That way, the proxy server functions as a barrier that protects your device from data leaks, malicious attacks, and other bad actors, as they cannot locate you.

Specific Benefits of Proxy Servers

Proxy servers are used regularly as they offer several benefits:

  • They hide your IP address;
  • They increase your privacy;
  • They bypass bandwidth throttling.
  • They bypass geo restrictions;
  • They overcome IP blocks;
  • They speed up data retrieval;

The reason why accessing certain websites via proxies is faster is the caching system they utilize to store your data and content from regularly-visited sites. That way, they can instantly serve the requested information without contacting the web server again.

What Is the Use of a Firewall?

While firewall apps share the same main purpose as proxy servers—protecting the end user—they go about it differently. Based on pre-set rules, the purpose of Firewalls is to monitor, control, and allow only certain types of incoming and outgoing network traffic.

For example, if you want to keep your network open only for certain clients and applications, you will manually select their individual IP addresses. So whenever they try to connect to your machine or connect to the internet from your end, they will be allowed to do so. Every other connection will be filtered out and prevented from occurring.

Specific Benefits of Firewall Applications

The main benefits of firewall apps include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • They stop unauthorized outside connections;
  • They enforce user-set access policies;
  • They scan your network traffic for intrudes;
  • They filter traffic based on specific applications;
  • They are used by VPN providers;
  • They mitigate DDoS attacks;
  • They help organizations protect their data.

Firewalls vary depending on how they are developed and distributed. For instance, host-based firewalls protect only one user, whereas network-based firewalls protect everyone connected to the local network and can be software- and hardware-based.

The criteria they use to allow or deny network connections include IP addresses, network protocols, application-specific rules, port numbers, and more.

Differences Between a Proxy and a Firewall

Now, let’s take a look at the main differences between a proxy server and a firewall in several crucial aspects, from traffic management to the protocols they use.

1. Traffic Monitoring

Since proxies are designed to monitor and redirect your network traffic, they provide detailed insights into the requests and responses that are sent through them, and they log and analyze your traffic patterns to and from common websites.

Firewalls monitor your network traffic with a different goal: to filter out your traffic based on predetermined security rules. While they can log traffic for security purposes, they focus on identifying potential threats rather than providing a detailed analysis.

2. Network Security

As we’ve mentioned before, proxy servers enhance your security by acting as an intermediary between your machine and the target server, thus masking your IP address and providing a layer of anonymity. However, proxies alone are an insufficient security measure.

On the other hand, firewalls are specifically designed to provide network security. They analyze incoming and outgoing traffic and block unauthorized access and malicious threats based on predetermined rules, thus providing a strong deterrent against network attacks.

3. Protocol Implementation

Proxies can support almost every internet protocol, including HTTP, HTTPS, SOCKS, and FTP, but they can also be protocol-specific, i.e., tailored to work best with a specific protocol. For instance, you need an HTTP proxy to hide your address in HTTP traffic.

In contrast, firewalls are protocol-agnostic since they operate on a different level of the network stack: they analyze and control traffic at the IP, transport, and application layers. Therefore, firewalls can handle every kind of internet protocol.

4. Other Differences

Let’s summarize some other differences between proxies and firewalls:

PurposeProvides access and connection to the network;Prevents unauthorized access to the network;
FunctioningMediates a user's requests to retrieve data from internet servers;Monitors and blocks incoming and outgoing access requests;
FilteringFilters requests sent out by clients;Filters access requests based on IP packets;
Network LayerWorks on network and application layer;Works on network and transport layer;
ExistenceExists on both sides of a public network;Exists between a private and public network;
ProtectionProtects the user’s identity and location;Protects from outside malicious attacks;
OverheadGenerates less overhead because of caching.Generates more overhead as it authorizes requests.

Why Use a Proxy and a Firewall Together?

Using a proxy server and a firewall in unison is the preferred method of strengthening the security and performance of networks of all sizes, as they cover different security needs. The main reasons why they work well together are listed below:

  • Enhanced privacy and anonymity—while your firewall repels outside intruders, proxy servers will hide you from them by masking your IP address;
  • Improved network performance—since proxies cache frequently accessed content, you will need less bandwidth to get what you need; moreover, the workload on the firewall is reduced by offloading requests to the proxy;
  • Granular access control—firewalls can filter and control traffic based on predetermined security rules, whereas proxies can be configured to allow or deny specific types of content or websites—both together offer better access control;
  • Layered defense—firewalls focus on blocking unauthorized access and known threats, whereas proxies add an extra layer of protection by acting as intermediaries;
  • Traffic monitoring and logging—both proxies and firewalls offer traffic monitoring and logging capabilities, and used together, they offer insights into your network activities, identify potential security incidents, and detect suspicious patterns;
  • Regulatory compliance—industries that enforce strict data privacy and network security requirements expect organizations to have a multi-layered network defense that includes a firewall and a proxy server or a VPN at the minimum.

As you can see, combining a proxy and a firewall provides robust and comprehensive security and allows organizations to create a resilient and secure network environment.

Bottom Line

Understanding the differences and usage of proxy servers and firewalls is crucial for maintaining a secure and robust network infrastructure in 2023. While proxies act as intermediaries between clients and servers to provide anonymity, firewalls are the first line of defense against external threats. Most users leverage the strengths of both types of security measures to create a layered defense system against outside and inside threats.

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