Understanding the Internet

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understanding the internet

Ever been lost in the woods? I have. I didn't like it.

I grew up in Western New York. I know that most people who've never been to New York think that it's one big city. Trust me; there's a lot more woods than there is city. There are millions of acres of wilderness in New York State.

We used to spend 10 days every summer camping off a series of old logging trails in the Adirondack Mountains. If you wander off the beaten path, you had better have a compass, a canteen and some food. Every couple of years, someone wanders into those deep woods and never comes back.

Sounds kind of like the Internet, doesn't it? It's a thing so vast and complicated that it's hard to wrap your mind around it. The easiest thing to do is just give it a cool-sounding name, and hope you never have to try to explain it to anyone!

Well, I used to be one of those systems-engineer guys who actually understands much of what goes on there. I wouldn't recommend systems engineering to the squeamish. The courses you have to take can give you the strangest nightmares! It's a lonely profession, too. I can't talk to my friends about what I used to do; it just makes their eyes glaze over.

Anyway, I'm going to talk about some of the basics of how the Internet works. I'm not going to prattle to you about Class-C IP Addressing, Virtual Webs, or redirecting an MX record on a DNS Server. That's one of those things that systems guys do to impress other people at staff meetings. I'd just be listening to myself talk, and you wouldn't gain anything useful.

The best way I can think of to visualize the Internet in basic terms, is to think about it as a worldwide telephone network.

There's a huge network of wiring that connects all the telephones in the world, in one way or another. That network is broken up into many parts, and owned by many different companies. If you live in Orlando, you make your phone calls through the telephone wires installed and maintained by Sprint, for example. If you live somewhere else, AT&T might maintain your phone line. If you live on the Island of Wheredaheckawee, your island might have many phone lines, but they are all connected to the outside world through a single underwater phone cable from the Mainland. However it interconnects, it's all part of the same giant network.

All that wiring throughout the world has one simple purpose. To connect.

A big company headquarters, like Apple, for example, might have thousands of phone lines connected to a big switchboard, so that their company can make or take thousands of calls at the same time. Apple also has those fancy phones that can connect to several lines at once, or call many people on different phone lines, and connect to them all at the same time. A conference call, for example.

Pretty simple, right?

Now, let's relate that to the Internet. The Internet is just another big 'phone network', only instead of being connected to phones, the lines are connected to computers.

Those computers fall into two basic categories: Workstations, and Servers.

The computer in your home is a Workstation. When you're connected online, you use your Workstation to make 'phone calls' to other computers. Instead of paying telephone service charges to the phone company for a phone call, you pay 'Internet Access fees' to your Internet provider to connect your Workstation to other computers.

There are places out there with computers that are like the big fancy switchboard that Apple uses. They reside in buildings with thousands of 'phone lines' connected to them. These computers can connect with many other computers at the same time, and handle the computer equivalent of 'conference calls.' They are called Servers.

Servers can connect to many Workstations at once. Thousands of people who connect to Facebook, for example, can be connected to the same Server at the same time. When that Server reaches it's 'maximum load' (like a switchboard that can only connect a certain number of calls at once), another Server will take the overflow, and so on.

Every Server online is connected to all the other Servers as well.

Basically, the Internet is one big gigantic computer conference call, with people joining in and dropping out all the time. The Workstations (your computer) are the participants, and the Servers are the Company management team, moderating the discussion.

Ok, so what about all that information that you can look up on the Internet all the time? You can go to a Search Engine and find the current price of wheat in Russia, or get a list of suggested names for your new puppy. Where does it all come from?

Web Sites. Everything you ever wanted to know, and many things you never wanted to know can be found on the millions of sites around the world. Where do the sites actually reside? Where do those actual bits of information live?

On Servers.

When you create a Website, you are actually renting a small amount of computer hard drive space on a Server somewhere. Whether you use that hard drive space for a site that lists all of your Aunt Matilda's favorite recipes, or you use it to set up an Online Store, it's all the same thing. Just a sliver of rented space on some Server computer's hard drives. The money you pay for that space is paid to whatever company owns that particular Server, and has connected it to the giant conference call that is the Internet.

Now, how do the Search Engines find your site, which could be sitting on a flashing and beeping Server rack the size of a phone booth, anywhere in the world?

Let's go back to the conference call. Remember when I said that all the Servers on the Internet are connected to all the other Servers? Remember that each Website sits on the hard drive of some Server, somewhere? Well, the Search Engines are the same way. A Search Engine is just a computer program sitting on some Server, somewhere.

A Search Engine program is constantly talking with all the Servers on the Internet, asking those other Servers what kinds of goodies they have stashed in the sites that have been created on their hard drives. The Search Engine gathers all that information and keeps a record of it.

When you go to Google, for example, and type in a search for 'Ankle Bracelets', the Google Search Engine program looks in its records. It finds all the references it discovered concerning Ankle Bracelets on all the Servers around the world, and returns a list of those records to you. These are called "Links". When you click on one of them, your Workstation connects to the Server that contains that information. The information opens on your computer screen in the form of a Web Page aka Website.

That's all that we want to dig into technically about this. Hopefully, though, this will provide a basic understanding of what the Internet really is: one giant never-ending computer conference call!