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How does the internet work

@chrisbhoffman
February 20, 2018, 6:40am EDT

How does the internet work

Everyone’s talking about the internet and whether, or how, it should be regulated. But not enough people know how the internet actually works—or what exactly the internet is.

What Is the Internet, Exactly?

You probably have your own “local area network” at home, and it’s made up of all the devices connected to your router, which connects to the internet. The word “internet” refers to a worldwide system of “interconnected computer networks”.

That’s all the internet really is—a large number of computer networks all over the world, connected together. Of course, there’s a lot of physical hardware—from the cables under your city streets to the massive cables on the ocean floors to satellites in orbit around the planet—that makes this communication possible. There’s also a lot of software at work in the background, allowing you to type in a website address like “google.com” and have your computer to send information to the physical location where that website is located in the fastest way possible.

Even when you’re just connecting to a single website, there’s a lot more going on under the hood. Your computer can’t directly send a piece of information, or “packet” of data, to the computer hosting the website. Instead, it passes a packet to your home router with information about where it’s going and where the web server should reply. Your router then sends it to the routers at your internet service provider (Comcast, Time Warner, or whoever else you use), where it’s sent to another router at another internet service provider, and so on, until it reaches its destination. Any packets sent back to your system from the remote server make the reverse journey.

How does the internet work

To use an imperfect analogy, it’s a bit like sending a letter in the mail. Your local postal employee can’t just grab the letter and take it directly across the country or continent to its destination address. Instead, the letter goes to your local post office, where it’s sent to another post office, and then another one, and so on, until it gets to its destination. It takes longer for a letter to get to the other side of the world than the other side of the country because it has to make more stops, and that’s generally true for the internet as well. It will take a bit longer for packets to go longer distances with more transfers, or “hops”, as they’re called.

Unlike with physical mail, sending data packets is still very fast, though, and it happens many times a second. Each packet is very small, and large numbers of packets are sent back and forth when computers communicate—even if one is just loading a website from another one. A packet’s travel time is measured in milliseconds.

Data Can Take Many Paths

This network of networks is a little more interesting and complex than it might seem. With all these networks connected together, there isn’t just a single path data takes. Because networks are connected to multiple other networks, there’s a whole web of connections stretching out around the globe. This means that those packets (small pieces of data sent between devices) can take multiple paths to get where they’re going.

In other words, even if a network between you and a website goes down, there’s usually another path the data can take. The routers along the path use something called the Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP, to communicate information about whether a network is down and the optimal path for data to take.

Creating this interconnected network (or internet) isn’t just as simple as plugging each network into a nearby one, one by one. Networks are connected in many different ways along many different paths, and the software running on these routers (so named because they route traffic along the network) is always working to find the optimal paths for data to take.

You can actually see the path your packets take to a destination address by using the traceroute command, which tells routers along the path the packet travels to report back.

For example, in the screenshot below, we traced the route to howtogeek.com from a Comcast internet connection in Eugene, Oregon. The packets traveled to our router, through Comcast’s network north to Seattle, before being routed onto a Tata Communications (as6453.net) backbone network through Chicago, New York, and Newark before making their way to a Linode data center in Newark, New Jersey where the website is hosted.

How does the internet work

We speak of packets “traveling”, but of course, they’re just pieces of data. A router contacts another router and communicates the data in the packet. The next router uses the information on the packet to figure out where it’s going and transmits the data to the next router along its the path. The packet is just a signal on the wire.

IP Addresses, DNS, TCP/IP, HTTP, and More Details

That’s a high level overview of how the internet works, at least. There are lots of little topics that are important to the internet we all use, and which you can read about in more detail.

For example, every device on a network has a unique, numerical IP address on that network. Data is sent to these addresses. There are both older IPv4 addresses and newer IPv6 addresses. IP stands for “internet Protocol”, so an IP address is an “internet Protocol address”. These are the addresses that devices on the network use and speak.

People use human-readable domain names like howtogeek.com and google.com, which are more memorable and understandable than a series of numbers. However, when you use domain names like these, your computer contacts its domain name system (DNS) server and asks for the numerical IP address for that domain. Think of it like a large, public address book for phone numbers. Companies and individuals who want domain names have to pay to register them. You probably use your internet service provider’s DNS service, but you can choose to use another DNS server like Google Public DNS or OpenDNS.

Underlying all this, there are different layers of “protocols” that devices use to communicate, even when using internet protocol. The most common transport protocol is TCP/IP, which stands for Transmission Control Protocol over internet Protocol. TCP is all about reliability, and devices chat back and forth and track packets of data to ensure nothing gets lost along the way. If it does, it’s noticed and resent. There are also other protocols, like UDP, which throws out the reliability stuff for raw speed.

