How the Internet Really Works

You click your browser icon and your homepage appears on your screen. A gateway to a world of information magically opens in front of you. But how do the mechanics behind the magic actually work? Computer Wizardry Your mouse is like a magic wand. Moving your mouse moves your curser into a location. Clicking your mouse selects that location. Your computer was programmed to correlate the location of graphics on the screen, like your browser icon, with functions to be performed when you select that location. When you select your browser icon, your computer knows it needs to open the program associated with that icon—PRESTO, your browser window begins to open. The Escape Artist As your web browser program loads, it will automatically send an electronic message requesting the information it needs in order to display your default homepage.
First, the request message must make its way out of your computer. It will travel through a network connection port, and like an illusionist using secret tunnels under the stage, it escapes to your modem without you even noticing. Network connection ports may be an Ethernet, serial port, or wireless adapter depending on how your device connects to the Internet. The request message travels out of your computer, through your network connection port, then to your modem. Sometimes you connect to a smaller Local Area Network (LAN) first, then that network provides the Internet connection. This is often the case for businesses and is becoming more and more popular for residential use. Most home networks are LANs. If you use a LAN to connect to the Internet, the request message will travel through a router, then be directed to the modem. A router works like a traffic cop directing the flow of everything coming into or out of your network. If you use a wireless connection, the request message will be sent to the router wirelessly and the rest of the process will be the same as with other types of Internet connections. This is not necessarily true for the 3G, 4G, or other networks used by smartphones which often use cell towers and/or satellites to manage connections. Sometimes the router and the modem will be built into the same piece of hardware. Once the request message leaves your modem, it heads through your wall outlet and—POOF, it vanishes into the World Wide Web. Teleportation The request message doesn’t actually disappear. It just travels through the wires running to from your house until it reaches the Point of Presence (POP) for your Internet Service Provider (ISP). A POP is the place on a network at which users can gain access. At the POP, your ISP will confirm you have paid for their service and grant you access to the network. Once the request message is on your ISP’s network, it will go to the network’s Domain Name Server (DNS). The DNS will look at the message and determine the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the web server containing the files you need to load your home page. An IP address is simply a number assigned to any device connected to the Internet so the device can be found by other devices on the Internet. You may have seen a number that looks similar to That’s an IP address. For more on IP addresses check out this article on Think of a network as a city. Your IP address is like your physical address and the DNS is like the post office. The DNS directs all the messages coming into and out of the network to the correct address. If your ISP’s DNS doesn’t have the IP address for the destination of your message, it will ask another DNS until it finds the IP address.  Once the DNS knows where your message needs to go, it sends the message to the correct Network Access Point (NAP). internetworks2 An NAP works like a POP but is the access point for a network of networks. The word Internet actually refers to this network of networks. Your request message hops from network to network through several NAPs until it reaches the IP address of the web server containing the data needed to load your homepage. If you go back to our city analogy, the NAPs would be like the roads that lead out of town and take you to other cities. After traveling through several networks and access points—BAMF, your request message arrives at your home page’s web server almost instantaneously. Let the webpage appear! Once the web server receives the request message, it begins the process of sending the data back to your computer. First the server breaks the data up into packets. Just like with the request message, the packets pass through POPs, NAPs, and DNSs which direct the packets back to your computer’s IP address. Some packets may take different routs than others on their way to your computer depending on the speed and traffic of individual networks. When all the packets get to your computer, your browser program puts all the pieces together and—SHAZAAM, the webpage appears on your monitor. This entire process repeats every time you open a webpage and it all happens in seconds. It’s almost magical. With the Internet infrastructure and the amount of data moving through it growing by the day, having a fast Internet connection is more important than ever. Make sure your Internet connection is fast enough to handle all the data going back and forth. Enter your zip code to see Internet speeds available in your area. [zipfinder]
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With over five years writing about the internet industry, John has developed a deep knowledge of internet providers and technology. Prior to writing professionally, John graduated with a degree in strategic communication from the University of Utah. His education and experience make his writing easy to understand, even when covering complex topics. John’s work has been cited by, PCMag, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and more.

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