How the Internet Works
Most people use the Internet without fully understanding how it works. Without much trouble, they can open a browser, navigate to a site, and interact with it. They do not need to know precisely how the Internet works in order to use it.
For web developers, however, fundamental understanding of the flow of information across the Internet is essential.
Servers and Clients
The Internet uses the client-server model. A server is an application that provides resources—such as raw data, web pages, or images. A client is an application that requests resources from a server.
When navigating the web, the client is the web browser on your computer or smartphone. When you click on a link or type in an address and hit Enter, the client/browser makes a request to a server that sits in a building somewhere out in the world. The server receives the request, and sends a response back to the client. The client then displays the content of the response.
In the client-server model, the server may sometimes be on the same computer as the client. This is often the case when a programmer is building a web application. The in-progress, development version of the application is on their laptop, as is their browser that they use to test the app.
A protocol is a standard for communication between computers. Most web communication uses three protocols, in fact.
|TCP/IP||Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol||Low-level web communication for transferring small chunks of raw data known as packets|
|DNS||Domain Name Service||Translates human-friendly names into server addresses|
A thorough understanding of each of these protocols is well beyond the scope of this class. However, as a web developer it is important you have a general understanding of their roles. Each protocol has a different and critical job in enabling web communication.
HTTP is the most important protocol for web developers to understand, which you may have guessed from the title of this chapter. It specifies how requests for common web data—such as HTML files or images—should be structured, as well as responses to such requests. The details of request and response message structure are the topic of the rest of this chapter.
HTTPS refers to the HTTP protocol used with a secure connection. A secure connection encrypts so that it can’t be read while in-transit. The data is encrypted by the server/client before being transmitted, and decrypted once it is received by the client/server. The precise details of how such encryption works is beyond the scope of this course.
TCP/IP is a low-level protocol that is quite complicated. For our purposes, it is important only to know that TCP/IP is the standard that allows raw data to get from one place to another on the Internet.
When a server sends a file back to a client, that file must physically be sent across a series of network components, including cables, routers, and switches. Files are broken down into packets—small chunks of a standard size—that are individually sent from one location to the next, until arriving at their final destination and being reassembled.
You can think of the Internet as a “series of tubes.” This phrase was used by a U.S. Senator in 2006 and widely mocked. However, we think it’s actually a reasonable analogy. TCP/IP allows data to be passed from one tube to another until reaching the final destination.
DNS is the address book of the Internet. It enables us to use readable and memorable names for servers, such as
mail.google.com. Such names are called domain names, and they function as aliases for the actual server addresses.
Every server on the internet has a numerical address known as an IP address. When a message is addressed using a domain name, the corresponding IP address must be determined before it can be sent.
The IP addresses of
The sending computer will attempt to resolve the domain name by looking it up on a nameserver. A nameserver is a directory of domains and IP addresses, and there are thousands of them on the Internet. Most internet service providers (such as Charter or AT&T) provide DNS servers for their customers to use. Once the sending computer knows the IP address, it can send the request to the correct server.
It’s easy to look up the IP address of any domain name using freely-available tools.
Use the popular site
MX Toolbox to look up the IP address of
help.launchcode.org. Does this site live on the same server as
Every computer uses the special IP address
127.0.0.1 to refer to itself. This is known as the loopback address, and it often has the alias
localhost. If you use the loopback address when making a request, the request will be sent to a service on the same machine as the client.
When a client requests a resource from a server, it does so using a uniform resource locator (URL). URLs are also called web addresses.
As a regular user of the Internet, you are already familiar with URLs like these:
A URL encodes a lot of information about the request, including what is being requested and where the request should be sent. URLs are made up of several components, each of which plays a role in enabling both client and server to understand what is being requested.
We will generally work with URLs with this structure:
The five components of this URL are:
- Port (optional)
- Path (optional)
- Query String (optional)
A properly-formed URL must have these components in the exact order shown here. Only scheme and host are required.
Let’s look at each of these in detail.
The first portion of every URL specifies the scheme. Common schemes are
file. Most often, the scheme specifies the protocol to be used in making a request. For us, this will always be
https. If left off, a web browser will insert the scheme http/s for you.
The scheme is always followed by
The host portion of a URL specifies where the request should be sent. The host can be either an IP address, like
126.96.36.199, or a domain name, like
Following the host is an optional port number. While the host determines the server that the request should be sent to, the port determines the specific application on the server that should handle the request. This is important because a single server may run several applications capable of handling requests.
Conventionally, a given type of application will always use the same port, though this is not a hard rule. For example, web servers typically use port 80 or 443, for regular and encrypted messages, respectively. On the other hand, MySQL databases typically use port 3306.
Suppose a server at
mydomain.com is running both a web server and MySQL database server on the standard ports. Requests to
mydomain.com:80 will be given to the web server, while requests to
mydomain:3306 will be given to the database server.
If a port number is not specified, then a default value based on the scheme is used. When using
http:// the default port is 80. When using
https:// the default port is 443.
Following the domain and optional port is the path, which consists of a series of names separated by
/. The path provides information that tells the server what is being requested. It can consist of a series of names, such as
/blog/entries/2018/, or it can end with an explicit file name, such as
A request to
https://www.launchcode.org/blog/ asks for the resource that lives at the path
/blog/ on the server
www.launchcode.org. This resource happens to be the homepage of the LaunchCode blog.
A request to the (very long) URL below asks for the LaunchCode logo, which lives at the path
/assets/dabomb-2080d6e...57f.svg (truncated here for space).
If a path is not specified, then the root path
/ is used. The root path typically refers to the home page for a given site.
Following the path is an optional query string, which begins with
? and contains a set of key-value pairs. Each pair is joined by
= and is separated from the other pairs by
&. For example, the query string of a
search on duckduckgo.com looks like this:
This query string has three key-value pairs:
Notice that these pairs are separated by
& in the query string.
While the path specifies what the request is asking for, the query string provides additional data that may be needed to fulfill the request. As an analogy, you can think of the path like a function name, and the query string as the function arguments.
Putting It All Together
We just covered a lot of information! While these nuts-and-bolts details are important, they aren’t nearly as important as the high-level picture of how we access resources on the internet.
To tie these ideas together, watch these two videos on URLs and the Internet as a whole:
Check Your Understanding
Which protocol is responsible for turning a name like
launchcode.org into a server address?
Why is this URL malformed?
- It uses HTTPS when it should use HTTP.
- It doesn’t contain a fragment.
- It doesn’t contain a port.
- The query string comes before the path.