Rants & Essays

How Internet Works

By Dick Sieg

The worldwide net is actually a complex web of smaller, regional networks. To understand it picture a modern road network of transcontinental superhighways connecting large cities. From these large cities come smaller freeways and parkways to link together small towns whose residents travel on slower, narrow residential ways.

The Net superhighway is the high-speed Internet. Connected to this are computers that use a particular system of transferring data at high speeds. In the U.S., the major Internet "backbone" theoretically can move data at rates of 45 million bits per second (compare this to the average home modem which has a top speed of roughly 9600 to 14,400 bits per second [these days, we've hit 36,000 BPS -PAN-]). Connected to the backbone computers are smaller networks serving particular geographic regions which generally move data at speeds around 1.5 million bits per second. Feeding off these in turn are even smaller networks or individual computers.

Unlike commercial networks such as Compuserve or Prodigy there is no central computer(s) running the Internet - its resources are to be found among thousands of individual computers. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. This approach means it is virtually impossible for the entire Net to crash at once - even if one computer shuts down the rest of the network stays up. The design also reduces the costs for an individual or organization to get onto the network. But thousands of connected computers can also make it difficult to navigate the Net and find what you want - especially as different computers may have different commands for plumbing their resources. It is only recently that Net users have begun to develop the sorts of navigational tools and "maps" that will let neophytes get around without getting lost.

Nobody really knows how many computers and networks actually make up this Net. Some estimates say there are now as many as 5000 networks connecting nearly 2 million computers and more than 15 million people around the world. Whatever the actual numbers, however, it is clear they are only increasing.

The Net is more than just a technological marvel. It is human communication at its most fundamental level. The pace may be a little quicker when the messages race around the world in a few seconds, but it's not much different from a large and interesting party. You'll see things in cyberspace that will make you laugh; you'll see things that will anger you. You'll read silly little snippets and new ideas that make you think. You'll make new friends and meet people you wish would just go away.

Major network providers continue to work on ways to make it easier for users of one network to communicate with those of another. Work is underway on a system for providing a universal "white pages" in which you could look up somebody's electronic-mail address, for example. This connectivity trend will likely speed up in coming years as users begin to demand seamless network access much as telephone users can now dial almost anywhere in the world without worrying about how many phone companies actually have to connect their calls. And today the links grow ever closer between the Internet and such commercial networks as Compuserve and Prodigy whose users can now exchange electronic mail with their Internet friends. Some commercial providers, such as Delphi and America Online, are working to bring their subscribers direct access to Internet services [and as to date virtually all the big commercial providers have done so -PAN-]. And as it becomes easier to use more and more people will join this worldwide community we call the Net.

Being connected to the Net takes more than just reading conferences and logging message to your computer. It takes asking and answering questions, exchanging opinions - getting involved. If you choose to go forward, to use and contribute, you will become a citizen of Cyberspace. If you're reading these words for the first time this may seem like an amusing but unlikely notion - that one could "inhabit" a place without physical space. But put a mark beside these words. Join the Net and actively participate for a year. Then reread this passage. It will no longer seem so strange to be a "citizen of Cyberspace." It will seem like the most natural thing in the world. And that leads to another fundamental thing to remember.

You can't break the Net!

As you travel the Net your computer may freeze, your screen may erupt in a mass of gibberish. You may think you've just disabled a million-dollar computer somewhere - or even your own personal computer. Sooner or later this feeling happens to everyone - and likely more than once [tell me about it -PAN-]. But the Net and your computer are hardier than you think so relax. You can no more break the Net than you can the phone system. If something goes wrong try again. If nothing at all happens you can always disconnect. If worse comes to worse you can turn off your computer. Then take a deep breath and dial right back in. Leave a note for the person who runs the computer to which you've connected to ask for advice. Try it again. Persistence pays.

Thanks to the Northeast Ohio PC Club (NEOPC) for this article.