A very small proportion of the population knows about even the basic infrastructure responsible for the internet. If you’re interested in kindling this knowledge in yourself, here’s a brief description of what’s going on:
When you type in the URL (uniform resource locator) of a specific website into your web browser and press enter, your computer connects to a Web server and requests that specific page. Let’s break down that specific part of the process. Your web browser started by organizing the URL you entered into three different parts: the protocol, the server name, and the file name. If you were to be interested in viewing the webpage www.bbc.com/news/technology, the protocol is www, the server name is bbc.com and file name is news/technology.
Your browser sent a GET request to the BBC server, requesting specifically news/technology. The BBC server registered the request and in response sent the appropriate HTML tags to your computer, formatting the page for your specific screen.
As you can see, to comprehend even the base level processes responsible for the internet, you have to develop a certain vocabulary. At this point you may even be realizing that your working definition for the internet is starting to look a little empty. Just know this: the internet is a word that refers to the connection of millions of computers and the data that that interconnection allows any one computer to access. When you surf the web, you’re looking through documents and web pages that are saved on particular physical devices and then delivered to you through the use of those servers, which act as the middlemen.
The network connecting to these individual computers range in size and strength (from home networks to the local area networks generally possessed by large businesses), but they all ultimately connect to web servers.
Ok but what is a web server? All machines connected to the internet can be categorized as either servers or clients. If you’re simply accessing the internet and not providing access to anyone else, your device is a client. The exact service provided by a server can vary. It might have software running on it that allows it to act as a Web server, an email server or a FTP (file transfer protocol) server. Yahoo! is a well-known service provider that allows people to use its many large machines for the sake of web browsing and email.
Your device and every other device with internet access capabilities has a 32-bit number IP address. It’s all you need to talk to a server and receive information back.
A little about domain names: they’re human-readable and memorable for easy operation. The name www.bbc.com supplies information regarding the host name (www), the domain name (bbc) and the top-level domain name (com). Verisign is a registrar that manages .com and .net domain names and makes sure that no domain names are copied to avoid mix-ups.
Then there’s domain name servers (DNS) that help to map the human-readable names to their IP addresses. When you type www.bbc.com/news/technology into your web browser, it will extract the domain name, run it through a domain name server and find the correct IP address for the device that possesses the page you want. This process may actually involve multiple servers, like the name server for the “com” top-level domain, which will then know the server for the host names, which may in turn actually understand the actual IP address for the howstuffworks server machine.