What Exactly Is The Internet?

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If you read newspapers and magazines or watch television, you'll probably agree that the Internet is one of the hottest topics to come down the pike in a long time. Businesses are especially urged to get on the Internet. But what exactly IS the Internet?

First, here's what the Internet is NOT. The Internet is not an online service, like America Online or Compuserve. The Internet is not a big computer you can call up with your computer and modem. The Internet isn't even really a computer network, in the truest sense of the word.

The Internet's backbone is an interconnected series of wide-area networks (WANs). These are large computers linked together over a long distance via phone or wireless communication. These huge WANs link tens of thousands of smaller WANs and local-area networks (LANs, computers linked together in a central location, such as a business or government organization) around the world. In this sense, the Internet IS a network of computers. It just isn’t a directly connected network; it’s more roundabout, more of a simulation of a network.

When you access the Internet, you can send email to anyone else in any part of the world, provided they have an Internet connection. You can download (receive) and upload (send) files and programs to and from any computer that's connected to the Internet. You can chat with other people who are currently connected to the Internet (you type what you want to say, they'll see it on their screen, and vice versa). It's just like you're on a network of computers in a single office, for example, but the computers are spread apart worldwide.

You aren't accessing the other computers directly; you only access the single computer you're dialing into for Internet access. That computer processes your request (say, an email message you're sending), looks up the "address" of the computer you're sending it to, then "routes" your message through the necessary series of other computers out there in the network, until your email gets to its destination.

A common question is: where did the Internet come from? Most people had never heard of the Internet before that last year or two. The Internet, though, has been around for quite some time, just not in the general usage we see today.

Today's Internet that is linking people from different cultures worldwide ironically got its start as a defense project. In the late 1960's, the U.S. Department of Defense began researching defense communications via computer. One of the projects that grew out of this research was called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the forerunner of today's Internet.

The overall idea was to have a communications network that could be maintained, even if part of it was destroyed in an attack. If a communications network was housed in one location, and that location was destroyed, communications would cease. However, if a huge network with no central control center could be constructed, a destroyed location could be "routed" around through another location, and communications would continue. This is how the Internet works.

By the early 1980's, all U.S. military sites were connected to the ARPANET. Computer scientists at major universities and large businesses had also connected in, using the network as a means for sharing information. This was thanks to the CSNET (Computer Science Network) project conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The NSF saw the great strides that were being made in computer science due to CSNET, and began constructing a high-capacity, high-speed WAN. Completed in 1988, the NSFNET was so successful that the number of computers accessing it quadrupled to around 80,000 in less than a year. This number increased to almost 300,000 by 1990, creating the need for the final "backbone" network, which exists today, with over 2,000,000 computers connected.
So, now you may have an understanding as to why the concept of "what is the Internet" is such a hard thing to explain. It's a computer network, but it's not. You dial in to the Internet, but you really don't. And no one really owns it or controls it, except for the supercomputers that form the "backbone." One thing's for sure, though:  the Internet will change, and, to some extent, has already changed, the way we communicate with each other.

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