How Stuff Works: Internet Basics

Infographic depicting 6 steps of how the internet works
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Think you know the internet? Take this quiz from to see if you know truth from myth.

While some in the class may be very familiar with the inner workings of the internet, I myself was relatively ignorant, so I decided to focus my post on the basics of how the internet works in case there are others in the class in a similar situation. The internet is best described as a giant network of networks of computers. It got it start in an attempt to connect 4 computers using different operating systems in the 1950s (Al Gore was not involved) and now is a global interconnected system of computer networks (Strickland “How Did the Internet Start“). As technologies evolve and are developed transmission speeds continue to increase.

"Internet map 1024" by The Opte Project - Originally from the English Wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -
“Internet map 1024” by The Opte Project – Originally from the English Wikipedia; Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons – Internet_map_1024.jpg#/media/File:Internet_map_1024.jpg

Many people mistakenly conflate the internet with the world wide web; however, they are separate things. The internet is the network, while the World Wide Web is a way to navigate this massive network. As such a massive network, some information is readily accessible, such as that which can be found through a search engine. This is called the “surface web” and it only accounts for 0.03% of the information available (Chandler). The rest of the information is the “deep web,” which consists of both nefarious content such as illicit drugs, human trafficking, and weapons, but also things such as unpublished blog posts, unindexed articles from a newspaper or magazine, or some social media content. Another characteristic of the internet deriving from its massive size is that it technically has no one single owner; however each of the specific networks that connect to create the internet are owned by specific people, companies, or entities (Strickland, “Who Owns the Internet“). The internet is made of 2 major components: hardware and protocols. Hardware includes things like cables, computers, routers, satellites, etc. Protocols on the other hand are the rules machines use to carry out a task. It is the specific protocols used that allows the internet to function.  Here are the steps of how we are able to access files via the internet:

  1. You open a web browser
  2. You type in web page address
  3. Your computer sends the request to Internet Service Provider
  4. The request goes further up the chain  and hits a domain name server
  5. If it finds a match, it will send the request to the proper IP address
  6. The request will go to the website’s server
  7. The server will send the file in a series of packets that tell the computer what’s in the packet and how it fits together
  8. Packets travel individually back through the network to your computer, not necessarily taking the same path
  9. Your device arranges the packets according to a protocol
  10. You see the webpage

Important Key Terms for Understanding Internet Basics:

Clients– these are the devices you use to view information and files on the internet like a computer or smart phone

Domain Name Servers– these points direct requests in the right direction

IP Address– the unique identifying number that each computer machine connected to the internet has. This number is how different machines can find each other within the network

Network Access Points-the point of connection between networks owned and operated by different companies and entities

Nodes-connection points along a route of traffic in the network

Packets– parts of a file ranging between 1000-1500 bytes. Files are broken down into a series of packets that are sent over the network when you request a file

Routers– these machines direct traffic across the network, sending packets where they need to go. Routers also ensure that information doesn’t go where it is not needed. (Click here to learn more about routers)

Servers-the machines that provide services to other machines



Chandler, Nathan .”How the Deep Web Works” 23 December 2013. Web. 16 January 2016

Strickland, Jonathan.  “How did the Internet start?” 21 January 2008. Web. 15 January 2016

Strickland, Jonathan.  “How does the Internet work?” 7 May 2010. Web. 15 January 2016

Strickland, Jonathan  “What is the future of the Internet?” 10 May 2010. Web. 15 January 2016

Strickland, Jonathan  “Who owns the Internet?” 3 March 2008. Web. 15 January 2016

Tyson, Jeff  “How Internet Infrastructure Works” 3 April 2001. Web. 15 January 2016


Asynchronous Activity

The infographic at the top of this post uses the images of airports and ninjas to explain how the internet works. Determine your own metaphor to explain how the internet works and either create a simple infographic using programs like piktochart or or hand draw an image that visualized your metaphor. If you create an infographic, paste the URL of your completed infographic in the comments.



2 Replies to “How Stuff Works: Internet Basics”

  1. I completely appreciate the prompt to develop a metaphor. I’ve talked before about the importance of metaphors in our thinking. Good call.

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