How the Internet Actually Works

To most people, the Internet is the place to which everyone plugs in their computer and views webpages and sends e-mail. That’s a very human-centric viewpoint, but if we’re to truly understand the Internet, we need to be more exact:

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.

Computer networks

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’.

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