Above transport protocols like TCP and UDP are application protocols, like HTTP or HTTPS—the hypertext transfer protocol, which your web browser users. The HTTP protocol works on top of the TCP protocol, which works on top of the IP protocol. Other applications might use different protocols or create their own protocols that nevertheless operate on top of protocols like TCP and IP. So much of the technology we use involves layers of technology built on other layers, and the same is true for the internet. We could write a whole book here, but for now, if you want to read more, the above links should get you started.

Once you understand the basics, you can better appreciate why this IT Crowd scene is so funny, too.

On this Page

This article discusses what the Internet is and how it works.

Prerequisites: None, but we encourage you to read the Article on setting project goals first
Objective: You will learn the basics of the technical infrastructure of the Web and the difference between Internet and the Web.

Summary

The Internet is the backbone of the Web, the technical infrastructure that makes the Web possible. At its most basic, the Internet is a large network of computers which communicate all together.

The history of the Internet is somewhat obscure. It began in the 1960s as a US-army-funded research project, then evolved into a public infrastructure in the 1980s with the support of many public universities and private companies. The various technologies that support the Internet have evolved over time, but the way it works hasn’t changed that much: Internet is a way to connect computers all together and ensure that, whatever happens, they find a way to stay connected.

Active Learning

  • How the internet Works in 5 minutes: A 5 minute video to understand the very basics of Internet by Aaron Titus.
  • How does the Internet work? Detailed well visualized 8 minute video.

Deeper dive

A simple network

When two computers need to communicate, you have to link them, either physically (usually with an Ethernet cable) or wirelessly (for example with WiFi or Bluetooth systems). All modern computers can sustain any of those connections.

Note: For the rest of this article, we will only talk about physical cables, but wireless networks work the same.

How does the internet work

Such a network is not limited to two computers. You can connect as many computers as you wish. But it gets complicated quickly. If you’re trying to connect, say, ten computers, you need 45 cables, with nine plugs per computer!

How does the internet work

To solve this problem, each computer on a network is connected to a special tiny computer called a router. This router has only one job: like a signaler at a railway station, it makes sure that a message sent from a given computer arrives at the right destination computer. To send a message to computer B, computer A must send the message to the router, which in turn forwards the message to computer B and makes sure the message is not delivered to computer C.

Once we add a router to the system, our network of 10 computers only requires 10 cables: a single plug for each computer and a router with 10 plugs.

How does the internet work

A network of networks

So far so good. But what about connecting hundreds, thousands, billions of computers? Of course a single router can’t scale that far, but, if you read carefully, we said that a router is a computer like any other, so what keeps us from connecting two routers together? Nothing, so let’s do that.

How does the internet work

By connecting computers to routers, then routers to routers, we are able to scale infinitely.

How does the internet work

Such a network comes very close to what we call the Internet, but we’re missing something. We built that network for our own purposes. There are other networks out there: your friends, your neighbors, anyone can have their own network of computers. But it’s not really possible to set cables up between your house and the rest of the world, so how can you handle this? Well, there are already cables linked to your house, for example, electric power and telephone. The telephone infrastructure already connects your house with anyone in the world so it is the perfect wire we need. To connect our network to the telephone infrastructure, we need a special piece of equipment called a modem. This modem turns the information from our network into information manageable by the telephone infrastructure and vice versa.

How does the internet work

So we are connected to the telephone infrastructure. The next step is to send the messages from our network to the network we want to reach. To do that, we will connect our network to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). An ISP is a company that manages some special routers that are all linked together and can also access other ISPs’ routers. So the message from our network is carried through the network of ISP networks to the destination network. The Internet consists of this whole infrastructure of networks.

Finding computers

If you want to send a message to a computer, you have to specify which one. Thus any computer linked to a network has a unique address that identifies it, called an “IP address” (where IP stands for Internet Protocol). It’s an address made of a series of four numbers separated by dots, for example: 192.168.2.10 .

That’s perfectly fine for computers, but we human beings have a hard time remembering that sort of address. To make things easier, we can alias an IP address with a human readable name called a domain name. For example (at the time of writing; IP addresses can change) google.com is the domain name used on top of the IP address 173.194.121.32 . So using the domain name is the easiest way for us to reach a computer over the Internet.

How does the internet work

Internet and the web

As you might notice, when we browse the Web with a Web browser, we usually use the domain name to reach a website. Does that mean the Internet and the Web are the same thing? It’s not that simple. As we saw, the Internet is a technical infrastructure which allows billions of computers to be connected all together. Among those computers, some computers (called Web servers) can send messages intelligible to web browsers. The Internet is an infrastructure, whereas the Web is a service built on top of the infrastructure. It is worth noting there are several other services built on top of the Internet, such as email and IRC.

