What is the Web and How Does it Work?

March 23, 2015

Written By: Pauline Rubin


You use it everyday. In fact, you’re using it right now. But how much do you know about how the web works or how it came to be?

In today’s day and age, the World Wide Web (or web for short) has become such an integral part of our lives that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. As a result, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a relatively new invention. In the short time it has existed, the web has almost single-handedly changed everything we know about the world today. Think about it: you can do almost everything online. We manage our bank accounts, apply for jobs, buy clothes, order food, and that’s just a taste of what the internet is capable of.

However, it seems like we barely understand how it works despite how often we use it. In order to understand it, we need to start at the beginning.

A brief history of the internet

Saying just one person should be credited for creating the internet would be incorrect. The internet was born through a slow process over the last fifty years that dates back as early as the Cold War.

In 1957, the Soviet Union sparked the Space Race by launching a man-made satellite called “Sputnik” into space. As a result, the United States government began to put a larger emphasis on scientific research and technology. This led to the the Pentagon’s Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

Continuing to fear that a missile attack from the Soviet Union could possibly wipe out the telephone lines, a scientist at the ARPA named J.C.R Licklider outlined his idea for an network of computers that could communicate with one another despite telephones being destroyed. Licklider referred to his conceptualized network as “the ARPAnet.”

As time went on, computer networks continued to grow. By 1974, there several other networks across the world. The term “internet” was coined to describe all of these interconnected networks.

Internet vs. Web

Although they are often used interchangeably, the internet and the web are two different things.

The internet is a network that connects billions of devices (computers, mobile phones, tablets, routers, etc.) across the globe. This allows any device to communicate with another as long as are both connected to the internet. Therefore, the internet encompasses the web, e-mail, instant messaging, and file transferring.

The web is just one system we use to access information over the internet. The World Wide Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. The web allowed the internet to become more easily accessible and more usable for everyone through use of browsers. The browsers most commonly used today include Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer.

How does it work?

Access to the internet is available almost everywhere. Many people are able to access the internet through wireless networks via their laptops, phones, and tablets. Cloud computing has made it much easier to store data and access it from anywhere at any time.

Despite all of this wireless technology, the internet actually works through physical underground wires running all over the world. Computers that are directly connected to these internet wires are called servers. Webpages are stored on that server’s hard drive.

Your home computer or mobile phone is not a server, however. Your device is indirectly connected to the internet through an Internet Service Provider (ISPs), such as Verizon or Comcast. These devices that are not directly connected to the internet are called clients.




Every server has a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address which allows computers to find each other. These addresses are long strings of numbers, so Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) were created to make it easier for us to find websites we are looking for. For example, instead of typing the IP address for Google ( into your search bar, it’s easier to remember and type the URL (http://www.google.com). Everything connected to the internet (directly or indirectly) has an IP address.

In order for data to be sent over the internet, there needs to be a set of rules for how that information will be transmitted. Hypertext Transer Protocol (HTTP) is a set of standards that allow users on the web to exchange information. It defines how messages are formatted and transmitted, and how servers and browsers should respond to that information. You’ll probably recognize those letters at the start of most web addresses.

Have you ever noticed that files tend to load bit by bit when you open them on the web? Well, whenever you access anything on the internet, you’re receiving the information in pieces. These smaller pieces of information are called packets, and the process is called packet switching. Breaking files down into smaller pieces and then re-assembling them on the receiving end is a much faster and more efficient process than sending an entire file.

So how are the packets of information you’re looking for sent to the right place? Anywhere two or more parts of the internet intersect, there is a router. This piece of equipment directs the packets to where they should go in order to reach their destination.

What’s to come?

Although the internet is only a few decades old, it has grown from a few small entities into a global network. The internet and web only continue to evolve at a rapid pace, and there are several exciting innovations on the horizon.

Faster data transmission over the internet is becoming more readily available. In , Google introduced its new service, Google Fiber, which provides internet at speeds ten times faster than other ISPs. Although it is not widespread yet, Google Fiber shows the p. This is just the beginning of faster and more reliable internet speeds.

Another hot topic you may have heard on the news recently is net neutrality, which is the principle that ISPs should treat all data on the internet equally and should not favor or block particular products or websites. Net neutrality supporters say that ISPs should not charge service providers (such as Hulu or Netflix) more in order to provide customers, as they should not charge you more to be able to access those services. They want the FCC to reclassify ISPs as “common carriers,” which would mandate them to provide the same service to everyone (similar to gas and electric companies).

The internet is truly a revolution. Knowledge is easily accessible. Friends and family are easily connected. Businesses thrive in unexpected ways and in completely new industries.

In the words of Graham Molitor:

“The immensity of the changes wrought–and still to come–can not be underestimated. This miraculous information channel–the Internet–will touch and alter virtually every facet of humanity, business, and all the rest of civilization’s trappings.”

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