The Internet, Part 1: Basics, Servers and the World Wide Web

The Internet. We use it everyday, most of us blissfully oblivious to the way it works. Like cars, or magnets. It has transformed computers—which were amazing to begin with—into virtually endless wells of knowledge and possibilities.

What is it?

My grandmother used to think her web browser was the Internet, which is a common mistake. Web browsers use the Internet and so does email, Skype, games, and many other services which are not part of the World Wide Web.

At its core the Internet is simply a giant network. And here’s a fact. As long as someone can receive an email from you, even if he’s on the other side of the globe, then his computer is physically connected to yours.

This giant network is made of copper wires, wireless and fiber-optic connections. There aren’t unique cables connecting each and every Internet user, of course. There are hubs, large datacenters operated by access providers and filled with routing devices. They each connect a certain set of users, and then connect to each other.

Now this network—the Internet—is not owned nor controlled by any one entity. It is the result of several, smaller, independently owned and operated, local networks which agree to connect their users to one another. Together they cover the entire planet.

These agreements sometimes break, like in the case of a Sprint versus Cogent dispute in 2008. Sprint stopped routing traffic to Cogent, claiming it had not been paying the fees agreed upon to exchange traffic. Many Sprint and Cogent customers were suddenly unable to communicate with each other across the Internet.

However these conflicts are quickly resolved—in this particular case the disconnection lasted a couple of days. The pressure from unhappy clients on both sides is too strong. Nobody stands for a severed version of the Internet.

The Internet Means Business

As it happens, connecting directly to another personal computer is a rare occurence. The Internet is mostly used to connect to services provided by companies, like Google, Facebook, and lots of smaller ones.

These companies use special computers called “servers” which are built to run services and to serve a large number of users over a network. Servers are connected to the Internet like your computer is—but with a more reliable and much faster connection.

So when you do, say, a Google search, your computer connects directly to one of Google’s servers—there are hundreds of thousands—transmits your request, and then gets an answer back.

The World Wide Web

There’s something very special about “the Web”. Unlike other services, like Skype or Dropbox, there’s no need to install new software for each website. You already have all the software you need: your web browser.

See Skype, for instance, is built for a very specific purpose: to converse over the Internet. As a result, Skype’s software uses the Internet to transmit and receive information pertaining to contacts and conversations, that’s all.

On the other hand, a web browser’s purpose is simply to be able to display any kind of website. So when you’re surfing the Web, your browser receives everything: the whole interface, down to the pixel, all its functionality, and all its content. And this happens everytime you open a new page.

That’s why the World Wide Web is so wide and so rich. Almost anything can be created, and subsequently accessed by millions of people, directly from their home. Even products that don’t need the Web to function, like Skype, continue to rely on it for discovery.

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