The Internet is an absolute technological marvel with interconnecting networks travelling at or near the speed of light across the planet, but few people know or understand how it actually works. My aim here is to explain the Internet in lay-terms for all to understand and read in awe.
A few years ago during the Cold War, the Americans thought it’d be a good idea to make a network of computers all connected in a large mess, so that they could play Halflife and exchange pornography without Russian interference. After the Cold War finished, universities started showing interest in this network, which – in those days – was called ‘The network of boring insignificance’ to avoid attention to the true content. As more universities connected, this aroused more interest and eventually commercial users started appearing on the ‘net.
This vast jumble of computers was growing at expontential rate, and so a jolly English fellow, Tim decided to start working on standards for the now-familiar World Wide Web. More than ten years down the line and here we are, a network built up to play Halflife and Solitaire, to exchange unusual photos of questionable tastes, and to allow various Star Trek enthusiasts to share continuity errors with their peers.
‘But how does it work?’ I hear you murmur. Good question. The Internet uses ‘packets’ of information to connect two computers. These packets contain fragments of information, so one computer might send a file in 20 packets, and these packets arrive at the other side. The actual information is carried in little envelopes, carried by specially bred hamsters in large pipes that circumnavigate the globe. Inside every local telephone exchange is a small printing device known as a ‘Berners-Lee Information Printer’ (BLIP, named after the inventor Mark Jones). Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) houses a collection of hamsters in each exchange, ready to collect the printouts from the BLIPs that are wired to your home PC. Once the packets are printed, it’s off down the pipe to the other end.
So, how do the hamsters know where to go? Well, each computer is numbered with a unique number. At each junction of pipes small electrical charges are used to direct the hamsters in the right direction, according to which unique number the envelope is labeled with. It’s a complex system of electrical charges and hamsters, but it all works seamlessly.
Unfortunately some people manage to infiltrate these pipes, and install sharp bladed devices which hack at the envelope as the hamster passes in the hope that the packet will fall out of the ripped envelope. These are called hackers, and much technology has been developed to protect against these types. Nowadays the envelopes have a layer of teflon to prevent against hacking.
Other types of people have different intents, and some want to take prominent websites off the Internet. They use a technique called ‘Denial of Service’ attacks, whereby many hamsters are simultaneously fired down pipes at high speeds towards a particular destination with the aim of clogging a server with an overwhelming number of unwanted hamsters.
Much attention has been made recently to the presence of ‘cookies’ on the Internet. A hamster may be given a cookie while at a particular website as a present. Later on the same cookie may be detected in the hamster’s droppings when it visits the same site, or the crumbs may have spread to its fellow hamsters who work for the same user. Thus users can be individually tracked and past actions can be recorded (‘mmm, chocolate chip. Must’ve been to microsoft.com recently…’). Also, cookies are usually unwanted and slow the Internet down as the hamsters invariably get fatter and find it more difficult to travel through the pipes.
Most recently, broadband has become a regular talking spot. Broadband is the concept of much faster connections than the traditional phone, and several technologies are used. ‘DSL’ is the technique of squeezing many more hamsters down a single pipe. Usually baby hamsters are used because they are very small and many can fit in the space of one adult hamster. ‘Cable’ refers to the process of each hamster being tied to a large cable which, when they pull twice on to indicate their readiness, is pulled from the exchange at tremendous speed. Therefore the hamsters travel much faster down the pipe. Finally satellite connections are making an impact as they provide a lot of speed to remote places. These work by transmitting the packets between each computer and the central office of the ISP. Each packet must be faxed through the satellite, and since hamsters are not known for sitting still at desks for hours, guinea pigs have been found most suitable for this task.
And that, my friends, is how the Internet works.