What is a Reverse Proxy?

A reverse proxy is a type of proxy server which forwards client requests to backend servers.

NGINX offers excellent security, acceleration, and load balancing features, making it one of the most popular choices to serve as a reverse proxy. When used as a reverse proxy NGINX handles all client interaction, so it can provide security and optimization to backend services that often lack these features.

For more information on the benefits of using NGINX as a reverse proxy, see the official documentation.

Install NGINX

Debian and Ubuntu:

sudo apt install nginx

CentOS and RHEL:

sudo yum install epel-release && sudo yum install nginx

Create a Python Test Server

The sample app will use the http.server module (available for Python 3.4 and above) to create a simple HTTP server that will serve static content on localhost.

Create a Sample App

  1. Since the module will serve files in the working directory, create a new one for this example:

    mkdir myapp
    cd myapp
  2. Create a test page for the app to serve:

    echo "hello world" > index.html
  3. Start a basic http server:

    python3 -m http.server 8000 --bind

Python 2.7 has an equivalent module via python -m SimpleHTTPServer 8000 that listens to all interfaces but does not have an option to bind to a specific address from the command line.

Using the http.server module from Python 3.4 and above is highly recommended as it allows a convenient way to bind to a specific IP.

  1. Open a new terminal. Use curl to check the HTTP headers:

    curl -I localhost:8000

    Review the output to confirm that the server is SimpleHTTP:

HTTP/1.0 200 OK
Server: SimpleHTTP/0.6 Python/3.5.3
Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2017 19:56:08 GMT
Content-type: text/html
Content-Length: 12
Last-Modified: Tue, 19 Dec 2017 14:45:31 GMT
  1. Test that the app is listening on localhost:

    curl localhost:8000

    This should print hello world to the console.

Specify a Local Host

While this step is optional, specifying a local hostname will make it more convenient to point to the example app in later steps.

Add a hostname myapp to /etc/hosts that will only work locally:       localhost       myapp       localhost.localdomain   localhost

# The following lines are desirable for IPv6 capable hosts
::1     localhost ip6-localhost ip6-loopback
ff02::1 ip6-allnodes
ff02::2 ip6-allrouters

Reverse Proxy Configuration

  1. Create an NGINX configuration file in /etc/nginx/sites-available/myapp:
server {
        listen 80;
        server_name myapp;

        location / {
                proxy_pass http://localhost:8000/;

Remember to add a trailing slash / to the end of the URL in the proxy_pass directive so that NGINX can correctly generate a URL to be sent to the backend server.

  1. Enable the configuration by creating a symlink to sites-enabled:

    sudo ln -s /etc/nginx/sites-available/myapp /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/myapp
  2. Remove the default symlink:

    sudo rm /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/default
  3. Restart nginx to allow the changes to take effect:

    sudo systemctl restart nginx.service
  4. Test the proxy with curl:

    curl -I myapp
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/1.10.3
Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2017 20:30:54 GMT
Content-Type: text/html
Content-Length: 12
Connection: keep-alive
Last-Modified: Tue, 19 Dec 2017 14:45:31 GMT

The server is now nginx. You can navigate to your public IP address in a browser and confirm that the application is publicly accessible on port 80.

Non-HTTP Protocols

NGINX can proxy non-HTTP protocols using appropriate *_proxy directives such as:

  • fastcgi_pass passes a request to a FastCGI server
  • uwsgi_pass passes a request to a uwsgi server
  • scgi_pass passes a request to an SCGI server
  • memcached_pass passes a request to a memcached server

Pass Request Headers to Backend Servers

Sometimes your backend application needs to know the IP address of the user who is visiting your website. With a reverse proxy, the backend server only sees the proxy IP address. This can be solved by passing the IP address of the client using HTTP request headers. The proxy_set_header directive is used for this.

server {
    listen 80;

    server_name myapp;

    location / {
            proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $remote_addr;
            proxy_set_header Host $host;
            proxy_pass http://localhost:8000/;

$remote_addr is a built-in variable that holds the IP address of the client; $host contains the hostname for the request. You can read more about these variables here.

Choose a Bind Address

If your backend server is configured to only accept connections from certain IP addresses and your proxy server has multiple network interfaces, then you want your reverse proxy to choose the right source IP address when connecting to a backend server. This can be achieved with proxy_bind:

location / {
    proxy_pass http://localhost:8000/;

Now when your reverse proxy connects with the backend server it will use as the source IP address.


When NGINX receives a response from the backend server, it buffers the response before sending it to the client, which helps optimize performance with slow clients. Buffering can be turned off or customized with these directives: proxy_buffering, proxy_buffers and proxy_buffer_size.

location / {
    proxy_buffers 8 2k;
    proxy_buffer_size 2k;
    proxy_pass http://localhost:8000/;
  • proxy_buffering is used to enable or disable buffering.
  • proxy_buffering off; disables buffering. Buffering is enabled by default.
  • proxy_buffers controls the number and size of buffers allocated to each request. In the example above, there are 8 buffers, each of which is 2KB.
  • proxy_buffer_size controls the size of initial buffer where the response is first stored for all requests.