How Does The Internet Work?

A description of how the internet works.

It's hard to imagine these days what life would be like without the advent of the internet. While many of us can certainly remember what life was like before the internet was commonplace, the question might seem to be asked "Why would we want to?" Indeed, the internet and all of its boons and hassles has become as much a part of modern life as the automobile and the airplane.

When asked how the internet works, though, most Average Joes would give an answer along the lines of, "Well, your computer connects to the 'Net, and then whatever you're looking at shows up in your web browser." Of course, as long as the "whatever" shows up, most people don't really have much of a need to know too much about the "how"... though sometimes having a bit of extra knowledge doesn't hurt.

The first thing that you need to realize about the internet is that it doesn't actually exist. Well, it exists, but not as a singular piece of equipment, or as anything solid whatsoever. The internet is nothing more than a series of connections between servers, which are basically exceedingly large computers that house the information that you find online. Any website, picture, or file that you find online is saved somewhere in the world on some computer or server... and downloading that same website, picture, or file consists of transferring it from that computer or server and placing it on yours.

If you had two computers at your home or office, you could connect them to each other using various cables and transfer files between them. Unfortunately, in order to do the same thing between two computers that are in different buildings (or even different countries), you'll need to connect them across some medium... either a cable line, or a phone line, or even by satellite. Of course, files as they are can't be transferred across these media... they'd just get scrambled. That's where a modem comes in. The modem changes the files into a series of impulses that can be transmitted across the chosen medium, and then another modem can decode the impulses and reconstruct the file. Modems connect your computer to the internet, where it finds the file that you're viewing on a server and then decodes it and places it on your screen.

Once your modem has found a file (whether it's a webpage, or a picture, or any of a variety of file types), then you need a way for that file to be displayed. This is where a web browser like Netscape, Mozilla, or Internet Explorer comes into play. The web browser takes the file that the modem finds, recognizes it as one type of file or another, and then either displays it, plays it, or prompts you to save or open it with another program. Browsers use various internet programming languages such as HTML and CSS to know how to display the different files that it finds. Even the most elaborate webpage is simply a series of files and pictures, displayed by your browser according to the directions given to it in the files.

Of course, the technical aspects of servers, modems, and browsers are much more complex than are presented here. Should you wish to know more about any or all aspects of the internet, a variety of web resources and technical guides exist to help you along your way.

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