Introduction to How Internet Infrastructure Works

One of the greatest things about the Internet is that nobody really owns it. It is a global collection of networks, both big and small. These networks connect together in many different ways to form the single entity that we know as the Internet. In fact, the very name comes from this idea of interconnected networks.

Since its beginning in 1969, the Internet has grown from four host computer systems to tens of millions. However, just because nobody owns the Internet, it doesn't mean it is not monitored and maintained in different ways. The Internet Society, a non-profit group established in 1992, oversees the formation of the policies and protocols that define how we use and interact with the Internet.

In this article, you will learn about the basic underlying structure of the Internet. You will learn about domain name servers, network access points and backbones. But first you will learn about how your computer connects to others.

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When you connect to the Internet, your computer becomes part of a network.

The Internet: Computer Network Hierarchy

Every computer that is connected to the Internet is part of a network, even the one in your home. For example, you may use a modem and dial a local number to connect to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). At work, you may be part of a local area network (LAN), but you most likely still connect to the Internet using an ISP that your company has contracted with. When you connect to your ISP, you become part of their network. The ISP may then connect to a larger network and become part of their network. The Internet is simply a network of networks.

Most large communications companies have their own dedicated backbones connecting various regions. In each region, the company has a Point of Presence (POP). The POP is a place for local users to access the company's network, often through a local phone number or dedicated line. The amazing thing here is that there is no overall controlling network. Instead, there are several high-level networks connecting to each other through Network Access Points or NAPs.

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Internet Network Example

Here's an example. Imagine that Company A is a large ISP. In each major city, Company A has a POP. The POP in each city is a rack full of modems that the ISP's customers dial into. Company A leases fiber optic lines from the phone company to connect the POPs together (see, for example, this UUNET Data Center Connectivity Map).

Imagine that Company B is a corporate ISP. Company B builds large buildings in major cities and corporations locate their Internet server machines in these buildings. Company B is such a large company that it runs its own fiber optic lines between its buildings so that they are all interconnected.

In this arrangement, all of Company A's customers can talk to each other, and all of Company B's customers can talk to each other, but there is no way for Company A's customers and Company B's customers to intercommunicate. Therefore, Company A and Company B both agree to connect to NAPs in various cities, and traffic between the two companies flows between the networks at the NAPs.

In the real Internet, dozens of large Internet providers interconnect at NAPs in various cities, and trillions of bytes of data flow between the individual networks at these points. The Internet is a collection of huge corporate networks that agree to all intercommunicate with each other at the NAPs. In this way, every computer on the Internet connects to every other.

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The Function of an Internet Router

All of these networks rely on NAPs, backbones and routers to talk to each other. What is incredible about this process is that a message can leave one computer and travel halfway across the world through several different networks and arrive at another computer in a fraction of a second!

The routers determine where to send information from one computer to another. Routers are specialized computers that send your messages and those of every other Internet user speeding to their destinations along thousands of pathways. A router has two separate, but related, jobs:

  • It ensures that information doesn't go where it's not needed. This is crucial for keeping large volumes of data from clogging the connections of "innocent bystanders."
  • It makes sure that information does make it to the intended destination.

In performing these two jobs, a router is extremely useful in dealing with two separate computer networks. It joins the two networks, passing information from one to the other. It also protects the networks from one another, preventing the traffic on one from unnecessarily spilling over to the other. Regardless of how many networks are attached, the basic operation and function of the router remains the same. Since the Internet is one huge network made up of tens of thousands of smaller networks, its use of routers is an absolute necessity. For more information, read How Routers Work.

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Internet Backbone

The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the first high-speed backbone in 1987. Called NSFNET, it was a T1 line that connected 170 smaller networks together and operated at 1.544 Mbps (million bits per second). IBM, MCI and Merit worked with NSF to create the backbone and developed a T3 (45 Mbps) backbone the following year.

