I’m back and answering the questions about tech that you’ve always been afraid to ask. Be sure to comment or otherwise reach out if you have more questions, or follow-up questions. But today, we’re finally getting to the big leagues: The Internet. The question I’ll attempt to answer today:
How does the internet work?
The Internet is easier to understand that it may seem, especially if you have already read my previous posts in the Technologeez series. If bits, compilers, clouds, and the other things we’ve discussed so far have seemed outlandish to you, I hope you find the Internet to be straightforward, because it works just like humans work in our day-to-day social lives.
Now let’s tackle this question, one piece at a time.
What is the Internet, anyway?
Everyone knows what the Internet is for, though most people don’t know what it actually is. To define the Internet, we need to rewind to my post about clouds. A cloud, as you may recall, is a group of computers that work together, like a gaggle of geese (I recently learned that my dog is afraid of gaggles of geese, which is pretty smart of him because geese are mean). Though I didn’t talk much about how the computers in a cloud actually communicate in order to work together in that post, those who read my most recent post now know how this happens: computer networking. At the end of my computer networking post, I mentioned that there is a specific computer networking protocol called the Internet Protocol (IP) that computers can use to send messages to each other.
There are many clouds that use the Internet Protocol, and you can connect to these clouds (like Google, Facebook, etc.) because your laptop/phone is able to send messages using the same Internet Protocol that these clouds use. These many clouds of computers, and any other computers that communicate via the IP computer networking protocol, are together the Internet.
You can think of the Internet similarly to your social life, if you have multiple circles of friends that you communicate with regularly. Perhaps you have your school friends, work friends, dog owner friends, and board gaming friends. These circles of friends are like separate clouds, but you’re able to connect to each circle even if the circles don’t really know each other, because you understand your role and how communicate in all of these circles (you understand the protocol). These many friend circles that you can navigate between are similar to how computers & clouds network together to create the Internet!
Getting Around in the Internet
You don’t tend to notice switching from one cloud to another cloud on the Internet, do you? In fact, switching from one cloud to another on the Internet is easier than it is to switch from your work friends to your board gaming friends in your social life. Case in point: I have 8 different clouds open in my browser tabs right now, between my email, writing this blog post, and other websites. You may notice switching clouds if you need to type in a username & password to access a cloud. But even then, you can get to tons of places on the Internet from your laptop or phone, without even knowing where the computers are! How? It’s all made possible by a large address book, called a Domain Name System (DNS). These address books are used by internet service providers (Comcast, AT&T, etc.), and they’re part of what you’re paying for when you pay for “the Internet” at home.
Let’s use Google as an example to see how DNS works alongside computer networking to make the Internet that we know & love. When you type “www.google.com” into your browser address bar, you’re telling your computer to take you to the Google search cloud. But where, oh where, is www.google.com? Do you know where Google keeps their clouds nowadays? If you don’t, here’s what usually happens next:
- Your laptop/phone sends a message (using computer networking, remember!) to your internet company, usually via a WiFi router, saying “Hey, they want google.com!”
- The internet company flips through the super long DNS address book to find the IP address of a computer in the Google cloud. The IP address is similar to a street address of a house, except this is an address of a particular computer.
- The internet company then sends a message to that computer in the Google cloud, saying, “Hey, someone wants google.com!”
- The computer in the Google cloud receives the message, and sends the Google search page back to you via your internet company &WiFi router.
As simple as that exchange may seem, remember that all of the messages going back & forth in this scenario are traveling possibly thousands of miles in less than a second! Aren’t electrons and radio waves awesome? And there may be stops along the way between your computer and the website you’re trying to reach, depending on how your internet company does things. For example, here’s the exact path taken from my laptop to google.com. In computer land, we call this a route.
My laptop is step 1 on the route, and my internet company (which is called Monkeybrains) shows up in steps 2–4. The final computer in step 11 belongs to the Google cloud, and some of the computers in the middle are computers I don’t know the name of (we see only the IP addresses of the computers). This is just like how I take a specific route to get to a friend’s house- turn left at this street, then right, etc. Except in the Internet, we’re using ethernet cables & WiFi signals instead of roads & sidewalks.
It is often not the case that your computer needs to do all of these routing steps every time it loads a page on the Internet. If you’re using multiple pages on one website (like if you go to google.com and then search for something, that’s two different pages of the same website), your computer will often remain in contact with the Google cloud. This means you don’t have to look up google.com in a DNS every time you go to a different page on the Google website. But in general, every time your computer attempts to reach a cloud of computers for the first time, it uses a DNS to get there!
Yes, it is that simple.
So there you have it: the Internet is a bunch of clouds of computers (shall we say a cloud of clouds?) that network using the Internet Protocol, and you can use the Internet if you have a way to find the clouds you need- which is usually done via a DNS. There are other bells & whistles involved in the Internet, like security measures to keep you away from unsafe computers, or optimizations that make your experience better, faster, stronger. But the Internet itself is as simple as having circles of friends, and knowing where to find them.
But there is more to say about how computers get actual web pages and exchange information after connecting via the Internet. And that will be the topic of my next post!