Proxies are one of the more interesting (in my no-doubt biased opinion) “devices” in the network. They’re the basis for caching, load balancing, app security, and even app acceleration services. They’re also a bridge between dev and ops and the network, being commonplace to all three groups and environments in most data center architectures.
But not all proxies are built on the same architectural principles, which means not all proxies are created equal. A large number of proxies are half-proxies while others are full-proxies, and the differences between them are what mean the difference between what you can and cannot do with them. In fact, there are three very important things you can do with a full-proxy that you can’t do with a regular old proxy.
Before we jump into those three things, let’s review the differences between them, shall we?
Half-proxy is a description of the way in which a proxy, reverse or forward, handles connections. Basically it’s describing the notion that the proxy only mediates connections on the client side. So it only proxies half the communication between the client and the app. The most important thing to recognize about a half-proxy is that it has only one network stack that it shares across both client and server.
By contrast, a full-proxy maintains two distinct network stacks – one on the client side, one of the app side – and fully proxies both sides, hence the name. While a full-proxy can be configured to act like a half-proxy, its value is in its typical configuration, which is to maintain discrete connections to both the client and the server.
It is this dual-stack approach that enables a full-proxy to provide capabilities that a half-proxy with its single network stack simply cannot.
The Three Things
A full-proxy completely understands the protocols for which it proxies and is itself both an endpoint and an originator for those protocols and connections. This also means the full-proxy can have its own TCP connection behavior for each network stack such as buffering, retransmits, and TCP options. With a full-proxy each connection is unique; each can have its own TCP connection behavior. This means that a client connecting to the full-proxy device would likely have different connection behavior than the full-proxy might use for communicating with servers. Full-proxies can look at incoming requests and outbound responses and can manipulate both if the solution allows it.
#1 Optimize client side and server side
Because it can maintain separate network stacks and characteristics, a full-proxy can optimize each side for its unique needs. The TCP options needed to optimize for performance on the client side’s lower-speed, higher-latency network connection – particularly when mobile devices are being served – are almost certainly very different than those needed to optimize for performance on the server side’s high-speed, low latency data center network connection. A full-proxy can optimize both at the same time and thus provide the best performance possible in all situations. A half-proxy, with its single network stack, is forced to optimize for the average of its connections, which certainly means one side or the other is left with less than optimal performance.
#2 Act as a protocol gateway
Protocol gateways are an important tool in the architect’s toolbox particularly when transitioning from one version of an application protocol to another, like HTTP/1 to HTTP/2 or SPDY. Because a full proxy maintains those two unique connections, it can accept HTTP/2 on the client side, for example, but speak HTTP/1 to the server (app). That’s because a full-proxy terminates the client connection (the proxy is the server) and initiatives a different connection to the server (the proxy is the client). The protocol used on the client side doesn’t restrict the choice of protocols on the server side. Realistically, any protocol transition that makes sense (and even those that don’t) can be managed with a full-proxy. A programmable full-proxy ensures that even if its an uncommon (and thus not universally supported) that you can code up a gateway yourself without expending effort on reinventing the proxy-wheel.
#3 Terminate SSL/TLS
Technically this is a specialized case of a protocol gateway but the ascendancy of HTTP/S (and the urgency with which we are encouraged to deploy SSL Everywhere and Encrypt All The Things) makes me treat this as its own case. Basically terminating SSL/TLS is a critical capability in modern and emerging architectures because of the need to inspect and direct HTTP-based traffic (like REST API calls) based on information within the HTTP protocol that would otherwise be invisible thanks to encryption. The ability to terminate SSL/TLS means the proxy becomes the secure endpoint to which clients connect (and ultimately trust). Termination means the proxy is responsible for decrypting requests and encrypting responses and is thus able to “see” into the messages and use the data therein to make routing and load balancing decisions.
So the next time you’re looking at a proxy, don’t forget to find out whether it’s a full proxy or not. Because without a full-proxy, you’re limiting your ability to really take advantage of its capabilities and reaping the benefits it can offer modern and emerging application architectures.