A several years ago, we all laughed at then-U.S. senator Ted Stevens when he described the Internet as “a series of tubes.”In the same speech, Stevens also seemed to confuse the Internet with email, recalling how one of his staffers “sent an Internet” on Friday that didn’t arrive in his inbox until the following Tuesday. We all hate it when that happens. But in the midst of our laughter at Stevens’ expense, we secretly hoped that no one would ask us to think of our own definition, because, well, what the heck IS the Internet? It’s that thing we can’t imagine living without. It’s the way we work, buy stuff, watch videos, communicate, share memories, conduct research, tell jokes, catch up with friends, etc. But what is it? Lucky for us, the folks at Business Insider (BI) have assembled a slideshow that walks through the basics. Check it out here. Here are the salient points: Internet = interconnected network; it’s a network of networks. The Internet is a collection of computers (servers, desktops, laptops, etc.) that share information via telephone wires and satellite links; these computers are all connected by a common software standard called Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP). Most us get connected to the Internet via an Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as AT&T, Comcast, or Road Runner (the three largest ISPs). BI: “When you connect to an ISP, your computer becomes a part of its network. That network is already connected to another larger network, and that network is connected to yet another network, and so on and so forth across the globe.” The Internet is composed of servers and clients. Servers are machines that provide services with other machines. Clients (desktops, laptops, smartphones, etc.) use these services. BI: “So when you sign online at work, your computer becomes a client that’s accessing a Web server. Every device connected to the Internet has a unique numerical IP address The web ≠ the Internet. Invented in the late 1980s by Tim Berners-Lee, the web “is actually a subset of the Internet; it is all the pages that can be accessed using Web browsers [e.g. Explorer, Firefox].” All domain names have a corresponding numerical IP address. Example (courtesy of Wikipedia): the domain name www.example.com translates to the IP address 184.108.40.206. The Domain Name System was created to make the Internet more user-friendly (domain names are easier to remember than long strings of numbers)
The physical infrastructure that supports the Internet
As it happens, Stevens’ conception of the Internet as a series of tubes wasn’t far from the mark. There exists a physical dimension to the Internet. A 2009 Wired magazine photo essay, Andrew Blum followed the path of a single bit of information as it traveled from the UK to the California coast, photographing the physical infrastructure that makes such a long (and blisteringly fast) journey attainable. Here’s a look at one leg of its journey. When our bit hits the Big Apple, it passes through the beating heart of the American Internet: 60 Hudson Street (right), in downtown Manhattan. More transatlantic and transcontinental lines come together in New York than anywhere else in the country. Western Union opened the building in 1930 as the telegraph junction between Wall Street and Main Street. The ducts that once carried high-gauge copper wire are now filled with thousands of strands of glass fiber owned by hundreds of networks. Techs physically connect them to one another in a “meet-me-room,” neutral territory run by a company called Telx. Is there a meaningful difference between ‘tubes’ and ‘ducts filled with glass fiber’? If Stevens were alive today, I might be inclined to send him an ‘Internet’ apologizing for laughing at his tube-based definition of the online world.