How the Internet Actually Works
This is all it is really – a very big computer network. However, this article will go beyond explaining just the Internet, as it will also explain the ‘World Wide Web’. Most people don’t know the difference between the Internet and Web, but really it’s quite simple: the Internet is a computer network, and the Web is a system of publishing (of websites) for it.
And, what’s a computer network? A computer network is just two or more of computers connected together such that they may send messages between each other. On larger networks computers are connected together in complex arrangements, where some intermediary computers have more than one connection to other computers, such that every computer can reach any other computer in the network via paths through some of those intermediary computers.
Computers aren’t the only things that use networks – the road and rail networks are very similar to computer networks, just those networks transport people instead of information.
Trains on a rail network operate on a certain kind of track – such a convention is needed, because otherwise the network could not effectively work. Likewise, roads are designed to suit vehicles that match a kind of pattern – robust vehicles of a certain size range that travel within a certain reasonable speed range. Computers in a network have conventions too, and we usually call these conventions ‘protocols’.
There are many kinds of popular computer network today. The most conventional by far is the so-called ‘Ethernet’ network that physically connects computers together in homes, schools and offices. However, WiFi is becoming increasingly popular for connecting together devices so that cables aren’t required at all.
Connecting to the Internet
When you connect to the Internet, you’re using networking technology, but things are usually a lot muddier. There’s an apt phrase, “Rome wasn’t built in a day” because neither was the Internet. The only reason the Internet could spring up so quickly and cheaply for people was because another kind of network already existed throughout the world – the phone network!
The pre-existence of the phone network provided a medium for ordinary computers in ordinary people’s homes to be connected onto the great high-tech military and research network that had been developed in years before. It just required some technological mastery in the form of ‘modems’. Modems allow phone lines to be turned into a mini-network connection between a home and a special company (an ‘ISP’) that already is connected up to the Internet. It’s like a bridge joining up the road networks on an island and the mainland – the road networks become one, due to a special kind of connection between them.
Fast Internet connections that are done via ‘(A)DSL’ and ‘Cable’ are no different to phone line connections really – there’s still a joining process of some kind going on behind the scenes. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.
The really amazing about the Internet isn’t the technology. We’ve actually had big Internet-like computer networks before, and ‘The Internet’ existed long before normal people knew the term. The amazing thing is that such a massive computer network could exist without being built or governed in any kind of seriously organised way. The only organisation that really has a grip on the core computer network of the Internet is a US-government-backed non-profit company called ‘ICANN’, but nobody could claim they ‘controlled’ the Internet, as their mandate and activities are extremely limited.
The Internet is a testament both simultaneously due to the way technologists cooperated and by the way entrepreneurs took up the task, unmanaged, to use the conventions of the technologists to hook up regular people and businesses. The Internet didn’t develop on the Microsoft Windows ‘operating system’ – Internet technology was built around much older technical operating systems; nevertheless, the technology could be applied to ordinary computers by simply building support for the necessary networking conventions on top of Windows. It was never planned, but good foundations and a lack of bottlenecks (such as controlling bodies) often lead to unforeseen great rises – like the telephone network before, or even the world-wide spread of human population and society.
What I have described so far is probably not the Internet as you or most would see it. It’s unlikely you see the Internet as a democratic and uniform computer network, and to an extent, it isn’t. The reason for this is that I have only explained the foundations of the system so far, and this foundation operates below the level you’d normally be aware of. On the lowest level you would be aware of, the Internet is actually more like a situation between a getter and a giver – there’s something you want from the Internet, so you connect up and get it. Even when you send an e-mail, you’re getting the service of e-mail delivery.
Being a computer network, the Internet consists of computers – however, not all computers on the Internet are created equal. Some computers are there to provide services, and some are there to consume those services. We call the providing computers ‘servers’ and the consuming computers ‘clients’. At the theoretical level, the computers have equal status on the network, but servers are much better connected than clients and are generally put in place by companies providing some kind of commercial service. You don’t pay to view a web site, but somebody pays for the server the website is located on – usually the owner of the web site pays a ‘web host’ (a commercial company who owns the server).
I’ve established how the Internet is a computer network: now I will explain how two computers that could be on other sides of the world can send messages to each other.
Imagine you were writing a letter and needed to send it to someone. If you just wrote a name on the front, it would never arrive, unless perhaps you lived in a small village. A name is rarely specific enough. Therefore, as we all know, we use addresses to contact someone, often using: the name, the house number, the road name, the town name, the county name, and sometimes, the country name. This allows sending of messages on another kind of network – the postal network. When you send a letter, typically it will be passed between postal sorting offices starting from the sorting office nearest to the origin, then up to increasingly large sorting offices until it’s handled by a sorting office covering regions for both the origin and the destination, then down to increasingly small sorting offices until it’s at the sorting office nearest the destination – and then it’s delivered.
In our postal situation, there are two key factors at work – a form of addressing that ‘homes in’ on the destination location, and a form of message delivery that ‘broadens out’ then ‘narrows in’. Computers are more organised, but they actually effectively do exactly the same thing.
Each computer on the Internet is given an address (‘IP address’), and this ‘homes in’ on their location. The ‘homing in’ isn’t done strictly geographically, rather in terms of the connection-relationship between the smaller computer networks within the Internet. For the real world, being a neighbour is geographical, but on a computer network, being a neighbour is having a direct network connection.