“…The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes,” Senator Ted Stevens said. Now, while Stevens isn’t completely wrong, his poor understanding of the Internet has me thinking: How many people really do know what the Internet is and how it works?
After receiving some feedback from people, I’ve discovered that while many people know how to use the Internet, not everyone understands exactly what it is and how it differs from the World Wide Web. The fact is that the Internet is a modern-day printing press. It has allowed our generation to exchange an unprecedented amount of information. No other technology has integrated so tightly with our daily lives and everyone should have an understanding of what happens when you use the Internet.
So, this week I’ve attempted to explain the basics of what exactly the Internet is and how it differs from the World Wide Web. To begin, people need to know that the Internet is a worldwide network of interconnected computers that use a standard set of protocols or procedures known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol in order to communicate with one another. This vast network contains networks within networks that are connected through the use of cables, mainly fiber optics and wireless technologies. So, in a way, the Internet really is just a series of tubes.
However, the Internet plays the crucial role as the vehicle and infrastructure for exchanging information. The information being exchanged is what is known as the “World Wide Web.” The pieces of information can come in many forms, including text documents, audio files, video files, emails, pictures, etc. These bits of information are stored and exchanged among the hard drives in the computers connected to the Internet, hence its tremendous potential.
In addition, the documents and other files are placed in a “webpage” or “website” – which is a collection of webpages – using the HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, which gives the documents structure and organization. Along with the files, the “hypertext documents” contain what are known as “hyperlinks,” which are just links to other webpages or websites.
The hypertext documents are then placed on a computer connected to the Internet, but because personal computers will not always be connected or even be turned on, specially modified computers known as Web servers are necessary to constantly be connected to the Internet in order to host these bits of information.
So how does someone find a particular hypertext document in this enormous resource of information? Using a type of Internet address or what is known as the Uniform Resource Locator. URLs are what people type into their Web browser, for instance: www.facebook.com or www.yahoo.com.
The Web browser – such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera – will then take that URL and translate it into an “IP address” by looking at an Internet directory known as the domain name system. Using this IP address, a HyperText Transfer Protocol request will be placed in order to retrieve the relevant hypertext documents and other files.
When the Web browser finds the necessary hypertext document, it then has to read and decode the HTML code and display it appropriately on the computer screen. The end result is what the user sees on screen, and while it might seem like a lengthy process, it all happens within a matter of seconds.
So there, I have very briefly and simply described how the Internet works. While there are many details that I have left out, hopefully my descriptions were clear enough so that anyone can now have a better understanding of what really happens when you’re surfing the Web.