In order to read the article that you are currently reading right now, your computer, or phone, had to connect to a web server that actually stores the article’s file location. Just like you have folders on your computer, or phone, somewhere out there there is a virtual folder that contains this text and the formatting of this page and your computer had to go find it. That’s how we got here, nothing too crazy right?! What makes the internet amazing is that this file can be stored literally anywhere in the world, and your computer… OR PHONE… let’s just call it device… can access it. You could be anywhere in the world, and with a company like Skyroam you could have a mobile hotspot that captures cellular data and creates a personal WiFi network that your computer can connect to, and find this article… now THAT’S magic.
But how exactly does that work over such large distances if all we’re doing is just opening folders with files in them? I’ll try to explain in terms that actually make sense.
When you click on the article, the device sends the request to your Internet Service Provider (ISP) which then routes the request to a server higher up the chain. Eventually, your request hits a Domain Name Server (DNS) and the server will look for a domain name match to the website you are looking for.
NOW, here’s where the packets come in. Once your request has reached the correct address, the server on that address will respond by sending a series of packets. A packet is a part of a file that ranges anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 bytes. Each packet has a header and a footer that tells your machine how to reassemble the packets to create the file you are actually reading. These packets travel back through the servers to your original IP address and your device will reconstruct the packets into the article you want to read.
An interesting fact to mention is, the packets can travel back to you through the path of least resistance. Not only do they not have to come to you through the route of the same servers that they took to get to where the file lives, but the packets all travel individually sometimes and can all get back to you any number of ways. This is important to note because large chunks of the internet could be down and you would still be able to read this article if there were enough connected servers to get you the information. Of course, just like any traffic, if some streets are closed the ones that are open will definitely become slower.
Everything you do on the internet is sent back in packets. The videos you watch on YouTube is downloaded from a server somewhere, and it travels back to you in pieces… why do you think you have to sit and wait sometimes for the video to buffer, because some of the packets had not yet arrived. This is also true for phone calls conducted over the internet, your voice is being broken down into packets and shipped to a central line that decodes it and reconstructs it for the people on the other end, while doing the same thing backwards for you.
You can imagine this all happens so quickly that it would be almost impossible to track. As devices and protocols evolve and become more robust, we are able to transfer more and more packets of data at a faster and higher rate. Even if you are sitting in the middle of a beach with a mobile WiFi hotspot, you will be receiving packets of information faster and faster… this is the future, we have arrived.