Published June 19, 2000

A Brief History of the Internet: Understanding the Web

Think of the Internet as the world's largest computer network. Think of it that way because it is. Computers in vast numbers communicate with one another through an exchange of massive amounts of information every day.

But you have a Macintosh running the Mac Operating System and your friend has a PC running Windows 95. Many Web servers run on Unix, Linux, Sun software, or Microsoft Windows NT. Worse, computers around the world have any number of different operating systems specific to those regions and languages, so how do they all talk to and understand each other?

Diversity wound up forcing a new standard to facilitate wide-scale inter-computer communications. It's called Internet Protocol, and is affectionately known to most mortals as "IP."

Often found preceding, yet separated from, IP by a forward slash is TCP, "Transmission Control Protocol." The result is TCP/IP, and together, they make the Internet world go 'round.

IP provides two critical "functions." First, it neatly fashions data from one computer into small data packets to be sent to another computer. Second, it then sends those packets to their proper destination.

But with all of the computers on the Internet and a finite amount of bandwidth (the size of the conduit through which data passes) shouldn't everything get clogged up?

To some degree it does, especially if one of the Internet backbones (the major thoroughfares) goes down. But to a large degree, it doesn't. Here's why.

The folks who created the Internet (and despite his assertion otherwise, it wasn't Al Gore), made sure that redundant pathways would always exist.

The Internet was used at its birth by the military. Designed to pass along vital strategic information, the Net "found" alternative routes if one section of the network was destroyed in war.

That redundancy still exists. It's called "dynamic routing" and it keeps things moving much in the same way a traffic cop does. Not only does it move things along, but it's also smart enough to look for the shortest route from the computer sending it to the computer receiving it. If there's an obstruction, it looks for the most efficient route around it. Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), works with IP (TCP/IP) to help with routing.

How do they know where the information should go?

When you log on and the home page of your choice paints itself onto your display, your browser looked for a special numerical address. While you may know your home page as www.myhomepage.com, the real address, the "IP Address," is something like 208.153.87.21. It's unique and it identifies host computers. Unless you have an IP address of your own - and most people don't - you access the Internet through an Internet Service Provider such as Mindspring, MSN, AOL, among many others.

Internic, the domain-assigning body, pairs a Web site name with the IP numerical address. So when someone types in www.myhomepage.com, the numerical IP address is what your browser looks for.

While all of this may seem a tad too complex, the good news is it's done without Web surfers having to give it a thought. But without it, there'd be no Internet.

Article - Copyright 2000 James H. Hyde. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA