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A no-nonsense guide to the way the Internet works, Part 1
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule


A no-nonsense guide to the way the Internet works, Part 1


Bit Player for Jan. 3, 1999

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

Is the Internet a mystery to you? This week and next I'll explain the basic ways the Internet works.

As you can tell from the name, the Internet has something to do with a network. (A network is just a bunch of computers that are connected in some way.) The idea behind the name is that the Internet connects networks to each other, so, like Interpol connects international police agencies, the Internet connects networks from around the world.

So the Internet is just a lot of computer networks that talk to each other (in computer-speak, of course). At least that's how it used to be. Nowadays, individual computers like yours and mine can be part of the Internet, too. So you can think of the Internet as a collection of computers and computer networks of all sizes.

A neat thing about the Internet is the way these computers and networks find each other. They all have addresses, and every address is different. Just as the Postal Service needs to know where people live and work to deliver mail -- they need addresses, in other words -- computers need to know the addresses of other computers to find them on the Internet.

Addresses on the Internet seem to be made up of names, such as "microsoft.com" or "aol.com"(without any capital letters at all, usually). But that's not how it really works. The names are stuck there to make it easy to remember things. The real addresses are numbers. They're called IP numbers or IP addresses. ("IP" just means "Internet Protocol." Just as a "protocol" means an agreement in politics or government, it means an agreement in computer terminology, too.)

When your computer wants to connect to another one by name, the first thing it does is yell for help to get the real address -- the IP number -- from another computer on the Internet called a name server. Servers that provide these numbers are called Domain Name Servers. ("Domain name" is just fancy talk for the name.)

That's where the acronym "DNS" comes from. It's a handy thing to know, because you might have to get help setting up your computer to work properly on the Internet and some misguided nerd might ask you if the "DNS settings" are filled out properly. Usually, your computer gets all this stuff by itself, but sometimes you might have to ask someone for the IP address of the Domain Name Server. (Let's hope you never have to do that. But at least now you'll know what that means.)

Listen up to this next part. It's just about the most important thing you could learn about connecting to the Internet.

Every computer that has a standard connection to the Internet is equal to every other computer that has a standard connection. I wish I could say, "Every computer on the Internet is equal to every other computer," but I have to face reality and AOL when I say that. When you connect through AOL, you don't have a standard connection; you have a substandard connection, one that doesn't work like a normal connection does.

So leave out AOL. For all the rest of the world's Internet users, everyone who has a standard connection has equal status with everyone else. That means your little PC or Mac looks just like one of those SuperTurboZippo server computers housed at universities and big corporations when you connect to the Internet. It has all the same functions and the same abilities. If it can be done on the Internet, it can be done through your PC or Mac. (Smartypants readers will complain that I've left out the fact that your PC or Mac might be a little slow doing some of these things, but that's not true any more. If you have a cable Internet connection, you can do all sorts of Internet operations at blinding speed.)

I'll repeat. If you have a standard Internet connection (one made through a standard Internet Service Provider, for example), you can do just about anything you want. You can make video phone calls, run a weather station, send out Webcam photos, run a Web server (so that people all over the world can log onto your computer), and much more. Your computer is an equal among all the others on the Internet.


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