Backbones are typically fiber optic trunk lines. The trunk line has multiple fiber optic cables combined together to increase the capacity. Fiber optic cables are designated OC for optical carrier, such as OC-3, OC-12 or OC-48. An OC-3 line is capable of transmitting 155 Mbps while an OC-48 can transmit 2,488 Mbps (2.488 Gbps). Compare that to a typical 56K modem transmitting 56,000 bps and you see just how fast a modern backbone is.

Today there are many companies that operate their own high-capacity backbones, and all of them interconnect at various NAPs around the world. In this way, everyone on the Internet, no matter where they are and what company they use, is able to talk to everyone else on the planet. The entire Internet is a gigantic, sprawling agreement between companies to intercommunicate freely.

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Internet Protocol: IP Addresses

Every machine on the Internet has a unique identifying number, called an IP Address. The IP stands for Internet Protocol, which is the language that computers use to communicate over the Internet. A protocol is the pre-defined way that someone who wants to use a service talks with that service. The "someone" could be a person, but more often it is a computer program like a Web browser.

A typical IP address looks like this:

To make it easier for us humans to remember, IP addresses are normally expressed in decimal format as a dotted decimal number like the one above. But computers communicate in binary form. Look at the same IP address in binary:

The four numbers in an IP address are called octets, because they each have eight positions when viewed in binary form. If you add all the positions together, you get 32, which is why IP addresses are considered 32-bit numbers. Since each of the eight positions can have two different states (1 or zero), the total number of possible combinations per octet is 28 or 256. So each octet can contain any value between zero and 255. Combine the four octets and you get 232 or a possible 4,294,967,296 unique values!

Out of the almost 4.3 billion possible combinations, certain values are restricted from use as typical IP addresses. For example, the IP address 0.0.0.0 is reserved for the default network and the address 255.255.255.255 is used for broadcasts.

The octets serve a purpose other than simply separating the numbers. They are used to create classes of IP addresses that can be assigned to a particular business, government or other entity based on size and need. The octets are split into two sections: Net and Host. The Net section always contains the first octet. It is used to identify the network that a computer belongs to. Host (sometimes referred to as Node) identifies the actual computer on the network. The Host section always contains the last octet. There are five IP classes plus certain special addresses. You can learn more about IP classes at What is an IP address?.

Internet Protocol: Domain Name System

When the Internet was in its infancy, it consisted of a small number of computers hooked together with modems and telephone lines. You could only make connections by providing the IP address of the computer you wanted to establish a link with. For example, a typical IP address might be 216.27.22.162. This was fine when there were only a few hosts out there, but it became unwieldy as more and more systems came online.

The first solution to the problem was a simple text file maintained by the Network Information Center that mapped names to IP addresses. Soon this text file became so large it was too cumbersome to manage. In 1983, the University of Wisconsin created the Domain Name System (DNS), which maps text names to IP addresses automatically. This way you only need to remember www.howstuffworks.com, for example, instead of HowStuffWorks.com's IP address.

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URL: Uniform Resource Locator

When you use the Web or send an e-mail message, you use a domain name to do it. For example, the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) "http://www.howstuffworks.com" contains the domain name howstuffworks.com. So does this e-mail address: example@howstuffworks.com. Every time you use a domain name, you use the Internet's DNS servers to translate the human-readable domain name into the machine-readable IP address. Check out How Domain Name Servers Work for more in-depth information on DNS.

Top-level domain names, also called first-level domain names, include .COM, .ORG, .NET, .EDU and .GOV. Within every top-level domain there is a huge list of second-level domains. For example, in the .COM first-level domain there is:

  • HowStuffWorks
  • Yahoo
  • Microsoft

Every name in the .COM top-level domain must be unique. The left-most word, like www, is the host name. It specifies the name of a specific machine (with a specific IP address) in a domain. A given domain can, potentially, contain millions of host names as long as they are all unique within that domain.

