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Proxies versus VPNs: What’s the difference, and which one is right for my use case?

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By the one and only
September 8, 2021

If you spend any time pondering about your online security you’ll often hear the terms ‘VPN’ and ‘proxy’ popping up. They can both improve your privacy and anonymity when you’re accessing the Internet by hiding your IP address. But VPNs and proxies work in quite different ways, each with their respective benefits and limitations. Let’s find out which one’s best for your own web data extraction projects.

What’s a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network or ‘VPN’ lets users share data across the Internet – or public networks more generally – as though they’re connected to a private network. If you’re an employee working from home, a VPN client lets you access company apps and resources without the worry that someone else is sticking their nose into your digital business. VPNs are equally handy for personal use, protecting your personal details when you’re browsing or shopping online while using a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

It’s the ‘Private’ aspect of a VPN that hints at its nature. Rather than connecting to target websites directly, a VPN creates a securely encrypted tunnel that shrouds communications between your own device and another Internet server. All traffic passing through that connection is encrypted and secured, whether it’s web searches, emails, file transfers, or streaming media. And it’s this layer of protection afforded by a VPN that makes it popular with all kinds of Internet users – private individuals and corporate entities alike – who want to cut the risk of being snooped on by other parties.

Connecting through a VPN gives you a different IP address – the identifier that’s tied to your apparent location when you connect to the Internet. And if your VPN provider has servers in Australia, for example, then your IP address makes it appear to a target server that you’re connecting to the Internet from Australia.

And what’s a proxy?

Think of a proxy as a digital go-between, linking you with an intermediary server that then connects with a target website or online resource. That proxy server has its own IP address, which can help you remain anonymous when you’re browsing another site. As such proxies are great for helping anonymize your web browsing or tackling certain challenges, for example, if you have a requirement to access geo-restricted content. Equally, they can be used as a tool by corporate IT administrators to prevent employees from accessing certain websites or resources from their PC while they’re on company time.

What are the similarities between proxies and VPNs?

VPNs and proxies can help boost an Internet user’s online anonymity. Accordingly, a major attraction of both VPNs and proxies is their ability to overcome geographical roadblocks to online content and applications. A journalist reporting from a foreign country, for instance, can file news reports without fear of being blocked or censored.

More generally, using a VPN or a proxy reduces your potential exposure to being snooped on by other online entities – whether they’re hackers, Internet service providers, corporate organizations, or governments. In today’s scary online world where your data’s at constant risk of compromise, VPNs, and proxies can both keep your digital life safer. But putting your faith in either means understanding what they can – and can’t – do to help.

What are the limitations of VPNs and proxy servers?

One limitation of using proxy servers is that they can slow you down, although there are ways to alleviate this, particularly if using them within a web data extraction tech stack meant to scale. This could be less of a problem if you’re using proxies for less time-critical tasks like emailing or routine web browsing. But it could be a big frustration for things like real-time gaming or media streaming. 

VPNs aren’t immune to performance issues, either. Moreover, they can’t give 100% guarantees of anonymity while you’re browsing.  Just like with a proxy, you can’t always be sure that your traffic’s secure all the way to the target web server – it could be unencrypted for part of the journey.

VPN or proxy: which one’s best for me?

It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to extract web data from other sites, VPNs just won’t cut the mustard for anything other than simple one-off jobs. And even then you’ll still need to find a VPN provider offering an API end-point that can be easily integrated into your data extraction code.

For web crawling and data extraction at any significant scale, you’re going to need proxies to provide you with loads of different IP addresses. 

What are residential proxies?

Residential proxies are IP addresses used for web crawling that come from the laptops, phones, and other smart devices of real-life Internet users. They support a wider variety of locations and offer more precise targeting options, making them handy for extraction tasks requiring location-specific IPs.

And what about rotating proxies?

If you’re planning to extract data at any sort of scale, simply buying a pool of proxies and routing your requests through them isn’t going to provide a sustainable long-term solution. Your proxies may stop returning high-quality data. Problems that frequently crop up while managing a proxy pool include:

  • Ban management
  • Retry errors
  • User agents
  • Control proxies
  • Request throttling
  • Geographical targeting

You can find out more about these in my previous article on using proxies for web scraping. Suffice to say, they’re challenges that further compound what’s already a time-consuming task.

Faced with the conundrum of retrieving web data at scale and the challenges of maintaining a proxy pool, a great middle-of-the-park solution is a ‘proxy rotator’. This provides IP addresses, while also handling chores like individual proxy rotation and geographical targeting. That said, it’s still up to the user to look after aspects like throttling, ban identification, and remediation.

Make web data extraction easier with Smart Proxy Manager

And that’s where a smart proxy rotation solution like Zyte’s own Smart Proxy Manager can make your life far easier. In a nutshell, it takes the entire proxy management work off your hands and focuses on delivering successful requests to the user. Or to put it another way, you just build the scrapers or spiders your extraction needs dictate… and we handle the entire supporting infrastructure required, to ensure the delivery of high-quality results reliably at scale.

Why not try Smart Proxy Manager for free – and focus on extracting the web data you need, not juggling proxies.

Written by John Campbell
1/3 Marketer, 1/3 Ops, 1/3 Techie. Currently Demand Generation Manager at Zyte. Data analytics, knowledge graph enthusiast with a particular taste for its applications in financial services, cybersecurity, law enforcement & intelligence sectors.
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