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Neon_Internet_Cafe_Open_24_HoursOnce you finish this article, I’m sure you’ll be amazed that the Internet works at all! It’s easy to complain about slow download speeds, or lost e-mail, but, geez, it’s the Internet!

Ten years ago most of you were still buying magazines, and renting videos, and going to the post office, and ordering things from the Sears catalogue. The only thing cooler would be the ability to teleport ourselves through it.

Look at a map of the Internet sometime and you’ll see that it is like a million superhighways with no lines painted on the road. It’s a snake pit of computers attaching to modems attaching to phone lines, or cable, or satellites, or cell networks, attaching to more computers, servers, routers and modems and so on, and so on. There is no beginning. There is no end.


Map_of_the_Internet

In the image above, you are looking at one very small part of the Internet. See that star-burst like image it is extracted from? Go take a look at the full image. It takes awhile to load. Then come back, of course.

What makes the Internet work at all, is something called the Internet Protocol (IP). You may have heard of the term IP Address. Now you know what the IP stands for, but do you know what it is? A protocol is a set method for a way of doing things. Think of an incoming phone call. Typically it goes like this: you hear the phone ring, you pick up, you say “Hello…” and maybe a little more like, “…this is Guy speaking.” Then the person on the other end acknowledges you with something like, “Hey Guy, this is work. Where the heck are you?” Then the lying, I mean conversation, begins. That’s a socially accepted phone call protocol.

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That’s basically how the Internet works. You tell your computer to connect to a resource, let’s say MakeUseOf.com. Just pulled that out of my hat. MakeUseOf.com is a human readable form for the IP address 216.92.56.91. Who’s going to remember that?  Exactly.

So we have something called a Universal Resource Locator (URL) like MakeUseOf.com. Something called a Domain Name Server (DNS) which looks up that URL and then figures out the IP address associated with it. Think of a REALLY big phone book. You look up your plumber’s name and then you figure out what his phone number is. Same deal. Makes sense so far? Relax, there is no quiz and your Internet Users License won’t be revoked.

IPv4_space

What the above image shows is the available IP version 4 (IPv4) space. MakeUseOf.com is located in the 216 block. Remember that from the first 3 digits of the IP address? That block belongs to ARIN American Registry for Internet Numbers. Kind of like how the area code 403 belongs to Alberta. Got’er figured?

Here’s where it gets a little crazy. Each piece of data you send out is broken down into packets. Imagine mailing your friend a book, page by page. Each page will have to carry your friend’s address and the page number to let him know what order it goes in. It should also let him know how many pages there are, so he knows when he has it all. They should also have your address, so if the mail person can’t deliver it, they know where it came from.

So, each packet carries the intended IP address, a number to determine where the packet fits back into the data sent, how many packets to expect, as well as your IP address. Crazy huh? It has more than that, but that’s the really important stuff. Check it out in the packet header below. I highlighted the stuff we talked about in green.

packet_header

Now, check this out. Each packet doesn’t necessarily go down the same set of wires to its destination. “What kind of glue are you  on, Guy?” No, it’s true. Those packets go out to a device called a router, which then sends the packet to the nearest available router that is closer to that destination, and, hopefully, isn’t too congested. It figures that out based on the numbers in your IP address. The first three numbers identify a large area, and the rest make it more specific. Yet again, just like a phone number. This is known as ‘best-effort-delivery’.

So one packet may get routed through Virginia and another may go through Vancouver on their way to the same server in Hong Kong. This also means that packet A might get there later than packet B, or not at all! See what I mean about the miracle of a working Internet?

When the packets arrive at the destination, the server or computer receiving it compiles it into something cohesive, or it puts the book back together, to carry on that metaphor. Now the computer receiving all the packets sends back a message to the originating computer to say, in effect, “Thanks! Good-bye.” Thus the communication ends.

That’s the simplest, high-level overview I can give on how the Internet works. Take what I’ve said and add in millions of servers, routers, modems, and other networking devices and you can see how the complexity is magnified exponentially.

Next time you get an error message or a page loads a little slower than normal, reflect on this article and relive the amazement that the thing works at all. It’s all perspective, my friends. And lots of wires.

Photo Credit: Justinc

  1. Anandarajeshwaran.J
    October 15, 2009 at 5:52 am

    I get the full picture now. So when I give the url makeuseof.com in my browser it goes to my ISP checks against the DNS and does the rest of the work.
    I have a doubt here. How is my ISP able to control the speed at which I access the Internet?

    • Guy McDowell
      October 15, 2009 at 8:45 pm

      In the network operating system on the server that connects their clients to their large Internet connection, they can assign a maximum bandwidth per account. So let say you have account 123 and you have a 2.5 Mbps package. They enter that in server. Let's say your friend has account 345 and has a 1.0 Mbps package. They enter that in the server for his account.

