How Does The Internet Work?

Have you ever been in the Times Square subway station in New York City, Bank tube station in London, or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai at approximately 6:30 pm on a weekday? If not, please take my advice: don’t do it.

These three train stations are incredibly busy to begin with, and when you throw in the additional element of rush hour it becomes a transportation bloodbath. This angry commuter is running to make their connection, while that clueless tourist aimlessly wanders around, being passed by a group of students returning from a long field trip. People seem to be moving about in every direction possible, making these stations nearly impossible to navigate.

These train stations are a bit like the internet. At any given time, there are terabytes upon terabytes of information passing in all directions over the globe, being whizzed to and fro, facilitating financial transactions, sending a flirty message on a dating app, or displaying website information on a personal computer. If we were to try and analyse the pieces of data crossing paths across the internet at any given moment, it would be about as hopeful as attempting to locate the young gentleman with the green briefcase that you passed underground half an hour ago: pretty futile.

So let’s take a step back, get out of this train station, and take a closer look at the internet. What are the fundamental parts that make the internet tick?

First, you have the bricks and mortar of the internet that make it all work, which is called hardware. When we say hardware, we are talking about the computer or smartphone you’re reading this on right now, the cables that provide internet to your home, and the data servers that store information. These pieces of metal, glass, and plastic are the physical pieces upon which information is stored, transferred, and delivered.

Next, we have data. Data is the stuff that you are after when you’re logging in and signing on, the wealth of information that the internet holds – the words in the emails you read or the photos you post on social media. And jeepers is there a lot of data! But we won’t get into all that in this post.

But how do hardware and data come together? Before any information is displayed on a screen in front of you, it has to be retrieved from somewhere. Remember when you used to check out books from libraries? The information in the book is what people were after, so they went to the library, checked it out, and brought it home. Servers on the internet are the libraries, the data is the books, and the cables and satellites are the car that drives you to the library and home.

Finally, just as books are all written with a defined set of characters in a set language, the information that is passed over the internet is written in a set of characters, too. The characters would look like mumbo jumbo to anyone who wasn’t trained in reading them, but the hardware of the internet is fluent in them.

Every time you access anything on the internet, the data is taken from the servers and plopped right into your computer, smartphone, smart TV – the list goes on and on.

And thus the miracle of the internet exists. Whether in New York, London, Mumbai, or a really wild multi-ball game of pingpong, just think about the internet and how complex it is!