The HTML and CSS Blog:

How the Internet Works

What You Learn in This HTML Lesson

Before you learn HTML, several important questions must be answered: What is a server? What is a web host? How does the Internet work anyway? This three-part lesson will provide a simple introduction to what is going on when you upload your site to the Internet. Today we answer the question: How does the Internet work?

How Does the Internet Work?

Before we get into servers and web hosts, we want to make sure you understand what’s going on in this crazy miracle we call the WWW. Because it is really quite simple when you get down to it, as simple as saving a file on your own computer. Let’s start there.

So you’ve saved the file Wacky70sFunkSongs.doc to your computer, and your roommate Jive Jerome wants to read it. You could save the file to a disk, hand him the disk, and wait for him to put it on his computer.

What Is an Intranet?

But Jive Jerome’s room reeks of Giorgio and Polish sausage, so you’d rather find another way. What if you had a cable that connected your computer to Jerome’s? Fortunately you’re even more resourceful than you are lazy, so you connect the computers, creating an intranet. “Oughta sight!” Jerome says, and it’s all good. Now you’re able to share all kinds of files without leaving the comfort of your bean bag chair.

really old computer

Jerome’s super fly lap top has all the keys the ladies like. [image via Synth Mania]

So that’s an intranet: a network of computers that shares files within a small group. You see intranets on college campuses, in offices, or wherever someone is throwing a LAN party. The prefix “intra” means “within” or “among” so it’s a straightforward word: you have a network within or among a small group of computers.

Intranet Internet: What’s the Difference?

Actually...It all boils down to the inter-molecular forces

But now you want an Internet. The prefix “Inter” means “between”. For comparison, something intracontinental would happen within the continent, while something intercontinental would take place between different continents. In the same way, computers on the Internet are also networked, but it’s a network of unrelated computers, that have nothing in common with the network other than their connection.

OK enough with the grammar lesson. Back to Jive Jerome and the Internet.

How the Internet Works

But one day Jive Jerome moves out of your house. You still want to send him files, but you want to avoid all the cologne and sausage and all those feather boas he has hanging everywhere. But his new crib is all the way across town! If only you had a really long cord that connected both of your computers. Alas, it turns out you do: the phone lines that run into your house. These phone lines connect everyone, so using them to connect networks isn’t the same as an office or dorm room where everyone is part of some related group. No, this is the motherload: not a network but the network: one big Internet that anyone with a phone line can hook into.

Look how much cleaner the place is now that you don't have to clean up all that mohair.

Look how much cleaner the place is now that you don’t have to clean up all that mohair.     [image via Curbly]

And that’s how things were first shared over the Internet: via very slow phone connections. There were lots of different kinds of sharing happening on this new-fangled network of computers: email, and newsgroups, and file exchanges, but the most popular was the World Wide Web. The WWW served up web pages, which were HTML pages specifically designed to deliver information from one computer to another. But really, an HTML page is just another kind of document being shared over the web, from one computer to another.

The difference is that if you share a document on an intranet or the Internet, you will want to open it in one of the regular old non-connected programs on your computer (like MS Word or Open Office). But if you instead shared funkysongsofthe70s.html, you’d have a document that’s designed to be viewed within your web browser.

We have faster Internet connections now, but the process is still basically the same: you have that list of funky songs on a computer and when Jerome goes to your website and views that web page, his computer is downloading that HTML file to his computer. And once all the various parts of the web page are downloaded, voila: he sees exactly what you see when you open the page in a web browser.

What is My Browser’s “Cache”?

tuna disposal kitty

Clever reader is clever. [image via Cute Overload]

“But,” I hear you asking, “if I’m downloading all these files, why aren’t there a bunch of them cluttering up my hard drive?” Oh you clever reader you. There are a bunch of these html pages cluttering up your hard drive. But since most people don’t want to keep those files, they’re downloaded to a Temp file somewhere in the belly of your operating system, most likely a folder within a folder named after your web browser. This is why when you go to a site you’ve been to before, it loads much faster, because it’s already downloaded to your computer. This muck of temporary downloaded files is your cache. When you clear your cache, you’re simply deleting all those temporary files. And if you never delete them, your browser will delete them eventually to make room for more.

So when you view a web page, you’re simply downloading an HTML page from a remote computer onto your own computer, and using your web browser to view it.

Dy-no-mite! But wait, there’s a hitch. Our next post in the How the Internet Works series will explain why. Onto: What is a Server?

Karma Bennett is learning html with songThis is a guest post by Karma Bennett

Karma Bennett is the Learn HTML With Song girl friday, helping with social media, web marketing and editing. She loves dancing, taking photos of Bay Area graffiti, writing about culture and books, singing along to muzak at the grocery store, and helping people find their new favorite bands.

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Hi! I'm Diane. I'm an experienced web design teacher in San Francisco. I produce music videos to help new coders learn HTML. I'm dedicated to helping you learn to code, with tons of songs, videos, tutorials and activities. All our tutorials are free and we're adding new lessons every day. Subscribe to get the latest post in your inbox.

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