a, Science & Technology

How does the internet work?

The internet, a network of networks, is often thought to have an ethereal existence—an illusive virtual web that somehow enables a message to travel from your McGill email to an account in London, or a tweet to circulate around the globe.

What is surprising, however, is the tangible basis of the internet. Even when a computer is connected to it wirelessly, there is a router sitting somewhere in the vicinity, quietly humming away and sending data back and forth between this virtual web of unimaginable proportions, and the screen in front of you.

One of the defining images helpful for visualizing the internet is a huge web that looks strikingly like the Milky Way. This web shows connections between nodes (computers at the ends of a network) as lines that are colour coded to represent communication protocols (a system of digital messaging formats and rules for exchanging messages between computing systems). This image was conceived by Barrett Lyon in his project called the Opte Project. The plan’s aim was to create an accurate representation of the internet using visual graphics. This iconic image, housed in a permanent collection at the Boston Museum of Science, is in some ways representative of how large the Internet has grown, and its sheer complexity.

The history of the internet can be traced back to the founding of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which led to the development of protocols for inter-networking, the practice of connecting a computer network with other networks through communication protocols. The first two nodes (computers at the ends of a network) were Leonard Kleinrock’s Network Measurement Centre at UCLA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and Douglas Engelbart’s NLS System at SRI International in Menlo Park, California.

Today, we have not only computers, but also all sorts of devices that can connect to the internet. Smartphones, home automation systems, and GPS make up only a few of the many wired and wireless devices available to us. The physical infrastructure that drives these internet connections ranges from satellites zooming across the globe in outer space, to deep-sea fibre-optic cables that run through the Atlantic.

Fibre-optic cables form the backbone of the Internet. Even though the material science and computational technology behind this process is incredibly complicated, the physical process is shockingly simple: light goes in on one end of the ocean and comes out on the other. The phenomenon which is known as ‘total internal reflection’ keeps the light from escaping these thin, hair-like strands of glass that serve as conduits for the information which drives our world today. Fibre-optic cables connect through buildings called landing stations that are tucked away inconspicuously in little seaside neighbourhoods. Each of these cables can carry data at astoundingly fast rates, the basic unit being 10 gigabits per second—a thousand times faster than regular home internet connections.  Moreover, the bundles of cables have 50 to 60 such wavelengths, and therefore, carry tens of thousands of video streams in parallel, which is essential to keep pace with the rate at which content is growing online—hours of YouTube videos are uploaded, and thousands of pictures are posted on Facebook every second.

Such enormous undertakings to create the “physical” internet are not limited to remote corners of the globe. There are about a dozen data centres in the world that consume about as much energy as the cities that they sit in. A striking example of such a mammoth centre is located at 60 Hudson Street in lower Manhattan.  This building, in particular, has more networks of the internet that connect to each other than anywhere else in the world.

60 Hudson Street is an example of that physical intimacy of the internet. It is where the wires from the routers of Facebook, for instance, plug into the wires from the routers of, say, Google. It houses more than half a dozen of the world’s most important networks, in particular the ones that service the undersea cables connecting Europe and North America. Though the internet might seem intangible, these connections are an unequivocally physical process.

Science fiction author Neal Stephenson, says that wired people should know something about wires. We, too, should know where the internet—the virtual web that physically connects us all—meets reality.

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