What is the Internet?

If I ask you to enter a room without any windows or clear means of communication, and then claim you can speak to your friend on the other side of the world, by writing on the wall. What if I said you could write your banking information on these magical walls, and you will be able to purchase any product you would like. Would you believe me? I doubt you would, simply because I didn’t tell you how it works, and quite frankly, it sounds sketchy.

The irony is, you would doubt my offering but turn to your phone – a few minutes later – to purchase something on Amazon (just an example, not an endorsement). If you don’t understand how the internet works, then your browser is that room. The only difference is, there are billions of people in the room.

56.7% of the world uses the internet. With a 7.7 billion population estimate, that is about 4.3 billion users. In our day-to-day, we use the internet to talk to loved ones, share secrets, and pay bills. The internet has become foundational to our lives. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand it. The good news is, at a high level, it is not that complicated.

Having spent the past few years hunting for a better understanding of the web, I have decided to write a series of articles, each focused on one component of the internet. My goal is to help anyone who would like to gain a high-level understanding of the internet with a simplified quick read. If you are interested to know more, stay tuned.

The Journey of a Message on the Internet

message from the internet

Disclaimer: This is a simplified explanation. To draw a parallel, we all know how a car works. We know about fuel, wheels, etc. This knowledge is enough for us to navigate our daily activities. However, if we were to investigate specific components as small as rivets, we will find a world of details with many experts working on them. The goal of this article and series is to shed enough knowledge to navigate the day-to-day internet usage. 

We all are familiar with DMs, Messenger, and WhatsApp. I can bet that you used one of them today. But how does the message travel from your device to its destination? In this article, I will attempt to explain what happens under the hood.

The Journey Simplified

When you text a friend, the message does not flow directly from your device to theirs. Like a bus, your message goes through a couple of stops before arriving at its destination. The bus travels on roads and your message travels in cables. You might wonder how can a message reach your friend in England across the Atlantic? Well, there are many cables underwater connecting the world. It’s truly fascinating! Check out this cool website that shows an interactive map of all the underwater internet cables.

If you have a minute, watch this video of a shark attacking an internet cable. You know who to blame when your internet is slow:

So, in a nutshell, the internet is many cables connecting us together. Like the set of roads connecting neighborhoods and cities.

To send a message over the internet, you are required to provide an IP address. If you are using Instagram, it is the address of the Instagram servers and data centers. For simplicity, the IP address tells the message where to go, like a postal or zip code.

As we already established, data is transmitted through cables, so the format of the data during the journey must be different. In a transformer-like fashion (Optimus Prime), your message changes its form into small packets of data and reassembles at the destination.

Once your message arrives at the servers of Instagram, it is processed and stored. The term *processed* is a huge understatement of what occurs at the servers. There are many actions fired once a message is received, especially for a system as complicated as Instagram.

On the other side, your friend’s device will send requests to the Instagram servers asking for new messages. Since a new message was processed, the Instagram server will respond with the message. Your friend’s device then assembles the packets and displays them on the screen.

As noted earlier, there are many components not addressed here including encryption, transmission protocols, etc. I will dive into these topics in upcoming episodes.

I hope this added a little to your knowledge. Now, the next time you text, you can think of the very long journey your message is taking – literally crossing the world.

Written by Yousef Eshaq, Engineering Manager at RealTerm Energy