Proxy Servers vs Firewalls: What’s the Difference?

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Significantly improve your cybersecurity!


The increase in cyberattacks across the globe causes panic for almost all companies. Cyberattacks like phishing, DoS (denial of services) attacks, unauthorized access, and system intrusions are at an all-time high. This also affects both the operations and integrity of the businesses. One of the most commonly used first lines of defense to prevent these attacks is the use of firewalls or proxy servers. Both firewalls and proxy servers work toward restricting, controlling, and filtering incoming and outgoing network requests from a company. They simply aim to provide network security. 

Yet, what’s the difference between them? In this article, I’ll explain more about proxy servers and traditional firewalls. I’ll also discuss how they work and their differences. Finally, I’ll give you tips to choose the right service for you. Firstly, let’s start with what a proxy server is. 

What Is a Proxy Server?

A proxy server is a system or a router that acts as a gateway between you and the internet. It helps prevent cybercriminals from intruding or entering your company’s private network. 

In fact, the word ‘proxy’ means to act on someone else’s behalf. Accordingly, a proxy serves as an intermediary. It retrieves data from an online resource on your behalf. Now that you know what a proxy server is, let’s understand how it works. 

How Does a Proxy Server Work?

A proxy server facilitates the request-response cycles between a user and the internet. When a user wants to access some information or services online, they raise a web request. Then, these requests are redirected to a proxy server. The proxy also evaluates these requests raised. Then, it forwards them to the internet

Similarly, when the internet service generates a response to the request raised, it’s sent to the proxy server. The proxy will again filter the response from the internet. It’ll also scan for any malware or intrusion. Once everything is safe according to the configurations set on the proxy server, it forwards that response back to the user. 

A proxy gets your requests straight away!

Why should you choose a proxy server though? I’ll discuss this next.

Why Proxy Servers?

A proxy server has many benefits to add to your network. Here are some of them:

  • Provides anonymity and enhanced security as it abstracts your IP address from external sources
  • Allows for private browsing
  • Allows you to access location-specific content
  • Prevents your employees from accessing harmful, malicious, or inappropriate content 
  • Enhances your network performance and also provides an extra layer of security
  • Acts as a part of firewall implementation and can also be set up via web filters

Now that you’re all covered when it comes to proxy servers, I’ll discuss what traditional firewalls are. 

What Is a Traditional Firewall?

A firewall is a network security device or a service that monitors both incoming and outgoing traffic. It either allows or blocks the network requests based on the configured rules. A firewall is also considered the first line of defense for companies. It acts as a barrier between the company’s private network and the outside/public networks. You can also use a firewall for unified security management. In turn, this helps companies cope with the ever-changing IT landscape and requirements. 

In addition, you can also configure these firewalls for several filters like application, traffic, location, and identity-based traffic allow/blocklisting and inspection. When configured properly, you can also use these firewalls as an effective means to scale your network

Depending on the way a firewall protects the company’s private network, you can also classify firewalls into different types. Some of the most common types of firewalls are packet filtering firewalls, proxy firewalls, stateful inspection firewalls, and next-generation firewalls (NGFW). Now comes the next question, how does a firewall work? Let’s see. 

A graphic image that represents a traditional firewall.
You should certainly use a firewall!

How Does a Firewall Work?

A firewall is an always-on service or a tool that constantly monitors both the incoming and outgoing network traffic. It also accesses and segregates the network traffic based on the threat levels. That protects the private networks and endpoint devices in a business or a company from outside attacks. 

Different types of firewalls employ multiple ways to regulate and monitor network traffic, though. Some firewalls rely on packet filtering where all the data packets flowing in and out of a private network equipped with a firewall are filtered. Other firewalls might also employ stateful inspection or proxy service to secure a network from outsiders. You can then use firewalls to prevent a number of cyberattacks. For example, these attacks could be backdoor accesses, denial of service (DoS) attacks, remote logins, macros, spam, and various forms of malware including viruses and trojans. 

Still not sure how firewalls can help? Here’s why you should choose them.

Why Firewalls?

Choosing a firewall as your first-line defense is the right step. Why? Here’s what firewalls do for you. 

