By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers
You never go straight from here to there on the Internet.
You go from here to somewhere in between and then to someplace else and maybe a dozen other places in between. And then you finally get to where you're going.
This isn't a flaw. It's the way the Internet was designed. The Internet is a child of the Cold War. Back when the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed ready to drop nuclear bombs on each other, a super-network that could be knocked out by an H-bomb was a dumb idea. So the folks who dreamed up the Internet -- the network that interconnects other networks -- figured the only way to connect one place to another was to do it with a wire here and a radio signal there and a buried cable somewhere else. In other words, you'd have many ways to get to any of location on the network.
After all, we do the same with roads. You can get to Chicago all kinds of ways, and you won't have to cancel your trip because one of the highways is closed. You just take an alternate route.
So the stuff sent over the Internet gets from one place to another by a series of steps. Because the Internet's traffic patterns are constantly changing, those steps can change each time you send the same kind of stuff to the same destination. It's as if you drove to Aunt Mary's house every Sunday but took a different route each time.
Let's say you're in Boston and you're trying to open a Web page on a site that's located in Orlando. Your computer goes BEEP-BEEP-DE-BEEP and all that and sends some stuff out to Orlando over the Internet. In Orlando, a computer hears what your computer is saying and sends some stuff back.
Except that it doesn't work that way. What actually happens is more like this:
Your computer sends something (in "packets" of data) to a computer that's probably a few miles away, at your Internet provider's site, maybe. The computer there passes the data along to another computer that's probably close by, at a routing point. That computer might pass the stuff along to another routing point that's a few miles away. (This can happen a lot, so I'll leave out any more of the close-by routing points; that gets boring pretty fast.)
Keep in mind that the stuff you're trying to send probably hasn't gotten outside your local McDonald's zone yet, not to mention outside the city or the state. It's getting passed from one computer to another. The route might be long or short, full of side trips or almost direct, depending on how busy things are at any one time.
At some point the stuff your computer is trying to send gets out onto the Internet's equivalent of a fast lane, and when that happens it might go all the way to Orlando. Or at least close to Orlando, where it might have to zigzag from one routing point to another again. And then it finally ends up at the computer that's hosting the Web site.
You can trace the routes taken by these Internet packets using a program that comes built into every Windows PC. It's called Tracert (for "TRACE RouTe") . Just open an MS-DOS window, type "tracert" (without the quotes) and press Enter. Tracert will show you the locations of all the "hops" (intermediate points) taken by data that goes from your computer to another one.
Tracert is based on a very old Unix program of the same name, and, like just about everything in Unix, it's ridiculously hard to use. Windows-based route-tracing programs are available free, sometimes as part of a package of free Internet utilities. You can find some of these at www.winfiles.com.
But the ultimate modern route tracer for Windows has to be Visual Route from http://www.visualroute.com. It costs $30, but you can try a demo for free.
VisualRoute shows you a map of the world and traces the route from your PC to any other computer you can reach on the Internet. Above the map are lists of each hop along the way, with detailed information about each one. The map can be made larger or smaller, something you probably wouldn't realize on your own. (Just click and drag.)
Here's a bonus that's also hidden away: VisualRoute can show you the mailing addresses, physical locations and phone numbers of the people who run any of the computers listed in those hops.