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3. What is the `Internet'?

The Internet is a WAN which spans the entire globe: it is the largest computer network in existence. The phrase `internetworking' refers to connecting separate networks to build a larger one, hence `The Internet' is the connection of a whole pile of subnetworks.

So now we look at the list above and ask ourselves: what is the Internet's size, physical details and protocols?

The size is already established above: it's global.

The physical details are varied however: each little sub-network is connected differently, with a different layout and physical nature. Attempts to map it in a useful way have generally met with abject failure.

The protocols spoken by each link are also often different: all of the link-level protocols listed above are used, and many more.

3.1 How Does The Internet Work?

The question then arises: how come every node on the Internet can talk to the others, if they all use different link-level protocols to talk to each other?

The answer is fairly simple: we need another protocol which controls how stuff flows through the network. The link-level protocol describes how to get from one node to another if they're connected directly: the `network protocol' tells us how to get from one point in the network to any other, going through other links if necessary.

For the Internet, the network protocol is the Internet Protocol (version 4), or `IP'. It's not the only protocol out there (Apple's AppleTalk, Novell's IPX, Digital's DECNet and Microsoft's NetBEUI being others) but it's the most widely adopted. There's a newer version of IP called IPv6, but it's still not common.

So to send a message from one side of the globe to another, your computer writes a bit of Internet Protocol, sends it to your modem, which uses some modem link-level protocol to send it to the modem it's dialed up to, which is probably plugged into a terminal server (basically a big box of modems), which sends it to a node inside the ISP's network, which sends it out usually to a bigger node, which sends it to the next node... and so on. A node which connects two or more networks is called a `router': it will have one interface for each network.

We call this array of protocols a `protocol stack', usually drawn like so:

 [ Application: Handles Porn ]           [ Application Layer: Serves Porn ]
              |                                          ^
              v                                          |
[ TCP: Handles Retransmission ]          [ TCP: Handles Retransmission ]
              |                                          ^
              v                                          |
    [ IP: Handles Routing ]                   [ IP: Handles Routing ]
              |                                          ^
              v                                          |
[ Link: Handles A Single Hop ]           [ Link: Handles A Single Hop ]
              |                                          |

So in the diagram, we see Netscape (the Application on top left) retrieving a web page from a web server (the Application on top right). To do this it will use `Transmission Control Protocol' or `TCP': over 90% of the Internet traffic today is TCP, as it is used for Web and EMail.

So Netscape makes the request for a TCP connection to the remote web server: this is handed to the TCP layer, which hands it to the IP layer, which figures out which direction it has to go in, hands it onto the appropriate link layer, which transmits it to the other end of the link.

At the other end, the link layer hands it up to the IP layer, which sees it is destined for this host (if not, it might hand it down to a different link layer to go out to the next node), hands it up to the TCP layer, which hands it to the server.

So we have the following breakdown:

  1. The application (Netscape, or the web server at the other end) decides who it wants to talk to, and what it wants to send).
  2. The TCP layer sends special packets to start the conversation with the other end, and then packs the data into a TCP `packet': a packet is just a term for a chunk of data which passes through a network. The TCP layer hands this packet to the IP layer: it then keeps sending it to the IP layer until the TCP layer at the other end replies to say that it has received it. This is called `retransmission', and has a whole heap of complex rules which control when to retransmit, how long to wait, etc. It also gives each packet a set of numbers, which mean that the other end can sort them into the right order.
  3. The IP layer looks at the destination of the packet, and figures out the next node to send the packet to. This simple act is called `routing', and ranges from really simple (if you only have one modem, and no other network interfaces, all packets should go out that interface) to extremely complex (if you have 15 major networks connected directly to you).

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