How the Internet Works (Part 1)

Learning about the internet can be compared to learning how to play a game. This game just happens to include half the world population.

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The internet. What a word- what a concept! The capability to pull information, emotions, philosophies and amusing cat videos all seemingly out of thin air. It’s all included in this little button that you access from a browser on your computer or phone. According to the website‘ Internet World Stats,’ more than 4 billion people use the internet today. In recent years, the internet has shaped cultures, economies, governments, and just about everything else the light of the sun does or doesn’t touch.

Two parts combine to make the internet work: hardware and software. And while no one entity “owns” the internet, certain organizations and businesses have areas they control. However, not many people claim to have a great understanding of how the internet works. It’s a complex system, but not impossible to understand with the right explanations.

A useful analogy for the internet is comparing it to a game, with different pieces, rules (including the point/goal of the internet “game”), and players. While not impossible, a full explanation can be quite lengthy so this article will focus more on pieces and some of the rules of the internet.

Game Pieces

Hardware is anything you can physically touch that helps to process and store digital information. For example – a cable, a computer hard drive, a computer monitor… so on and so forth.

Software, according to the Google Dictionary, is “the programs and other operating information used by a computer.” Examples of software range from word and graph processors (like Microsoft Word and Excel) to the underlying digital information and algorithms required to move a mouse on a computer monitor.

A  computer has 2 basic parts- the monitor, and the computer processor. The processor (which includes both hardware and software programs) is what gives people the capability to create things in the digital world (like political rants, cat videos, and photo montages of cream cheese). It also stores the information generated in a hard drive. Then, the monitor is what gives people the capability to SEE what they are creating. So in the end, a computer gives people the ability to create and store digital information.

Obviously, this exists in several different formats – such as laptops that combine the monitor with the computer processor, as well as new phone models and tablets. (thankfully, we don’t have to carry giant computer towers and monitors around. No one wanted a repeat of jogging with boomboxes).

A server is a device most known for having massive amounts of digital storage space. For example, Netflix owns a ton of servers that simply store millions of movies and TV shows they have the licensing rights to. Different kinds of servers also exist, such as DNS (Domain Naming Servers), that do various tasks. These are more explained when it comes to the rules section. For a super in-depth look at servers, How Stuff Works gets into the nitty-gritty deets on how and what they do.

Cables are the medium through which information usually moves from one network device to another.

woman standing while carrying laptop
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

With a few definitions under your belt, it might be easier to understand the basic principle behind the internet.

The Point of the Game

Let’s say you’re admiring this really fantastic scribble drawing you made in Microsoft Paint on your computer. You think you’re the next Picasso, and you just have to show it to your mom! So you search for a USB drive (it only takes you 30 minutes to find the obnoxiously small storage device), download the picture onto the drive, and race up the stairs to plug the USB into your mom’s 1990’s computer set up. She loves the picture and asks to see more, but you can’t respond because you’re still doubled over and panting from racing up the stairs.

Five minutes later when you’ve caught your breath, your brilliant artist brain hatches a plan to save you from the tortures of cardio.

“Say, mom, what if I created a software program that, if our computers were connected with either a cable or a wireless connection, it would let us share information that we choose!”

You, being a genius artist, create the software and to this day you and your mom share both of your artistic abilities with each other.

The point of the internet is to connect electronic devices, creating a network (Google Dictionary: a group or system of interconnected people or things) that lets people share ideas and creations.

 

Rules

The internet gets much more complicated than two computers connected to each other very quickly. Imagine having 10 computers in a network, or 50, even 100! Finding the right device to send information to would be downright exhausting. Trying to search for information accessible from other devices? Cue the screams of bored frustration.

To make things even more complicated, we have to remember that all of this is taking place in a digital realm, which in the end just translates to a bunch of sequences of 1s and 0s. Luckily, there’s a process in place to help devices find each other.

IP addresses: These are the answer to how to locate different computers on the internet. In the physical world, there are street addresses to pinpoint a specific location. A house may be located on “340 Something Street, New York City NY, 38459.”

An address can either be a starting point or a destination, or even a pit stop. It doesn’t matter if you’re a house, business, or governmental entity providing stability to the population, everyone has an address.

It’s the same way on networks. Every computer, server, and any other device connected to the network has an IP address, no matter what role or purpose it plays in the internet network. An example of an IP address looks like this:  64.85.201.20.

3 decimal points separate 4 numbers that can reach up to three digits each. so an even more basic example would be 000.000.000.000

One can imagine the numbers and periods act as different parts of the address. Now, because there are SO many devices, the internet is broken into sub-networks for the sake of organization. Essentially sub-networks are like islands. Information can be transferred back and forth freely between devices in one sub-network, but not to devices on a different sub-network (that is primarily on another isolated island)

For example, 2 computers try to share some pictures. 1 has an IP address of 64.85.201.20, while the other has an IP address of 64.85.201.23. Notice how all the numbers are the same except for the ones behind the last decimal? One could say these two devices exist on the same island.

But if you had 2 devices trying to share pictures and they have the IP addresses of 64.55.200.45 and 64.92.321.27, those computers are on different sub-networks and can’t have direct communication.

So how do devices on separate networks connect? What if you’re trying to download a cooking recipe on dumplings, and no such thing exists in your sub-network?

Routers are devices that mediate the transmission routes of data packets over an electronic communications network (such as the Internet). Routers act as the bridges between islands, that have gates to ensure that one sub-networks data sharing doesn’t go over to another sub-network, and vice versa.

It also recognizes when a device from one of its sub-networks is trying to request or send information. In the end, not only is it a gatekeeper, but also a superb map reader- sending messages and requests off in the right direction indicated by the different IP addresses.

Who Owns the Pieces?

Although no one “owns” the internet, there is certainly a reality that different parts of the hardware are privately owned- by either companies or private households. For example, Netflix owns servers to store its massive amounts of movies and TV shows. Google has servers dedicated solely to being available as “cloud storage” that can be bought by clients.

Different telephone and networking companies own and maintain all the cables that connect all the servers to each other, such as Verizon or CenturyLink. So while no “one” person owns the internet, it is made up of privately owned parts.

A future article will round out the details on what happens when you type in a website in your URL box and who controls IP addresses.