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In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between an API gateway and an API proxy — as well as a reverse proxy. We’ll cover use cases and when each might be the right tool for the project at hand, including the advantages of API gateways over API proxies and reverse proxies.
An API proxy acts like a mediator or go-between for the client and the API. It provides a central point of access to the API. It can add functionality to the API, such as security, caching, or rate limiting — and it can do it without requiring any changes to the API itself. The proxy can route requests to different backend services based on the request path or user, and it can perform tasks like authentication (e.g., key authentication, OAuth flows) and traffic management (e.g., rate limiting).
Some common use cases for API proxies include:
Both the API proxy and the API gateway sit in front of your existing APIs, acting like gatekeepers, but with a big difference in capabilities. In most cases, an API gateway can do everything the API proxy does and more. In terms of capability and as shown in the diagram below, the API proxy only has a subset of the capabilities that the API gateway possesses.
So, when should we use a proxy to expose our APIs and when we should use an API gateway? The answer to that question depends on a few factors:
API proxies are useful when you want to add a very specific (and simple) functionality to an existing API, while API gateways are useful when you want to manage and secure multiple APIs in a centralized manner.
An API proxy is generally a much simpler proxy that forwards API requests from clients to backend APIs, while an API gateway is something that provides more advanced features and a centralized platform to manage multiple APIs.
Some of the key advantages of an API gateway over an API Proxy are:
A reverse proxy sits between a client and a web server by handling the request and response on behalf of the server. It intercepts requests from the client and forwards them to the appropriate backend server and sends the corresponding responses back to the client. It can also provide additional features such as load balancing, caching, and security.
The way reverse proxies work can be thought of as the following sequence of steps that detail what happens from the initial request from a client to the final response from a web server that goes through a reverse proxy:
Both API gateways and reverse proxies have overlapping features, but they both serve different purposes. While the API gateway acts like the front door to your underlying APIs, a reverse proxy is the front door to your web applications.
When it comes to functionality, API gateways are tailored for API management, and hence the functionality they offer are:
Reverse proxies, on the other hand, offer a more generalized feature set that can be applied to any type of web service be it an API or a web server. The functionality includes things like:
In terms of setting up and configuration, API gateways often require more setup and maintenance than a reverse proxy due to a more extensive feature set. To get an API gateway up and running, you generally need to define routes to your underlying APIs, set up authentication, and configure other API-related policies. A reverse proxy on the other hand can be set up in a much simpler way.
API gateways provide more advanced features compared to a reverse proxy especially when it comes to the management of APIs. Some of the key benefits include:
The key to choosing between an API gateway, API proxy, or a reverse proxy is to look at the underlying use case:
If the primary goal is to manage multiple APIs in a standardized way with full lifecycle management and enhanced developer experience, then you need all the advanced features that an API gateway provides. However, if you’re looking for a general-purpose solution for handling web traffic, then a reverse proxy might be more appropriate.
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