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10/3/2006
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Proxy Auto-Configuration Gives Relief From Internet Traffic Chaos

Properly implemented, proxy servers can provide administrators with a way to actively manage Internet traffic. Columnist Eric Hall shows you what you need to know to set one up.

Networks are inherently messy, but lately it seems that they are just getting out of control. I don't mean physical messes--although those certainly exist too. Instead I'm referring to the constantly increasing quantity of seemingly random packets that are zipping around on all of our networks, without any apparent order or intent, coming from unknown sources and going to the weirdest of places.

One of the biggest contributors to this phenomenon is the large number of auto-patch widgets that are embedded into every application and utility under the sun, all of which generate frequent connection requests to their own update servers. Meanwhile, Internet-centric and hosted applications that essentially depend on connectivity for basic functionality are also becoming more common, and they naturally generate a large amount of Web traffic that otherwise wouldn't exist.

Going forward, companies like Google and Microsoft are also working hard to come up with new Web-based applications that they hope we'll integrate into our desktops, and which will just make managing Internet traffic harder for administrators everywhere.

The most effective way to deal with this situation is usually to implement some kind of caching proxy server, such as Squid, or Microsoft's Internet Security and Acceleration Server, or any of the other dozen-plus similar offerings, and then force all client-side Web requests to go through the proxy server. Properly implemented, these servers can provide administrators with a single choke-point for all Web traffic, thereby providing administrators a way to actively manage the traffic.

The primary factor in the overall effectiveness of these tools is the ability and willingness of the network clients to use them, which isn't always guaranteed. For example, protecting the network from mass patch downloads largely depends on whether or not the applications will use the proxy for outgoing connections, but it can be difficult to get all of the various applications and utilities to use the proxy server in the first place.

Similarly, a proxy server with an anti-virus plug-in can provide network-wide protection that goes well beyond traditional desktop solutions, but this whole value proposition will be made moot if network clients aren't actually using the proxy server for their downloads.

This situation is compounded by the fact that almost all the different Internet-aware applications have their own unique proxy configuration mechanisms, each of which has to be managed and maintained separately from all the others. This makes it hard for administrators to reach high levels of functionality. Largely as a result of these kinds of difficulties, many networks simply do not use proxy servers at all--one informal survey showed that fewer than 25% of networks actually use them--meaning that most network administrators are foregoing one of their most effective management tools.

However, there are some automatic client-configuration services available that can alleviate some, but not all, of the configuration difficulties. These auto-configuration tools have made it much easier for network administrators to effectively use proxy servers as part of a holistic management strategy.

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