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How the

Internet
Works?
By Rushil O’jageer (210506075)

ISTN32E Assignment
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The Internet is massive a network that is made up of other networks that stretches
across the whole world. Started in 1969 by the U.S Department of Defence, the
Internet was envisioned to be a research tool that initially connected four computers
that were used to performed military research (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). Over the
course of the last 23 years, the original intent and size of the Internet has changed
drastically. According to Fitzgerald & Dennis (2009), the current size of the internet is
estimated to be around 600 million servers, situated in various locations around the
world. Today, instead of just being used for military research, the internet has
become an irreplaceable part of millions of people’s lives. It is used for a multitude of
reasons, ranging from business and commerce, education, and communication to
entertainment and social networking (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).

The evolution of the Internet had a huge impact on the way businesses operate.
Since the immergence of ultra-fast internet speeds, businesses have been able to
transport information faster and more reliably from one place to another, regardless
of the distance the information has to travel (McGrath, 2008). This has allowed large
organizations to compete with other organizations on a global scale (McGrath,
2008). The internet makes it easier and faster for commercial businesses to interact
with its customers. According to McGrath (2008), a major advantage of the “internet
age” is the way it has evolved advertising. Advertising campaigns can reach millions
of users instantly by simply paying Google to display advertisements based on a
user’s search keywords (McGrath, 2008).

Since the development of the internet has had such a huge impact on the way many
organizations do business, it is important that IT professionals, who are working or
looking to work in business, understand the complexities of the infrastructure of the
internet, in order to integrate the internet into innovative business solutions. The goal
of this essay is to explain how the internet works and to understand how data and
information are transported from one point to another over the internet.

Before delving into the complexities of the internet, it is important to distinguish


between the internet and the world-wide-web. These two entities are usually
regarded as synonymous, however, there is a difference between the two. The
internet is a computer network (Toothman, 2008). This computer network is made up
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of several other computer networks which are linked to each other (Toothman,
2008). These computer networks contain two types of computers, those that are
servers and those that are clients (Strickland, How does the Internet work?, 2010).
The world-wide-web is best described as a system that allows users to use and
access the internet (Toothman, 2008). Using protocols such as HTTP, the copious
amounts of data and information that resides with the computer networks of the
internet are made available to devices capable of connecting to the internet using
software such as browsers.

Interaction with the world-wide-web begins with a device that has the ability to
connect to the Internet. Popular devices with internet capabilities include laptops,
personal computers, smart phones, and very recently, tablet computers such as the
iPad. When a user connects to the internet using one of these devices, the device
becomes a part of a larger network that spans the entire world (How the Internet
Works). For an overview of how the internet works, see Figure 1 in Appendix A.

Most mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablet computers and to some extent,
laptops, typically connect to the internet using wireless technologies such as 3G and
WiFi (Science Channel). Wireless technology, like 3G, is provided by internet service
providers using cellular telephone networks, while WiFi requires a user be in close
proximity of a wireless router, and is usually offered to users at no cost (Science
Channel). Personal computers and laptops typically connect to the internet using
technologies such as DSL. DSL provides a connection to the internet via a digital
subscriber line, which has a high data transmission rates and makes use of
telephone lines (Franklin, 2000). ADSL is an extension of DSL where the speed of
data retrieval from the internet is very much faster than the speed of sending data to
the internet (Franklin, 2000).

Let’s assume that a user wishes to access a webpage using an internet capable
device, such as a laptop. Using this device, this user can connect to the internet at
home, using a modem, which dials a local number which allows his laptop to connect
to his or her Internet Service Provider (ISP) (Tyson, 2001). When the user is at the
organization he is employed at, he or she can connect to his or her organization’s
local area network, which provides a connection to the internet using the ISP to
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which the organization is contracted to (Tyson, 2001). According to Tyson (2001)
once connected, a device becomes a part of this larger network (the internet) (see
figure 2 in Appendix A).

As previously mentioned, a user at work can connect to the internet through the
organization’s local area network via the organization’s ISP. A Local Area Network
(LAN) is a set of connected computers with each computer in the networked
physically situated within a building or within a small group of buildings (Dean, 2010).
LANs are most commonly configured as client/server network, however it can be
configured as a peer-to-peer network, where there is no server and every computer
is connected directly to every other computer in the network (Dean, 2010). The
advantages of using a local area network are that it allows for resource and
information sharing (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). This beneficial as it improves the
organization’s decision making process and reduces hardware and software costs
incurred by an organization (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).

There are six main components that make up a local area network. The first two
components are clients and servers. LANs can contain several servers and several
hundred clients. Servers are high performing computers with large storage capacities
that can be (amongst others) mail, databases or web servers, while clients are
devices which do not need to be high performing or have large storage spaces as
they rely on the server for these capabilities (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). The third
component is a network interface card (NIC), whose function is to allow a client to
connect to a network and is either housed within a client or added to the clients as a
peripheral device (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).