How does the internet work

Willson Mock

Oct 16, 2014 · 5 min read

I think it’s fair that most of us can’t imagine what it’d be like to live without the internet. Reme m ber that time you dropped your iPhone in the toilet and had to live without an internet-connected phone for a couple of days? Tough, right? (Yea, I thought so) With the internet as ubiquitous as it is, how many of you have actually wondered what the internet is and how it works? It’s something I’ve wondered about and while I don’t prescribe to know all the intricate details of how this amazing system works, hopefully I can provide an analogy that gets us most of the way there.

When we talk about the Internet, what we’re actually referring to is an interconnected network of computers (hence, internet). Some of these computers are web servers, which are just specialized computers that contain and serve content from your favorite websites, and others are just the client devices we use everyday, like our laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. To make this discussion easier, take a look at the drawing below which I’ll be using for my internet analogy:

How does the internet work

For now, let’s ignore our own internet connected devices and focus on those web servers. Let’s imagine each of these web servers as a tall building and that they’re connected to each other via highways and roads. This network of highways and roads (which is made up of fiberoptic cables around the world) can be thought of as the Internet, and what travels along these highways and roads is data. Just like how physical buildings in real life have a mailing address, each of our web servers (which represents our favorite web sites like ESPN.com or Facebook.com) have a unique address called an ip address.

Now you might ask, “What about us? How do we connect to the internet?” That’s where our Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) come into play. You can imagine them as special buildings that allow our client devices to connect to the highways and roads. Continuing with our analogy, just think of each of our internet connected devices as a house with a driveway that leads to the ISP’s. And once your house is hooked up to the internet, you’re good to go!

Now that we have a (very) high level sense of what the internet is, how exactly does it work? This is where your browser comes into play.

Your browser is what we call a “client application” and what this simply means is that its a program that allows you to make requests to different web sites and respond to the data that those web sites send back. To best explain how this works, I’ll list out some of the steps involved with making a request to ESPN.com:

  1. From our discussion above, remember how I said that each web server has its own unique ip address? Well, the web server for ESPN has its own ip address, which I found out is 199.181.33.61.
  2. When you type in “http://espn.go.com” into your browser, your browser somehow needs to know that this URL (i.e. uniform resource locator) actually means the ip address 199.181.33.61. So what the browser does is that it contacts the DNS (domain name service) and looks up the ip address for that url. You can think of the DNS as a phone book (do you kiddies even know what this is anymore??)
  3. Once the ip address is retrieved, your browser attempts to connect to the web server by opening up a socket connection. Without getting into the details, think of this as you physically calling the tall building (i.e. web server) and seeing if they’re still open. If someone responds, then you know they’re open and you’re connected.
  4. Now that your browser and the server have a open connection with each other, your request to a specific article on ESPN can be made. But before your request can be sent over the internet, it has to follow a set of rules that describe how the request must be formatted. These set of rules are known as TCP/IP and the HTTP protocol.
  5. Essentially, think of it like this: in order to travel along the highways and roads of the internet, every request made by your browser and every response sent by a web server must first be chopped up into small packets of data. You can think of your original request as a photo mosaic, and once its been chopped up, each tile represents a packet of data. Aside from containing the binary bits of data, each tile also knows the ip address its supposed to go to and how to reassemble itself once all the packets reach the destination ip address.
  6. Going back to our example of requesting a specific article on ESPN, the request for the article is chopped up into packets and sent along the highway and roads. Along the way, there are routers (and other similar devices) that basically act as traffic cops and direct the packets to the correct path leading to the ip address.
  7. Once all the packets of data arrive at the web server, the web server will look for the specific article, similar to how you’d look for a file in a cabinet drawer. Once the file has been located, the web server will chop up the response into data packets again, and send them back to your browser.
  8. Finally, when all the data packets arrive back at your browser, your browser will reassemble all packets into the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and image files that represent the article. And once these files are processed, you’ll magically see the article displayed on screen.

In a nutshell, that’s what the Internet is and how it works! And while I’ve glossed over MANY details of how this intricate system works, I think that for the majority of us, having this basic understanding of what happens behind the scenes will demystify some of the magic and help us appreciate the internet that we’ve come to rely on for, basically, everything.

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The Internet works because open standards allow every network to connect to every other network.

This is what makes it possible for anyone to create content, offer services, and sell products without requiring permission from a central authority.

It levels the playing field for everyone and it’s the reason why we have a rich diversity of applications and services that many of us enjoy today.