DNS servers accept requests from programs and other name servers to convert domain names into IP addresses. When a request comes in, the DNS server can do one of four things with it:

  1. It can answer the request with an IP address because it already knows the IP address for the requested domain.
  2. It can contact another DNS server and try to find the IP address for the name requested. It may have to do this multiple times.
  3. It can say, "I don't know the IP address for the domain you requested, but here's the IP address for a DNS server that knows more than I do."
  4. It can return an error message because the requested domain name is invalid or does not exist.
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A DNS Example

Let's say that you type the URL www.howstuffworks.com into your browser. The browser contacts a DNS server to get the IP address. A DNS server would start its search for an IP address by contacting one of the root DNS servers. The root servers know the IP addresses for all of the DNS servers that handle the top-level domains (.COM, .NET, .ORG, etc.). Your DNS server would ask the root for www.howstuffworks.com, and the root would say, "I don't know the IP address for www.howstuffworks.com, but here's the IP address for the .COM DNS server."

Your name server then sends a query to the .COM DNS server asking it if it knows the IP address for www.howstuffworks.com. The DNS server for the COM domain knows the IP addresses for the name servers handling the www.howstuffworks.com domain, so it returns those.

Your name server then contacts the DNS server for www.howstuffworks.com and asks if it knows the IP address for www.howstuffworks.com. It actually does, so it returns the IP address to your DNS server, which returns it to the browser, which can then contact the server for www.howstuffworks.com to get a Web page.

One of the keys to making this work is redundancy. There are multiple DNS servers at every level, so that if one fails, there are others to handle the requests. The other key is caching. Once a DNS server resolves a request, it caches the IP address it receives. Once it has made a request to a root DNS server for any .COM domain, it knows the IP address for a DNS server handling the .COM domain, so it doesn't have to bug the root DNS servers again for that information. DNS servers can do this for every request, and this caching helps to keep things from bogging down.

Even though it is totally invisible, DNS servers handle billions of requests every day and they are essential to the Internet's smooth functioning. The fact that this distributed database works so well and so invisibly day in and day out is a testimony to the design. Be sure to read How Domain Name Servers Work for more information on DNS.

Internet Servers and Clients

Internet servers make the Internet possible. All of the machines on the Internet are either servers or clients. The machines that provide services to other machines are servers. And the machines that are used to connect to those services are clients. There are Web servers, e-mail servers, FTP servers and so on serving the needs of Internet users all over the world.

When you connect to www.howstuffworks.com to read a page, you are a user sitting at a client's machine. You are accessing the HowStuffWorks Web server. The server machine finds the page you requested and sends it to you. Clients that come to a server machine do so with a specific intent, so clients direct their requests to a specific software server running on the server machine. For example, if you are running a Web browser on your machine, it will want to talk to the Web server on the server machine, not the e-mail server.

A server has a static IP address that does not change very often. A home machine that is dialing up through a modem, on the other hand, typically has an IP address assigned by the ISP every time you dial in. That IP address is unique for your session -- it may be different the next time you dial in. This way, an ISP only needs one IP address for each modem it supports, rather than one for each customer.

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Ports and HTTP

Any server machine makes its services available using numbered ports -- one for each service that is available on the server. For example, if a server machine is running a Web server and a file transfer protocol (FTP) server, the Web server would typically be available on port 80, and the FTP server would be available on port 21. Clients connect to a service at a specific IP address and on a specific port number.

Once a client has connected to a service on a particular port, it accesses the service using a specific protocol. Protocols are often text and simply describe how the client and server will have their conversation. Every Web server on the Internet conforms to the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). You can learn more about Internet servers, ports and protocols by reading How Web Servers Work.

Networks, routers, NAPs, ISPs, DNS and powerful servers all make the Internet possible. It is truly amazing when you realize that all this information is sent around the world in a matter of milliseconds! The components are extremely important in modern life -- without them, there would be no Internet. And without the Internet, life would be very different indeed for many of us.

For more information on the structure of the Internet and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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