P(r)oxy Servers

When any online service goes wrong, there are four possible loci for the problem

  1. The program
  2. The server
  3. Proxy server en route
  4. The browser

Of these, 1 and 2 are under our control (‘us’ being the people who run the service). Problems can generally be found and fixed quickly. 4 is generally something that we can replicate on our own desktops; there aren’t that many popular combinations of browsers and computers.

But the one we fear more than piranhas is 3. Proxy servers come in endless flavours and their configurations are jealously guarded by their owners. Most secondary schools have one. Grids for Learning (GFLs), LEAs, Regional Broadband Consortia (RBCs) also have them.

What they are supposed to do is manage the flow of data so that the network, particularly the ‘last mile’ into the school, does not get overloaded. What can easily happen instead is that data gets bounced around between them like so many billiard balls randomly hitting each other instead of rolling directly into the pocket.

This is not to say that proxies are a bad thing. A single, simple proxy in the school can make a huge difference when an entire class of 30 all need to access the same 20M movie file down a typical Secondary school’s 10 megabit connection. In my perfect world, that would be it. One proxy per school, preferably externally managed by specialists in that single narrow field, and nothing else.


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