Clients are physically connected to the network using either a wired medium such as
cables, or a wireless medium (the fourth component of a LAN). The most common
cables used in LANs are a combination of shield twisted pair cables and unshielded
twisted pair cables (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). In a wireless LAN, infrared and radio
frequencies are used to connect clients to the network (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).
The fifth component of a LAN is network hubs and switches which allow network
cables to be connected to each other using ports and boost a signal as it travels far
distances along the network to reduce attenuation (the loss of signal over a
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distance), that is, it performs the function of a repeater (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).
The network operating system (sixth component) is a set of software that controls
the entire network (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).

The physical layout of a LAN is known as its topology (Dean, 2010). The three most
widely use topologies of LANs are ring, bus and star topologies (Dean, 2010). It is
possible to use a combination of these three types of topologies, which is known as
a hybrid topology (Dean, 2010). See Figure 3 in Appendix A for LAN topologies.

It is not uncommon for a single organization to have a single LAN for multiple
physical office buildings. A network that connects two or more LANs that are
geographically distinct is known as a wide area network (WAN) (Dean, 2010). WANs
use different transmission media used in LANs, that is, WANs use fibre optic cables
as it supports high-speed data transmission rates (Dean, 2010). The internet itself is
a public wide area network. See figure 4 in Appendix A for a diagram of a simple
WAN including client, servers and other components of LANs and WANs.

Creating a local area network does not automatically provide the clients of the local
area network with a connection to the internet. The organization, to which the LAN
belongs, must pay an ISP, which will allow them to connect the LAN to the internet
using a high speed phone line (Marshall, 2000).

An Internet Service Provider (ISP) is a company that acts as a middleman between


the internet user and the internet itself, whose aim is to provide users with a
connection to the internet (Internet Service Providers). ISPs are organized in a
hierarchical manner and at the top of the hierarchy is tier 1 ISPs (or national ISPs),
followed by tier 2 ISPs (or regional ISPs), which are followed by tier 3 ISPs (or local
ISPs) (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).

Tier 1 ISPs are the larger ISPs which control large parts of the networks that make
up the internet. They allow large organizations and tier 2 ISPs to connect to their
networks, which then provide network connectivity to tier 3 ISPs who provide a
connection to the internet to individual customers and smaller organizations
(Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). See figure 5 in Appendix A for ISP hierarchy diagram.
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A point-of-presence (POP) is a site that an ISP uses to deliver its network services to
customers (Tyson, 2001). In order to receive these services, customers have to be
connected to their ISPs POP and this connection is usually over a telephone line
(Tyson, 2001). Tier 3 ISPs usually provide customers with dial-up or broadband
internet connection while tier 1 and 2 ISPs commonly provide large companies and
organizations with higher-speed internet connections (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009).

The networks provided by the large tier 3 ISPs are connected to each other to form
the internet backbone. A backbone is a type of network whose function is to connect
many networks using a high-speed connection (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). A
backbone network is composed of cables, switches, routers and gateways
(Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). Unlike LAN networks, backbone networks commonly
make use of fibre-optic cables which provider very high data transmission rates
(Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). Tier 1 ISPs provide the hardware and cabling need to
create the internet backbone (Strickland, Who owns the Internet?, 2008).

The networks that form part of the internet backbone were connected to each other
at network access points (NAPs) (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). It was through NAPs
that a computer connected to a network provided by one ISP would be able to
communicate to a computer connected to a network provided by another ISP (Tyson,
2001). Internet Exchange Points (IXP), have replaced Network Access Points.
Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) are located within the internet backbone and are
connections that allow data to be exchanged between networks within the internet
backbone (Strickland, Who owns the Internet?, 2008).

Protocols are rules that determine how devices connected to a network


communicate, by providing a standard that allows devices to interpret signals that
are sent from other devices (Dean, 2010). Once of the most prevalent protocols used
over the internet is HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) which sets standards that
govern the transfer of webpages from a server to a client (Evans). The most basic
command associated with HTTP is “Get” – if a client sends a Get request together
will a filename request to a server that understands HTTP, the server will respond to
the client by sending the requested file and will terminate the connection with the
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client (Marshall, 2000). Another common protocol used over the internet is TCP/IP.
TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) sets the standards that provide reliable data
transfer over a network (Evans). IP (Internet Protocol) is the protocol that governs
how and where data that is transmitted over a network should be delivered (Evans).

All computers and devices that are connected to the internet are assigned an IP
address which is a unique logical address that enables computers to identify
computers on the internet they want to send data to (Marshall, 2000). It is
represented using a 32-bit number divided into four octets and is usually expressed
in a dotted decimal number (example 216.239.51.99) (Marshall, 2000). Each octet
can have a number from 0 to 255 (which is an 8 bit binary number (Marshall, 2000).

