Explain to me: how the Internet works

In this article, we are going to walk you through the basics of how the internet operates. To make things clear, we intentionally omit some technical specifics.

Internet is just a whole lot of computers

The Internet is a whole bunch of machines that are connected with each other. This is called a network. Networking means that one computer can send a message to another one and that one can respond to it. It is not clear yet, but wait.

For example, there is your smartphone. And there is a Yandex computer that is responsible for displaying the page at yandex.ru. The smartphone makes the request “Show me the homepage of yandex.ru,” the Yandex computer receives this request, processes it, checks who you are and gives you this page in the form of a code. Your gadget receives the code, processes it and shows it as a web page.

It may seem that we visit different websites — as if we were moving across the web. The fact is that nobody goes anywhere. Your computer just makes a request to another machine, which gives an answer, and then your computer displays that answer on the screen. We don’t really surf the Internet but rather download it selectively.

The Internet is a Vast Network of Computers

The internet is a system of interconnected computer networks. The fact that they are interlinked means that one computer can send a message to another computer and receive a response. If it doesn’t make sense now, it’s ok, we’ll clarify later.

For example, let’s imagine your smartphone sends a request to view the yandex.ru homepage. There is a designated computer at Yandex that is accountable for displaying this particular page. That designated computer at Yandex receives this request, processes it, checks to confirm your identity, and then provides you with this page in the form of a code. Your phone then receives the page code and transforms it into the Yandex homepage you see on your screen.

We call that surfing the internet, visiting websites, and exploring the world wide web. In all actuality, we don’t “surf” anything or “go” anywhere but instead, download it selectively. Our computers send requests to other computers, receive answers, and then display them on our screens.

Clients and Servers

Every computer on the internet can basically be placed into one of the two categories: clients or servers. A client computer is a user’s computer that has a keyboard and a screen; they are also typically portable and user-friendly. Your phone, tablet, and laptop are all client computers.

A server is also a computer, but its purpose is to distribute information to clients. It usually looks like a metal box screwed into a metal cabinet. No monitors or keyboards, but they have enormous hard drives, hundreds of RAM gigabytes, and powerful processors instead.

There is no fundamental difference between the two. If you’d like, you can install a server program on your computer, configure it, and after that distribute websites. Or you can break into the server room in the dead of night, connect a monitor and a keyboard to a server computer, and play a game of solitaire on a 32-core processor.

To cure your curiosity: which device can function as a server?

Almost any computer can function as a server. Here are some ideas:

Your old PC, for example, which is now collecting dust in your garage, can be turned into a file server. This file server can then be used to store family photos and backup copies of important documents. You can just set the computer in the pantry, connect it to a network cable, turn it on, and leave it.

Another idea is to use your working computer as a server for the game Counter-Strike. Gamers will then be able to defuse virtual bombs utilizing the power of your PC.

You can also buy a single-board Raspberry Pi computer, connect it to your Wi-Fi and a battery, and you’ll get a pocket server that can distribute files, display websites, manage a bot in Telegram, or do anything else you’d like it to do.

Last but not least, you can power a server for a smart home system with the same Raspberry Pi and navigate it using the internet. It will collect data from all of the sensors installed in your apartment, adjust the temperature in different rooms, check for water leaks, and control your surveillance cameras.

How Computers are Connected

Everyone knows that computers are connected via the internet, but how exactly? Imagine a blood circulatory system of a human being: first, you have large thick arteries, followed by vessels, and then even thinner vessels, down to the tiniest capillaries. The internet is arranged in a similar manner.

This extensive network of cables that lie underground and at the bottom of the ocean connect cities, countries, and continents. These bundles of optical fiber transmit enormous amounts of data.

Sharks gnawing the underwater cables have posed a serious threat to the global internet. Scientists are yet to find the reason behind it — maybe it’s radiation, or perhaps the sharks are just curious.

These cables connect large data exchange points, the organizations responsible for transferring internet traffic in between cities, countries, and continents. There are about 1,500 such points worldwide.

In layman’s terms, this means your internet provider gains access to one of the nearest exchange points, in order to be able to sell you internet traffic. What typically happens next, is your provider lays thinner cables in your area and places a router in a nearby building, then the cables from the router will be run to all the houses in the neighborhood. The internet runs from the thick cables to the thinner ones, just like the blood from the arteries to the capillaries. If you’ve ever noticed the cables between two adjacent buildings, more often than not, this is actually the internet.

The cable leads to your apartment building, and a router — a device that directs the signal — is either installed onto the roof or into the basement. The cable then runs straight into your apartment where a specialist connects it to your personal router — a box with flashing lights. The box then begins to distribute the Wi-Fi that your computer can connect to.

Generally speaking, connecting to the internet happens as so: the big cable → the city internet exchange point → your provider → your area → your apartment building → your apartment. Internet cables are virtually everywhere! The internet is not just a magic cloud with content, it consists of millions and billions of servers, routers, and cables that wrap around the planet Earth. At the very end of these cables, like a cherry on top — you have your wireless Wi-Fi router.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store