  • Uses rules, configurations, and control policies to decide if the data packets need to be blocked or allowed within a private network
  • Involves an access control list (ACL) containing a list of authorized or blocked ports, IP addresses, and IP requests. IT administrators also monitor this list. Protects your company’s private network 
  • Prevents unauthorized access to your company’s network or resources
  • Promotes privacy and also prevents your network from the risks associated with hacking, cyberattacks, and other malware

Now let’s break down the differences between a proxy server and a firewall to help you choose better!

Differences Between a Proxy Server and a Firewall

Using a proxy server or a firewall is similar for the most part. That said, certain important differences set the two apart from each other. Here’s a table to sum them up for you.

Proxy ServerFirewall
Connects to an external server and communicates on the behalf of the clientMonitors and filters all the incoming and outgoing traffic on a given network
Works on the application layer of the OSI modelWorks on the network and transport layer of an OSI model
Provides anonymity and bypass restrictionsProtects an internal private network against cyberattacks
Can be set up on both sides with public networksIs an interface between the public and the private network
Involves less overhead usually as it serves as a mediator for the request/response cycleInvolves more overhead due to its configuration and filtering rules
Filters client-side requests for the connectionFilters web/data packets
Works on the application protocol levelWorks on data packet level
Proxy servers and firewalls are generally similar.

Proxy Servers vs Firewalls: What to Choose?

A firewall is a traditional network security provisioning system that monitors and controls the incoming and outgoing network traffic. On the other hand, a proxy server acts as an intermediary between a client and a server in a network-driven paradigm. This is to provide anonymity and to access location-restricted content

While both proxy servers and firewalls offer their own advantages, you don’t necessarily have to choose one among these services. Several firewall providers are now integrating proxy servers as an added component in the firewall solution. This means you can leverage the best of both of these applications. 

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, you can use both firewalls and proxy servers to provide an additional layer of security against malware and intruders over the internet. A proxy server is also a firewall component, so many modern firewall providers allow you to leverage proxy servers. In turn, they provide efficiency, feasibility, and additional security.

In this article, you’ve gained a better understanding of what proxy servers and firewalls mean to a company, how they work, and their applications. You also learned some of the major differences between proxy servers and firewalls. Lastly, it’s essential to know you can avail these services now using the modern cloud-computing model. It also allows you to leverage the as-a-service paradigm where you can subscribe to a firewall as a service and/or cloud-based proxy services for your needs.

Have more questions? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below.

FAQ

What is Phishing?

Phishing is a deceitful activity where a cybercriminal designs and develops a defrauding email. This “fake” email tricks users into sharing sensitive information. It may also make them involuntarily download malware leading to data theft, corruption, and even data destruction. Most email security services also provide anti-phishing services to secure their users against phishing.

What is a DoS attack?

In a DoS (denial-of-service) attack, a cybercriminal uses one or more computers to send a large volume of requests to a system or server. In turn, that takes the system down and also hinders its operation/performance. A lack of robust email security services or best practices could also potentially allow cybercriminals to disrupt your business through DoS attacks. 

What is a Next-Generation Firewall?

A next-generation firewall (NGFW) is an advanced network security device or a service that provides capabilities beyond a traditional firewall. On top of everything a traditional stateful firewall offers, a next-generation firewall also includes additional features. These features could be deep packet inspection of incoming and outgoing network traffic, application control and awareness, cloud-delivered threat intelligence, etc. 

What is an ACL?

In computer security, an access control list (ACL) is a list of rules and permissions to manage authorization. This means ACL specifies which users can access specific system resources or platforms. ACL also helps administrators monitor user access in many businesses. 

What is a firewall-as-a-service?

Firewall-as-a-service (FWaaS) is a cloud-based firewall solution that aims  to simplify the company’s network infrastructure while delivering all the traditional firewall capabilities. Similar to a traditional firewall, a cloud-based firewall is capable of packet filtering, network monitoring, and other web data filtering capabilities to prevent a private organizational network from malware

Resources 

TechGenix: Newsletters 

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TechGenix: Cybersecurity Section

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TechGenix: Enterprise Section

Learn more about different enterprise news, tools, and services

TechGenix: Networking Section

Learn more about enterprise networking.

Cisco: Article on Proxy Servers

Learn more about various types of proxy servers and their applications.

Cisco: Article on Firewalls

Learn more about a firewall, its various types and applications.

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