      There are also physical limits to bandwidth. If they have 10 Mbps service coming in, they can't have more than 10 Mbps service going out to their clients, in total.

  2. Nardyello
    August 13, 2009 at 1:11 am

    Wait, if there's no beginning and end, why do I have to pay a company to get internet?

    Actually I think I just came up with an answer, correct me if I'm wrong, but do I have to pay Comcast or Verizon for internet because they have a huge amount of connections? So I could just connect to them to be able to connect to other nearby connections and then have my package delivered?

    If it's not that, then I have no idea why we have to pay for something that is, in essence, free.

    Please clarify me >.<

    Oh, FANTASTIC article, by the way. Passing it over to my friends who also wondered how the internet worked.

    Another question: So how did it begin? How can I connect my computer to another computer without internet? Is there a way?

    You got me going now x]

    • Guy McDowell
      August 13, 2009 at 1:13 pm

      In a way it is kind of like roads. We don't pay to access roads (except toll roads) but we do pay taxes in order to use them, through gas taxes, licenses, property taxes, etc.
      Even though the road is just there, we have to pay to make it useable, and so it can be maintained.

      It's sort of like that for Internet Service Providers, they have to pay to run the servers and other hardware as well as to get blocks of IP addresses and bandwidth. They turn around and ask us to pay, so they can meet the bills and have some profit.

      You can connect your computer to another computer without the Internet. One way is through a null-modem cable, or through a crossover cat5e cable and some work in Windows Home Networking. Maybe that's another article....

  3. Ted Stevens
    August 9, 2009 at 12:31 am

    Why did you not talk about the trucks and tubes ?

    • Guy McDowell
      August 9, 2009 at 4:13 pm

      I believe that's the Internet that Al Gore invented, not the real Internet. ;-)

  4. Nepal Trekking
    August 8, 2009 at 4:38 am

    yes i m 100% agree with your post. in nepal still there are 90% place where there is no electricity so there is no possible to use internet so we most go to post office to send letter,to get stamp so how we can see the location map on internet.

  5. NinjaCompTeam
    August 8, 2009 at 1:47 am

    Great article. Many people are misinformed on who the internet actually works, and this is a great explanation. I also enjoyed that Hulu Interview: http://www.hulu.com/watch/60634/late-night-with-conan-obrien-everythings-amazing-nobodys-happy

    Keep up the good work!!

    NinjaCompTeam
    http://ninjatechhelp.blogspot.com

  6. Trina L. Grant
    August 5, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    This article is "simply" amazing. I've never had an explanation of the way the internet works broken down so simply before. I totally get it now, lol. Thanks for this, very informative.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 5, 2009 at 1:29 pm

      I aim to please. Thank you.

  7. Ralph
    August 1, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    Awesome article, keep it up =D

    • Guy McDowell
      August 2, 2009 at 9:06 am

      Thank you.

  8. Phaoloo
    August 1, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, you make this difficult theory much more easy to understand.

    • Guy McDowell
      August 1, 2009 at 11:06 am

      You're welcome! Thank you for the compliment.

  9. Bernmeister
    July 31, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    It's Uniform, not Universe in URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniform_Resource_Locator

  10. Dave
    July 31, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Totally agree with you - that the internet is a very complicated system and try to be patient when it has the occasional problem. This article only coverts TCP/IP, there is UDP, Multicast, and a host of other technologies at play that many people do not even realize.

    Framing and routing are really 2 bigs ideas you need to get your head around to understand the internet, and your article does a nice job of spelling it out in plain english!

    • Guy McDowell
      July 31, 2009 at 10:48 pm

      Yep, it's pretty complex for sure. But I think if I can get people to wrap their heads around the concept of Internet Protocol, then it's not too far of a leap to understand other protocols and technologies involved.

      Thanks for the complement.

  11. Ruben
    July 31, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Great article. Thanks! I'll save it and share it with some of my less than tech savvy friends.

    It reminds me of the following interview:
    http://www.hulu.com/watch/60634/late-night-with-conan-obrien-everythings-amazing-nobodys-happy

    • Guy McDowell
      July 31, 2009 at 10:54 pm

      Can't watch Hulu outside of the US. But I think that's the Louis CK bit about flying, right? I love his stuff, so, yeah, that could have influenced my writing. It's true though. We take everything for granted.
      Here's a cure for cancer!
      Ugh, it tastes like poo. I'm not taking that.
      But it's a CURE FOR CANCER!!!!

      I was on a plane recently and the guy next to me was complaining about having to board so early and sit on the flight line. I did turn to him and say gleefully, "But we're going to fly!!!!"
      It was a quiet flight.

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