The world of networking has all kinds of software: speed tests, cybersecurity testing tools, automation scripts, and many more. Among these tools, proxies and VPNs are ones that really stand out: Their rich functionality allows for enhanced privacy and improved security.
You’d think that, due to their similarities, the differences between the two are marginal and that they are effectively interchangeable. This article, however, will highlight the ways in which proxies and VPNs differ. Let’s explore them in greater detail.
Here's a video we created to cover this topic. Alternatively, you can read the article for an even deeper analysis.
Getting the definition(s) right
First of all, we should define what these technologies actually are. Even though we (intuitively) understand the meanings behind the words “proxy” and “VPN”, here’s a quick refresher:
What is a proxy?
A proxy server (also simply known as a proxy) is a technology (a server application, to be precise) that acts as the middleman between the user and the server. Acting as the user’s personal representative, it manages their online activity, traffic, and online identity:
What is a VPN?
To understand a Virtual Private Network better, let’s take a closer look at a regular private network first: this is a group of devices interconnected via private IP addresses (a typical example is a Local Area Network, confined in an office/enterprise environment). A VPN, therefore, is an implementation of a private network in the virtual space, providing the same benefits in a distributed manner.
Common goals of proxies and VPNs
The internet has allowed us to scale the process of exchanging data. While it brought countless benefits (e.g. your ability to read this very article!), it also introduced new ways of compromising our safety. Fundamentally, both proxies and VPNs serve the common goal: enhancing the user’s security. How do they do that, exactly?
The process of browsing the web looks rather innocuous to the average user: Check news… Check personal mail… Check work mail… Check some interesting articles… Check a funny video titled “Cat Stands for National Anthem”... Log out, log off.
It’s tempting to think that this kind of online activity is of no interest to anyone. In reality, however, any online activity is interesting to malicious actors (e.g. hackers) because, in most cases, it contains the user’s confidential data: credit card details, passwords, addresses, and so on. With an unsecured connection, intercepting said confidential data is (relatively) easy. Both proxies and VPNs, therefore, aim to make the user’s connection to the internet secure, potentially saving their users dozens of thousands of dollars.
What makes proxies different — and their use cases
Proxies’ and VPNs’ other use cases — and also the ways of attaining their main goal — are our main interest. There are various subsets of proxy servers, each designed to address a specific problem:
- HTTP proxies are primarily used for rerouting, as the name suggests, HTTP traffic.
- The SOCKS protocol turns proxies into a circumvention tool, allowing for bypassing of Internet filtering.
- CGI proxies are, for the lack of a better term, substitutes for “true” proxies (designed for devices that cannot operate with regular proxies).
- Suffix proxies allow access to content via appending the proxy server name to the URL. To access our main page, for instance, you’d type “https://infatica.io.SuffixProxy.com”.
- And many more.
The examples above highlight that proxies’s functionality is much more diverse: they don’t provide a one-size-fits-all solution, encouraging the user to select the right tool for the job instead. OK, so how are proxies typically used in different scenarios?
As mentioned earlier, individuals typically use proxies to enhance their security: proxies manage the communication between the user and the web server in such a way that the server remains uninformed about the user’s online identity. Without this knowledge, the server (if it happens to be malicious) cannot exploit the user’s data.
Some proxy protocols can even provide encryption: a good example is Shadowsocks, an implementation of the SOCKS protocol, used primarily to bypass government censorship and safeguard its users’ anonymity. Another interesting use case is caching: dedicated caching proxies can store content to allow for easier and quicker access.
An added benefit is the ability to appear as a resident of another country: proxy servers are often used to circumvent geo-restrictions imposed by governments and companies. If you ever see a page stating “This content is not available in your region”, you know what to do.
However, proxies are arguably even more useful to businesses: they are an essential part of web scraping, allowing companies to gather massive volumes of data from the internet. Here’s a typical example: price aggregators, as the name suggests, analyze prices offered by different vendors and report where the price for the given product is the lowest. Since writing every single price manually is practically impossible, aggregators write bots — neat little pieces of software that automate various tasks — to do that automatically.
Here’s the problem: bots are easy to spot, especially when they’re accessing the website from the same IP address pool. Webmasters in Country A, noticing suspicious bot activity from Country B, may restrict access to all users from Country B altogether. With proxies, however, aggregators can help their bots appear as genuine users from countries A, B, C… or Z.
What makes VPNs different — and their use cases
Compared to proxy servers, VPNs’ functionality is more streamlined: put a number of users in a single private network and manage their traffic. Since there may be multiple sources of traffic (browsers and other applications, for instance), VPN handles all traffic channels.
In terms of security, a VPN is a better option: it comes with encryption mechanisms and other security measures, working on the OS level. Although proxies are also capable of encrypting the user’s traffic (remember Shadowsocks?), VPNs do it better — and they offer this feature out of the box. Traffic encryption is important because it can be intercepted by many parties:
- Internet Service Providers, which often log their users’ activity,
- Government agencies, which may consider your rants on Twitter to be dangerous,
- Websites and online advertisers, which need as much information about you as possible,
- Hackers, whose motivation is self-evident.
Individuals typically use VPNs for improved security: many commercial VPNs are programs that “just work”, meaning that the user only needs to install the program — and then the program handles the rest. In this regard, a VPN is much more user-friendly than a proxy server, whose installation and setup process involves numerous “How do I…” search queries.
Companies, on the other hand, value VPNs for the ability to manage private networks. In a private network, the employees’ traffic can be (re-)routed, managed, and monitored from the single source, which greatly improves the company’s security. Naturally, VPNs and proxy servers are not interchangeable when it comes to activities like web scraping.
Summary: Key differences
Here’s a quick recap of everything that we’ve learned in this article:
Proxy vs. VPN: Which one to choose? When to use and why use them at all? It depends on your personal needs. For individuals, a VPN may be the better option because it’s simpler to use. For companies, proxies are better because their functionality can be fine-tuned.
Proxy vs. VPN: What is the difference? The main difference lies in scope: while proxies are designed to address specific needs, VPNs’ approach is more global.
Proxy vs. VPN: Which one is more secure? Out of the box, VPNs are more secure because they (normally) provide traffic encryption. Proxies, however, can also be set up to provide encryption mechanisms — please refer to the “Shadowsocks” section above.
Proxy vs. VPN when traveling abroad: Both can be used if you want to bypass geo-restrictions that you encounter in your traveling destination. Since travelers are often only carrying smartphones, VPN is a better choice due to dedicated mobile apps.
Proxy vs. VPN: Which one is faster? VPNs have to execute more traffic-related operations, so they’re slower. Proxies, on the other hand, can even make your internet speed faster (this can be done via caching proxies).
Proxy vs. VPN: Which one is better? Both technologies are awesome, so we shouldn’t oversimplify them and state that “A is better than B”. Here’s what we can say for certain: using either of them is better than using neither of them.