Who’s in charge of the Internet?

No one is, but everyone is.

Unlike the telephone network, which for years in most countries, was run by a single company, the global Internet consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, governments, and others.

What’s the infrastructure of the Internet like?

The Internet is that it’s a network of networks that needs to operate around the world as if it were one.

Like policy, the technical coordination of the Internet has common characteristics:

  • Open,
  • Independent,
  • Run by non-profit membership organizations that work together to meet the needs everyone.

This self-regulation has been the key to the successful growth of the Internet and is flexible enough to adapt to changing future needs.

What can you do to help make sure the Internet is open, and accessible platform?

At a time when many of the existing processes behind the development and administration of the Internet are being questioned, it is more important than ever that you’re involved in its future.
Internet Society provides education and information of the benefits of open, consensus-based processes and structures.

We also reach out to non-governmental organizations, regulatory and governmental bodies.

No matter if you’re a corporate body, non-governmental organization, policy or decision maker, or an every day person – we need your help.

December 4, 2020
Will Parker, Sustainability Fellow

When I tell people that I am serving with AmeriCorps, I usually explain that, no, I’m not breaking rocks or building literal bridges. As part of the first-ever Resilience Corps cohort, I’m helping in a more measured, strategic way to make the Portland area better for everyone who works, lives and plays here. And I’m learning heaps along the way about the region and about what it takes to keep a community moving through a painful time towards a brighter, more equitable future.

The 14 of us that make up the Resilience Corps are each here for different reasons. Many of us are recent college graduates, looking to plug into community. Others of us have already started careers or families but see that this is a critical moment to give back to the world. Some of us grew up in Southern Maine and feel a duty to our home, while others are moving to Maine for the first time in our lives to discover a new corner of the world. Some of us can’t tell our life stories without service, while others are compelled by this moment to make our first foray into service. We’re united, however, by a desire to learn from the communities that exist here and help them emerge stronger from the current crisis.

Resilience Corps began with a bang on Zoom. Our first week was packed with presentations from every corner of GPCOG, on storytelling or climate action planning or broadband. To have these broad spheres of GPCOG’s work presented to us one after the other was like riding a roller coaster. There were incredibly exciting moments, like when we heard from the sustainability wing of GPCOG. It’s working to keep our world stable and clean in ways I’d never even thought of. There were somber moments, too, like when we heard about the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness in the region. Comedic relief came, too. We heard a dense 30-minute presentation about broadband internet access, after which I had to meekly ask how the internet works. (Seriously, do you know??)

Having 14 fellows working on distinct issues drives home a lesson from orientation: you can’t be too siloed when it comes to building resilience, because there is no single answer to the challenges that the Greater Portland region faces. Resilience is a complex network, not a war chest or a panacea. While each of us becomes experts in the issues we’re working directly on, we’re also here to be amateurs at everything, constantly listening to voices from other spheres that have a layer of complexity—and therefore resilience—to add to our work.

Learn the basics of internet and everything involved with this short video series

Knowing the basics of internet and how it works is the key knowledge that every developer must have. In this article accompanied with an introductory series of short videos about internet from code.org you will learn the basics of internet and how everything works. After going through this article, you will be able to answer the below questions:

  • What is Internet?
  • How does the information move on the internet?
  • How do the networks talk to each other and the protocols involved?
  • Packet, routers, and reliability
  • HTTP and the HTML – How are you viewing this webpage in your browser?
  • How is the information transfer on the internet made secure?
  • What is cybersecurity and some common internet crimes?

What is internet?

Internet is a global network of computers connected to each other which communicate through a standardized set of protocols.

In the video below Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet” explains the history of how the internet works and how no one person or organization is really in charge of it.

Wires, Cables & Wifi

Information on the internet moves from computer to another in the form of bits. The medium for this transfer can be wires e.g. ethernet wires that you might have seen in your homes, it can be transferred in the form of light or fiber optic cables, also we can use wireless mediums.

In the video linked below, you will learn about the different mediums for data transfer on the internet and the pros and cons for each.

IP Addresses and DNS

Now that you know about the physical medium for the data transfer over the internet. It’s time to learn about the protocols involved or how does the information reach from one computer to another in this massive global network of computers.

In the video below, you will get a brief introduction to IP, DNS and how these protocols make the internet work.

Packets, Routing and Reliability

Information transfer on the internet from one computer to another does not need to follow a fixed path; infact, it may change paths during the transfer. This information transfer is done in the form of packets and these packets may follow different routes depending upon certain factors.

In this video, you will learn about how the packets of information are routed from one computer to another to reach the destination.