All computers and devices that have an IP address make use of IPv4 (IP version 4),
which was introduced when the internet was not as large and commercial as it is
today (Marshall, 2000). IPv4 only allows 232 (or just over 4 billion unique IP
addresses), however, since it is expected that the internet will grow exponentially in
the future, the number of IP addresses provided by IPv4 will soon be depleted (Beal,
2011). To accommodate the need for more unique IP addresses, IPv6 (IP version 6)
was developed in the 1990s using a 128 bit number. It is represented by 8 groups of
hexadecimal numbers which are separated by colons (Beal, 2011). IPv6 allows for
2128 unique IP addresses (Beal, 2011).

A device on a network (such as a computer) can either have a static or dynamic IP


address. Dynamic IP addresses are assigned to devices on a network for a limited
time using a leasing system known as the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol
(DCHP), while static IP address are assigned to devices manually and they very
rarely change (Crawford, 2001). When the lease expires the computer is dynamically
assigned a new IP address (Crawford, 2001). This process is transparent to the user
and he/she is only made aware of it if an IP conflict occurs, which is very rare
(Crawford, 2001).

A port is simply a physical connection point on a device, which allows cables to plug
into it, that is assigned a number which is used in conjunction with IP addresses to
determine which port on which device is sending and/or receiving data (Marshall,
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2000). Ports allow servers to deliver its services to clients. For example, web server
services are usually made available to clients through port 80 (Dean, 2010).

Once connected to the internet, a user makes software, such as a browser, to view
webpages, send emails, and access important files remotely, amongst other things.
This involves data in the form of a request travelling from a client (such as a laptop)
to a server, which is followed by data in the form of the response travelling across
the internet from its source (the server) through various other connecting points
known as nodes, to its destination, the client (Strickland, 2010). The data is then
rendered by the browser and is displayed to the user.

Let’s say a user wants to view a webpage using his browser. He or she types the
URL, for example http://www.linkedin.com, into the browser. This webpage is a file
which is situated on a server known as a web server, and in order for that page to be
displayed on the client’s browser a request needs to be sent to the webserver which
houses the webpage file (Marshall, 2000). In order to send a request to the web
server, the IP address of the web server need to be obtained. This IP address of a
web server is static (Marshall, 2000).

The URL http://www.linkedin.com, is made up of 3 parts, namely the protocol (“http”),


the server name (“www.linkedin.com”), and the file name (“index.htm”) (Marshall,
2000). An organization can organize its internet presence using a hierarchy of sub-
domains (Marshall, 2000). The “.com” is known as the top-level domain while
“linkedin” is known as the secondary-level domain and “www” is known as a third
level domain (Marshall, 2000). The second-level domain can have more than one
third-level domain. The IP address of the web server that houses the web page can
be obtained using the domain name of the URL (Marshall, 2000).

It is possible to connect to a web server using the IP address itself, however, it is


more user-friendly to remember the URL than the IP address. To allow for this
convenience, a Domain Name Server (DNS) is used to convert domain names (like
“www.linkedin.com”) into IP addresses (Brain & Crawford, 2000).

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A DNS contains a database that associates domain names with IP addresses
through a process called DNS name resolution (Brain & Crawford, 2000). There are
many domain name servers distributed throughout the internet which all work as a
single integrated database that receives millions of requests every second (Brain &
Crawford, 2000). When a client connects to a website, an electronic request is sent
to the DNS of the LAN to which client is connected (only if the client is connected to
a LAN, otherwise the request is forwarded directly to the DNS of the client’s ISP)
(Brain & Crawford, 2000). If the LAN DNS does not contain the domain name, IP
address pair, it forwards it to the request to a higher-level DNS, that is, the DNS of
the client’s ISP (Brain & Crawford, 2000).

If the high-level DNS cannot convert the domain name into an IP address, it sends
the request to the DNS of the ISP’s ISP, and it continues in this manner, until it
encounters a DNS that is able to resolve the domain name into an IP address, or
until it reaches the root name server (Dean, 2010). There are several hundred root
name servers for each top-level domain that exists (Dean, 2010). When the domain
name has been resolved into the IP address, this IP address is communicated back
to the client (Dean, 2010). See figure 6 in Appendix A for a pictorial representation
DNS resolution.

Once the IP address of the server is obtained by the client, the client’s browser
would connect to the web server using that IP address through port number 80
(Marshall, 2000). The browser would then send a GET request to the server for the
webpage (file) and the web server would respond to the client’s browser with the
HTML code, which the browser uses to render the webpage to the user (Marshall,
2000). In reality, however, the client doesn’t directly communicate with the web
server, and instead it makes use of a proxy server to actually send and receive data
to and from a web server (Dance).

