What is the Internet?

People sometimes confuse the ‘Internet’ with services that use the Internet, such as e-mail or the Web, so we’ll try to clarify things a bit.

The Internet only does one very important thing — it moves data from one location to another. Everything you do on-line  (such as visiting websites, using apps, sending e-mail or instant messaging) takes advantage of the Internet to move information between your computer and another device that is also connected.

The actual work, such as creating a web page (on the source end) and viewing it (on your end) is not performed by the Internet itself. Rather, those things take place on devices (such as computers, servers and smartphones) that are connected to the Internet. We’ll discuss those things a bit later.

The Internet goes nearly everywhere

Like the electrical grid, the telephone network and the nation’s roads, the Internet goes nearly everywhere. Parts of it are a superhighway for long distance travel, and other parts are more like local roads. It moves data in many ways, such as via fiber optic cables, through the air and over copper wires. The data is always digital, consisting of ones and zeros, and it uses specialized electronic devices (‘routers’) to guide information to the correct destination.

The Internet isn’t actually a network. It is a ‘network of networks’, or a way to connect existing networks to each other.

For instance, say I have a network in my office (referred to as a local area network) which connects the computers, printers and other devices in my office to each other. If you have a network in yours performing a similar function, an ‘internet’ will allow us to connect our two networks, so we can share information. You can build a small, private internet that connects your network and mine simply by connecting them using the correct networking devices and cabling.

The ‘Internet’ (note the capital ‘I’) is a single, very large ‘internet’ that almost everyone in the world is now connected to (sort of like the power grid). This includes office and home networks, and single computers that are made to appear to the Internet like their own little network. Your network can either have a permanent connection to the Internet, or a temporary one.

The Internet isn’t really run or owned by anyone. The technology that it uses was developed many years ago through research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. Every part of the Internet is owned by someone (mostly private companies) and there are organizations involved in setting standards and administering certain functions. For example, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is responsible for a series of functions that are essential to address assignments on the Internet. To be part of the Internet, you have to connect to someone else who is already part of it.

How does the Internet relate to websites & e-mail?

The programs that use the Internet almost always come in matched pairs, one on the sending end and one on the receiving end.

A program that furnishes information is called a ‘server’. For example, a computer that serves web pages is referred to as a ‘web server’, and a program that sends e-mail is an ‘e-mail server’.

On the other end (for example, on your computer or smart phone), is another program that receives and uses this information. The program that allows you to view a web page is referred to as a ‘browser’, while the program that you use to view your e-mail is an ‘e-mail client’.