Demystifying the Internet

One of my favorite authors, [thkBC height=”700″ width=”1000″ anchortext=”Arthur C. Clarke” title=”About Arthur C. Clarke” url=”” type=”ajax”] is supposed to have said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve discovered this is true as far as the internet is concerned for a lot of people. The Internet is the a magic source of information and entertainment. If you are using the Internet for your business (inescapable these days), it’s helpful to understand some of the magic because it will help you figure out where to invest your time and money to improve your business. So let’s walk through some of what happens when you get on the internet and try to find ….

The Giant Marketplace Analogy

Think of the Internet as a GIANT marketplace, a mall in which you plan to browse around, shop for stuff, and perhaps even buy things. Your window onto this marketplace is a web browser like Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari that runs on your computer. Powering up your computer and launching your web browser initiates the magic.

So let’s say you want to heard about this neat love story called “Romeo and Juliet,” and you’d like to know more about it. You power on your computer, launch your web-browser, get the Google splash screen, type in “Romeo and Juliet,” and hit enter. What goes on here?

Back to the marketplace analogy: in geek-speak, your the web browser on your computer is a client. Just like clients or customers at a mall in the real world, it’s has a requirement and asks behind the information counter (Google) at the mall for information about Romeo and Juliet. What happened when you launched your web browser (a client application) was it connected to Google’s site a server based web application (web server for short) — and made a request for information related to Romeo and Juliet. Google’s web server then came back with a response, a list of other web servers that had information about Romeo and Juliet.

Understanding the concept of clients, servers (or service providers), and request-response are fundamental to understanding the internet.

Clients, and Servers, and Applications — Oh My!

The internet consists of a bunch of computers all connected together in a network. Some computers, like the one on which you are reading this article are clients. Other computers, like the computer on which this article is actually located are servers. Clients (like your PC, Mac, Smart Phone, etc) run client-based applications (like Internet Explorer and Firefox web browsers, or MS Outlook and Thunderbird for email). Servers run server applications like the Apache Web Server, Email Servers, e-commerce applications, etc. Whew!

A single server-computer can run one or more server applications, just like your PC/Mac/SmarPhone can run several applications. For example, you can run a web browser, Microsoft Word, and Skype, on yout PC/Mac/SmartPhone. Same with servers. A server that runs an email application is called a Mail server, an so on. If you are still with me, you’re rapidly becoming proficient in geek speak.

Protocols: Say What?

The client and client applications interact with servers and server applications using communication protocols. Remember the request-response we discussed earlier? That’s a communication protocol, or protocol for short. Protocols are the very structured forms of communication that allow clients and servers to interact.  Each type of activity you perform related to the internet typically has a protocol associated with it. Let’s look at this in more detail.

The first thing you need to do to use an internet application like the web, for example, is to attach your client (PC, Mac, etc) a network (Comcast, Verizon, etc.). The protocol that you’d use to attach could be either Ethernet if you use router or ADSL modem, WiFi (if you have wireless), 3G (if you have a smart phone. Once attached to a network, you need to actually connect to the Internet. The protocol used for that is typically TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol over Internet Protocol). There are a couple more details here, but they just make thins REALLY confusing.

Once connected to the Internet, the client applications on your computer can connect to server applications using their own protocols like HyperText Transefer Protocol (http for short) for web access or POP3 (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol) for email.  on the internet to start weaving the magic that you’d like to have happen.

Why You Care

The reason it’s useful to have at least a basic understanding of the preceding is that it will help you get the most out of your investment in a website, email, etc.,  and will eventually help you promote your business on the internet. The other day I chatted with a nice lady who wanted me to build a website for her. She was very confused by some of the things that she could do — like manage and maintain her website from any computer (pretty much) on the Internet, and do so without special and expensive tools or training. Knowing how this stuff works sort of will help you ask the right questions, and in many instances find answers to problems you encounter.