SciTech

How Things Work: Internet Networks Connect Users

Credit: Maegha Singh/ Credit: Maegha Singh/

Since the creation of the Internet, humans have been able to harness it for great purposes, such as creating databases of knowledge, providing pathways of communication, and—most importantly—streaming Netflix. However, there is a lot that occurs between the time when you click on the Internet icon and when the browser pops up. Connecting to the Internet involves a complicated integration of hardware and software, especially to connect across platforms — synching a phone to a computer, for instance.

To get online, a user needs to have a device that can connect with the Internet. An electronic device can be designed to sync to another device based on the hardware it contains, thereby generating a network, or connection, between devices. The Internet is a large web of these networks. It provides a pathway through which millions of different electronic devices can connect to and interact with one another.

Because the Internet is accessed by millions of different electronic devices, it has to be governed by certain universal protocols to make sure all the devices can talk to one another. These protocols are implemented into both the hardware and software of Internet accessing devices. The Internet itself is not a physical entity, rather a set of protocols through which electronic devices can access each other.

These protocols involve Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which are analogous to street addresses. Much like a house needs an address to send and receive mail, each computer requires an IP address in order to identify where to send information and where said information came from. An IP address is not built into a computer; instead, IP addresses are assigned to various geographical locations by an organization called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). These IP addresses can change from time to time. But certain devices, such as an Internet server for a company like Verizon, require constant, efficient connection to the Internet. In order to provide this, IANA assigns static IP addresses for these devices.

Once a connection has been established between the start point and the end point of a message, a pathway must be provided along which the data can be transmitted from sender to receiver. When a message gets sent across computers, the software in the sender computer actually breaks the message down into smaller chunks of data called packets. When it does so, it assigns an IP address to each packet to indicate where the message must be sent.

To reach the receiver, these packets travel through various devices called routers, which deliver the message to its proper destination by reading the IP address of each packet and forwarding it along to a router closer to the destination. Packets are sent across millions of different routers—each with varying efficiency and strength—and because of this, packets can be delivered in any randomized order. To overcome this obstacle, the sender computer embeds a serial number within each packet of data to identify its place in the entire message. This way, when the receiver computer receives all these packets, it can reassemble them correctly to produce the proper message.

The number of different paths a packet can take across routers are nearly infinite, and the same path is almost never repeated. Additionally, specific devices at the edges of the Internet pathway provide data transmission between the computer and router media. These devices are provided by organizations called Internet Service Providers, which act as the connection between a user and the Internet.

The Internet is analogous to a mailing service: it takes a message containing a destination address and the sender’s address and provides the medium through which this information is delivered. As we continue designing technologies which are capable of interacting and communicating with each other, we continue to improve convenience and usability across platforms.