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How the Internet Works, A Simplified View

We all use the Internet to do a wide variety of things from sending and receiving emails, looking up information or keeping up with friends and family using social media, but how many of us look at our computer screens with all this information at our fingertips, and have no idea just how the requested information gets there?

The first thing to remember is that every network device has a unique form of identification. Just as your home address is unique to you, and the reason that bills manage to find their way to your letterbox, computers, or specifically network devices, all have a unique address called a MAC address. MAC is an acronym for Media Access Control. The MAC address is usually assigned by the manufacturer and is usually hard coded into the hardware of the device. The MAC address is a 48-bit address space and contains potentially 281,474,976,710,656 or 281 Trillion, 474 Billion, 976 Million, 710 Thousand, 656 unique network devices. This is an astoundingly large number of devices, however, we will probably start to run out sooner or later, and will therefore have to come up with a different system of unique addresses.

So, how does this translate to what we are looking on our screens?

First of all you make a request for information. This can be in the form of a Google search or it may be in the form of a web site address such as www.avonrivercomputers.com.au.

This information is passed from your computer to your ISP's server as an upload. The request is then passed on to an address server, which is designed to know where addresses are on the Internet. These servers build and maintain database tables based on IP addresses and MAC addresses. When a computer connects to the Internet, its MAC address and IP address is collected by your ISP and passed on to the address server to be put into a database table. If another server is looking for you, they only need to query all the address servers to find you. This way, if you connect your laptop to a wireless access point at a cafe or motel, you still get the requested information because the ISP of the internet connection will know where you are and who you are by the MAC and your IP address. Once the requested computer that is hosting the requested page is found, the host computer will then begin to download the requested web page to your computer via the ISP's servers and display the page on your screen.

If we use the home page of Avon River Computer Service as an example to highlight what is happening. I am assuming that you have an active connection to the Internet using an Internet Service Provider or ISP.

First of all, we fire up our favorite web browser, IE, Firefox, Chrome etc. We then type into the address bar, www.avonrivercomputers.com.au. The address that we have entered is our request and is the homepage of the web address we typed in. The sequence is a little like this:

Internet diagram image1) Our request is first passed on from our computer to our modem. When we type in an address like this, our modem will determine if the requested page is on a local area network, (LAN), or out on the Internet. If the modem determines that the request is on the Internet, it will pass the request to your ISP's address server.

2) The ISP's address server looks up its data tables to see if it knows the IP address and MAC address of where our request is being hosted. If the address server doesn't know where the requested information is located, it will forward our request to a higher server until the information is found or it is deemed that the information doesn't exist where it will return a 404, Page not found error.

3) Once the host server or computer is located, our request is then passed on to that server and the hosting server begins to download the page to your computer. The requested page is broken up into data packets, (small blocks of information that when assembled, make up the web page. Think about it like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has its own information that doesn't mean very much on its own, but when all the pieces go back in their correct order, you get a nice picture). A data packet will contain such information as:

A) The packet number, so that the page can be re-assembled in the correct order when it gets to your computer. The reason for this is because the data packets may or may not travel across the Internet in the same sequence that it leaves the server, some data packets may travel almost directly to your computer, other data packets may be diverted to anywhere in the world. Having the sequence numbers mean that it doesn't matter if the last packet arrives first and the first packet arrives last, the page is re-assembled correctly and doesn't look like a jumbled mess.

B) MAC address of your computer so that the data packet can find its way back to your computer. As the data packets move through various servers and modems, these devices will always keep the data moving towards your computer.

C) Check sum so that the computer knows that the data packet has arrived at your computer in pristine condition and is not corrupted. A check sum is calculated from the data in the packet. Each piece of data in the packet is given a numerical value and all of the values are added together to give a final number. If the data packet arrives at its destination and the computer adds the numerical values together, it must total the same as the check sum. If it doesn't, the packet is discarded and a new data packet is requested to be re-transmitted

4) The data packets find their way back to your ISP's server which will in turn forward them to your modem. Your modem knows that it was your computer that made this request in the first place and will therefore forward the packets on to your computer. Your computer then displays a complete web page from our requested website.

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