VPNs are a common way to hide your online identity. Aside from allowing users to access a remote corporate network securely, VPNs have been widely adopted for bypassing censorship, geographical-restricted content, and even to stay private when connected to public WiFi networks, in airports or coffee shops.
But VPNs are not the only means to hide your online identity. There are other ways to mask your identity and protect yourself, and a proxy is one of the best alternatives to VPNs. Although a proxy provides a lower level of anonymity than a VPN, some types of proxies are faster, more stable, and much cheaper.
Both VPNs, and proxy servers hide your online identity. But this is all VPNs and proxies have in common. The way they operate, how they accomplish anonymity, their applications, etc, are all different.
In this post, we’ll cover the differences between VPNs and Proxies. We’ll go through their pros and cons, and help you make the right decision for your particular need.
What are a VPN and Proxy Similarities?
Before we go deep into the Proxy vs VPN differences, let’s define what their similarities are. What are the few characteristics that make VPNs and Proxies almost similar? Both a VPN and proxy re-route your traffic to a central server and hide your source IP.
Similarities between VPN and proxies:
- Centralization. Both technologies provide centralization for distributed networks.
- Anonymity. Both technologies provide a certain degree of online anonymity.
First, both VPNs and proxies were created to provide centralization to remote and distributed networks. For example, a proxy server regardless of where it is located, it can provide a central place where remote users can connect to and have an exit node. In a similar case, a VPN server can provide access to a central network to remote and distributed networks.
Second, both VPNs and Proxies, although at a different level, provide a degree of online anonymity. A VPN accomplishes this, by encrypting traffic end-to-end, while proxies accomplish this by masking the source IP with the proxy’s IP.
What is a Proxy Server?
A proxy is an intermediary server that centralizes requests from two networks. This means, when a user on a private network, wants to access a service like a website (HTTP), FTP server, or Torrent sever, etc, on a public network (Internet), the proxy will take the request and perform some action, such as re-route the request, block it, or hide IP. The former, “hide IP,” is what most people use a proxy for.
The following diagram shows a forwarding proxy in action. A School PC on a private network is trying to access Facebook on the public network, but the school’s firewall is blocking requests (in red) to Facebook. When the school PC connects to Facebook via the Proxy-server (in blue), the school firewall does not have any rule blocking access to the proxy server, so it allows the session. The School PC can successfully bypass the network restriction, thanks to the proxy server.
What can you use a Proxy for?
The most popular use case of a proxy server is to browse the web anonymously. Of course, proxies can be used for a wide variety of applications, like the diagram above, to bypass LAN restriction, but also to avoid regional restrictions, avoiding censorship, web scraping, large-scale SEO campaigns, anonymous P2P, and more.
Proxy Server Pros and Cons?
- You can hide IP.
- Bypass geographical restrictions.
- Avoid censorship.
- Cheap and large pools of proxies.
- Very efficient for large-scale operations that require anonymity.
- Free proxies are slow and unsafe.
- Free proxies can be loaded with sharing users.
- Proxy providers might keep logs.
- Proxies do not encrypt data.
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is basically a virtual network using a physical network. It uses the client/server communication model to create an encrypted virtual tunnel (over TCP or UDP) that hides all traffic data across these physical networks.
VPNs were designed to allow remote and secure access to distributed network endpoints, such as branch offices or employees working remotely outside the office. VPNs use the Internet as the medium (although it can use other access technologies like leased lines) to connect both a client and a server and create a tunnel between them using encryption mechanisms.
Like the screenshot above, the OpenVPN client uses the public network to connect to LAN resources via an OpenVPN server. The encryption that hides traffic across the public Internet, is what makes a VPN, a master in online privacy.
What can you use a VPN for?
Since VPNs encrypt traffic end-to-end, nobody including a network admin, your neighbor with your WiFi code, a hacker, local ISP, or any middle-man could read the contents of the traffic. Although they could intercept it, they would only see gibberish. So, the most basic use case for a VPN is secure outgoing/incoming traffic using public networks.
VPN Pros and Cons?
- VPNs provide full end-to-end encryption.
- Protection in untrusted WiFi networks.
- Safe P2P and BitTorrent downloading.
- Bypass geo-restricted content, such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc.
- VPNs make it extremely hard for your ISPs or any third-party agency to track you.
- VPNs do have vulnerabilities, such as IPv6, WebRTC, and some DNS data leaks.
- VPN traffic can be intercepted. If encryption is weak, the traffic could be decrypted.
- Some VPN providers are required by law to retain traffic logs.
- You are not Malware-free using a VPN.
- Higher latency due to geography and encryption overhead.
What are VPN and Proxy Main Differences?
VPNs and proxies were born out of different necessities. They are both different creatures that serve different purposes. Yet, many people heavily compare them based only on online privacy.
Yes, both help solve problems with distributed networks and provide anonymity. But they accomplish this completely differently.
So what are the main differences between a VPN and proxy?
- VPNs and proxies work differently. A VPN encrypts your entire Internet traffic. It encapsulates your TCP/IP packet generated by your localhost into a VPN protocol packet (like IPSec or OpenVPN). All this is accomplished with a secret key. Whereas a proxy would only re-route traffic from the application level, browser, FTP, DNS, BitTorrent etc.
- VPN’s encryption takes a toll on speed. A VPN’s overhead due to encryption, makes the connection’s speed and stability much lower. Computers need more resources to encrypt/decrypt every packet. On the other hand, since the proxies have minimum overhead, the speed and stability are much better, making them more suitable for torrenting and streaming.
- Paid VPNs are usually more expensive than paid proxy servers. VPNs are generally more expensive to maintain and use, making them more expensive than proxy servers.
Final Verdict: Which One to Use? A VPN vs Proxy?
First, and at all costs, avoid using free proxies and free VPNs. They are unsafe and slow. Free services will show you a tremendous amount of ads, could install bloatware in your computer, and maybe even Malware. Also a free service could also use your resources (bandwidth for IP proxies or CPU for cryptomining) without you being fully aware.
Both technologies, VPNs and proxies work differently, so each one is more suitable for a different application.
VPNs are amazing privacy tools because of their encryption. They are masters at hiding your traffic, so you could use a VPN for handling sensitive information while traveling, or connecting to public untrusty networks. Proxies are cheaper and faster and can be obtained by the dozen. For example, you could use IPv6 rotating proxies for intensive-resource activities that still require a good level of anonymity but need to be fast, like web scraping and large-scale SEO campaigns.