A proxy server serves as an intermediary between a client computer and server on


the internet (What Is A Proxy Server?, 2012). The primary purpose of a proxy server
is to receive requests from a client, verify whether the request of the client can be
completed at the proxy server, and if it cannot, then only will the request be
forwarded to its destination server to be completed (What Is A Proxy Server?, 2012).
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This is known as caching, and it increases the speed of accessing content on the
world-wide-web (Dance).

There are two main types of proxy servers, namely, forward proxy servers and
reverse proxy servers (What Is A Proxy Server?, 2012). A forward proxy server is
responsible for sending requests from the client to the internet through the client’s
firewall. Its aim is to provide a security barrier between the client and the internet
using certain filtering rules and to decrease network traffic (What Is A Proxy Server?,
2012). Reverse proxy servers are located between a web servers and the rest of the
devices on the internet and are responsible for receiving requests from coming to the
client from the internet (What Is A Proxy Server?, 2012). It serves to prevent client
computers from directly accessing files on web servers by receiving requests from
clients and then requesting data from the appropriate web servers (What Is A Proxy
Server?, 2012).

In addition to improving data access speeds over the Internet, proxy servers also
serve as content filters to restrict access to certain websites (Dance). However,
proxy servers can also be used as circumventing proxies which bypass rules set by
content filters to gain access to blacklisted websites (Dance).

Data is transmitted via the internet as packets. When a client requests a webpage
from a web server, the web server will respond with the requested file through a
series of packets, with each packet ranging from 1000 to 1500 bytes in size
(Strickland, How does the Internet work?, 2010). Packets contain a header and a
footer which hold information about the source and destination of the packet, the
data content of the packet, and the manner in which this packet fits with the other
packets that form the entire file (Strickland, How does the Internet work?, 2010).
Each packet from the file can take different paths along the network to get from the
source to the destination (Strickland, How does the Internet work?, 2010). When all
the packets that make up the file arrive at the destination, the device puts the
packets together to form the file (Strickland, How does the Internet work?, 2010).

The device that allows packets to be forwarded across the network is known as a
router (Beal, All About Broadband/ICS Routers, 2010). It uses routing algorithms
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determines the best path that a packet should travel from the source to the
destination so that packets done arrive at clients where it should not go (Franklin,
How Routers Work?, 2000). Routers also ensure that packets do not travel along
unnecessary paths that would not lead it to its destination (Franklin, How Routers
Work?, 2000). Routers are usually found where two or more networks are connected
together (Beal, All About Broadband/ICS Routers, 2010).

Each network contains a routing table which has information about which
connections to the network contain certain IP addresses, the priorities for
connections used and rules for dealing with network traffic (Franklin, How Routers
Work?, 2000). Thus, a router can prevent a packet from travelling along a path that
would not lead it to its destination and hence prevent unnecessary traffic along a
network (Franklin, How Routers Work?, 2000). When a packet arrives at a router, the
router looks the information stored in the packet and determines the destination of
the packet (Franklin, How Routers Work?, 2000). Then, looking at the information
stored in its routing tables, it finds the best path that that packet should travel on
from this router to the destination, and it forwards the packet along that path
(Franklin, How Routers Work?, 2000). In this way, the packet may visit many routers
along its journey from its source, the web server to its destination, the client
(Franklin, How Routers Work?, 2000).

In a short time span, the internet has grown exponentially and this trend is expected
to increase well into the future. The evolution of the Internet will evolve business
solutions on a global scale and take automated decision making to new levels of
sophistication. The effect of the internet on society is irreversible and as the internet
evolves, the dependency on this massive network of networks will also grow
substantially.

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APPENDIX A

Figure 1

This image has been extracted from (Strickland, How does the Internet work?,
2010). It provides an overview of the path taken when a client requests data.

Figure 2

This image has been extracted from (Tyson, 2001). This diagram shows how
devices connect to the internet. The “T1 line” and “T3 line” represent high-speed
data transfer connection.

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Figure 3

This image has been extracted from (Dean, 2010). It shows the four most common
types of LAN topologies.

Figure 4

This image has been extracted from (Dean, 2010). It shows two LANs begin
connected to each other by a WAN.

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Figure 5

This image has been extracted from (Fitzgerald & Dennis, 2009). It shows how the
different ISPs in the hierarchy of ISPs are connected to each other. A Metropolitan
Area Exchanges (MAE) server the same function as a NAP, however they connect
regional ISP network that meet in a particular city.

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Figure 6

This image has been extracted from (Dean, 2010). It shows an example of how the
domain name www.loc.gov would be translated into its IP address using domain
name resolution.

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