Is a Web Server a Reverse Proxy?


Scott Campbell

Is a Web Server a Reverse Proxy?

When it comes to web servers and reverse proxies, there can be some confusion about their roles and how they differ. In this article, we will explore the differences between a web server and a reverse proxy and shed some light on their respective functions.

Web Server

A web server is a software application that serves as the backbone of serving web content. Its primary function is to receive incoming requests from clients (usually web browsers) and respond with the requested resources, such as HTML files, images, CSS stylesheets, or JavaScript files.

Web servers are responsible for handling the low-level communication protocols, such as HTTP or HTTPS. They listen for incoming requests on specific ports (typically port 80 for HTTP and port 443 for HTTPS) and route those requests to the appropriate resources on the server.

Some popular web servers include Apache HTTP Server, Nginx, Microsoft IIS (Internet Information Services), and LiteSpeed.

Reverse Proxy

A reverse proxy is also a software application that sits between clients and servers but operates in the opposite direction of a traditional forward proxy. While a forward proxy acts on behalf of clients to retrieve resources from other servers, a reverse proxy acts on behalf of servers to handle client requests.

The primary function of a reverse proxy is to distribute incoming client requests across multiple backend servers. It acts as an intermediary between clients and servers by accepting client requests and forwarding them to one or more backend servers based on various algorithms like round-robin or least connections.

In addition to load balancing, reverse proxies provide benefits like caching static content, SSL/TLS termination (decrypting encrypted traffic), compression, request filtering, and security features like DDoS protection or IP whitelisting/blacklisting.

Popular reverse proxy solutions include Nginx, Apache HTTP Server (with mod_proxy), HAProxy, and Envoy.


Now that we have a basic understanding of web servers and reverse proxies, let’s discuss their differences:

  • Function: Web servers primarily serve static content and handle client requests by responding with the requested resources. Reverse proxies, on the other hand, act as intermediaries between clients and backend servers, distributing client requests and providing additional functionalities.
  • Load Balancing: Reverse proxies excel at load balancing by distributing client requests across multiple backend servers.

    Web servers generally do not have built-in load balancing capabilities.

  • Caching: Reverse proxies can cache static content like images or CSS files to improve performance and reduce the load on backend servers. Web servers do not typically provide caching functionality.
  • Security Features: Reverse proxies often offer security features like DDoS protection, request filtering, IP whitelisting/blacklisting, or SSL/TLS termination. While web servers can have some security measures in place, they are not as specialized as those provided by reverse proxies.

In Conclusion

A web server and a reverse proxy are two distinct components of a web infrastructure. A web server handles client requests and serves requested resources directly, while a reverse proxy acts as an intermediary between clients and backend servers to distribute client requests and provide additional functionalities such as load balancing and caching.

In many cases, it is common to see both web servers and reverse proxies working together in a setup where the reverse proxy forwards incoming requests to multiple web servers for efficient resource distribution and enhanced performance.

In summary, while a web server and a reverse proxy share some similarities in terms of handling client requests, they have different primary functions and serve different purposes in a web architecture.

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