HTTP is the standard protocol using which the webpages are transferred over the internet. The video below is a brief introduction to HTTP and how the browsers load the websites for you.

Encryption and Public Keys

Cryptography is what keeps our communication secure on the internet, in this short video you will learn the basics of cryptograpy, SSL and TLS and how they help make the communication on the internet secure.

Cybersecurity and Crime

In this video, you will learn about the basics of cybersecurity and common cybercrimes

What is the Internet?

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How does the internet work

Lesson 1: What is the Internet?

Introduction

The Internet is an increasingly important part of everyday life for people around the world. But if you’ve never used the Internet before, all of this new information might feel a bit confusing at first.

Throughout this tutorial, we’ll try to answer some basic questions you may have about the Internet and how it’s used. When you’re done, you’ll have a good understanding of how the Internet works, how to connect to the Internet, and how to browse the Web.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is a global network of billions of computers and other electronic devices. With the Internet, it’s possible to access almost any information, communicate with anyone else in the world, and do much more.

You can do all of this by connecting a computer to the Internet, which is also called going online. When someone says a computer is online, it’s just another way of saying it’s connected to the Internet.

How does the internet work

What is the Web?

The World Wide Web—usually called the Web for short—is a collection of different websites you can access through the Internet. A website is made up of related text, images, and other resources. Websites can resemble other forms of media—like newspaper articles or television programs—or they can be interactive in a way that’s unique to computers.

The purpose of a website can be almost anything: a news platform, an advertisement, an online library, a forum for sharing images, or an educational site like us!

How does the internet work

Once you are connected to the Internet, you can access and view websites using a type of application called a web browser. Just keep in mind that the web browser itself is not the Internet; it only displays websites that are stored on the Internet.

How does the Internet work?

At this point you may be wondering, how does the Internet work? The exact answer is pretty complicated and would take a while to explain. Instead, let’s look at some of the most important things you should know.

It’s important to realize that the Internet is a global network of physical cables, which can include copper telephone wires, TV cables, and fiber optic cables. Even wireless connections like Wi-Fi and 3G/4G rely on these physical cables to access the Internet.

When you visit a website, your computer sends a request over these wires to a server. A server is where websites are stored, and it works a lot like your computer’s hard drive. Once the request arrives, the server retrieves the website and sends the correct data back to your computer. What’s amazing is that this all happens in just a few seconds!

Watch the video below from Tata Communications to learn more about how the Internet functions.

Other things you can do on the Internet

One of the best features of the Internet is the ability to communicate almost instantly with anyone in the world. Email is one of the oldest and most universal ways to communicate and share information on the Internet, and billions of people use it. Social media allows people to connect in a variety of ways and build communities online.

How does the internet work

There are many other things you can do on the Internet. There are thousands of ways to keep up with news or shop for anything online. You can pay your bills, manage your bank accounts, meet new people, watch TV, or learn new skills. You can learn or do almost anything online.

How does the internet work

How do you access the Internet other than dial-up if you live too far from a phone company office for DSL and there is no cable TV on your street? Satellite Internet access may be worth considering. It’s ideal for rural Internet users who want broadband access. Satellite Internet does not use telephone lines or cable systems, but instead uses a satellite dish for two-way (upload and download) data communications. Upload speed is about one-tenth of the 500 kbps download speed. Cable and DSL have higher download speeds, but satellite systems are about 10 times faster than a normal modem.

Firms that offer or plan to offer two-way satellite Internet include StarBand, Pegasus Express, Teledesic and Tachyon. Tachyon service is available today in the United States, Western Europe and Mexico. Pegasus Express is the two-way version of DirecPC.

Two-way satellite Internet consists of:

  • Approximately a two-foot by three-foot dish
  • Two modems (uplink and downlink)
  • Coaxial cables between dish and modem

The key installation planning requirement is a clear view to the south, since the orbiting satellites are over the equator area. And, like satellite TV, trees and heavy rains can affect reception of the Internet signals.

Two-way satellite Internet uses Internet Protocol (IP) multicasting technology, which means up to 5,000 channels of communication can simultaneously be served by a single satellite. IP multicasting sends data from one point to many points (at the same time) by sending data in compressed format. Compression reduces the size of the data and the bandwidth. Usual dial-up land-based terrestrial systems have bandwidth limitations that prevent multicasting of this magnitude.

Some satellite-Internet service still requires you to have a dial-up or cable modem connection for the data you send to the Internet. The satellite data downlink is just like the usual terrestrial link, except the satellite transmits the data to your computer via the same dish that would allow you to receive a Pay-Per-View television program.

So, if you are in a rural area and you want broadband access to the Internet, satellite Internet may be for you!