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Computer Networks

The Basics

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Computer Networks and the internet

Computers have gone a long way since their inception. Nowadays, you can store and retrieve a very large amount of information using a computer. Computers and their components are starting to become commodities. The type of information stored can vary from, among others, documents, sounds, images and videos which are immediately available to the user.

The connection between two or more computers, defines a Computer Network and allows the exchange of information between them. Therefore, two remote computers connected to each other can exchange documents, sounds, images, videos and other types of data, thus enabling a rich communication between their users.

The evolution of computer networks has led to what is today known as the internet. You might though wonder, what is the internet really?

The answer to such a question can vary based upon the person who is going to respond. To many, the internet is a massive database of information which they can easily query (through search engines) and find what they are looking for. To others, it is the revolutionary new medium of the 20th century which can be used to freely address ones opinion to an extremely large and diverse, from all aspects, audience. To others, it is a revolutionary new platform and channel where they can either build a new business or extend their existing one. To younger people it is a whole new community where they can meet, communicate and play with friends. We can go on and on with how people view the internet, but instead, we are going to focus on a pure technical description of the definition of the internet: The internet is the largest network of worldwide interconnected computers (and network components) on earth, which also includes the information as well as services offered to its users. If you tried to draw a picture of the internet, you would get something resembling a spider web. That is why the internet is also known as the World Wide Web. Yes! You are right if you thought of W...W...W, which makes for the www almost always appearing in front of any website address (like,,, etc).

The internet does not belong to any government or private organization, company or institution. It is based on international and multi-party complex agreements as well as technical specifications (protocols) which define its use.

It is estimated that more than 1 billion people on this planet are today using the internet to access more than 100 million websites worldwide.

Information exchange and connection speed

As you saw, a variety of data can be exchanged between computers. If you are a user of a computer, you can either send data to another computer (commonly known as upload or receive data (commonly known as download) from another computer. You have probably heard the term download more extensively than the term upload. This is due to the fact that the main function on the internet is to search and retrieve information (download). The information exchange is mainly characterized by two things: The amount (size) of data that is to be exchanged and the critical factor of the connection speed between the computers (or the computer and the network to which it is connected).

You have also probably heard about the terms bits, bytes, Kilobytes (Kbytes), Megabytes(Mbytes), Gigabytes(Gbytes), etc. These are simply metrics for measuring the size of data. The base for all digital communications is the bit. Think of a bit as a "0" or a "1" (a "no" or a "yes"). It is a "logical" value, forming the base of the entire "digital world". Data (either in the form of a document, image, sound, video, etc) stored in a computer, is comprised of little "information packets" called bytes. A byte is comprised of 8 bits. In other words, think of data as a number of byte (8-bit) packets. Then, a Kbyte, Mbyte, Gbyte, etc, is simply a multiplication factor of 1024x ,just like kilometers (Km) is to meters (m) (1 Km = 1000m). Therefore the size of 1Kbyte = 1024bytes, 1Mbyte = 1024Kbytes = 1024x1024bytes and a Gbyte = 1024Mbyte = 1024x1024Kbyte = 1024x1024x1024bytes. Bear in mind that the "heaviest", i.e. largest size, type of data are videos, then music, then images and the "lightest" is plain text.

The other factor we talked about is the critical factor of the connection speed. A connection of a computer to a network is limited to a maximum connection speed that can be achieved. A connection speed is simply the rate by which data is being transferred between the computer and the network. The metric to measure speed is size of data over size of time, i.e. bits/seconds (bits/sec), bytes/sec, Kbytes/sec, Mbytes/sec, etc. You must have seen such terminology all over telecommunication providers and ISP (Internet Service Providers) ads, advertising internet connectivity. A connection speed of 4Mbytes/sec for example, means that if you want to transfer data the size of which is 8Mbytes, it is going to take you 2 seconds to do that. This example assumes ideal conditions. The connection speed is a very "temperamental" metric. It depends on a lot of things, therefore the connection speeds advertized cannot be fully guaranteed.

As you can understand, the larger the type of data is (i.e. a video file), the longer it is going to take (vs. for instance a text) to be transferred over a particular connection speed. Think of the connection between two computers as a highway and data as cars. The broader the highway (i.e. the highest the connection speed), the faster, as well as more, cars can move.

Accessing a website

By now, you have learned about computer networks, the internet, data, as well as connection speeds. You might wonder though how all this fits into the picture when you sit in front of a computer which is connected to the internet, you open a browser window and you type in a website address. What happens when you click "Enter"?

What happens is that your computer communicates via a protocol called Hypertet Transfer Protocol, or otherwise HTTP (yes! It is the same http you sometimes type in followed by "://" and then the website address to your browser) with the remote computer where the website resides at. That remote computer is called a Web Server and does what the word implies. It "serves" the websites to all computers who request it, like yours.

You might wonder though how your computer finds the proper Web Server. This happens with the assistance of other computers which reside in the internet and are called Domain Name Servers, also known as DNS. These computers "help" your computer which requests a particular website address to find the computer where the website resides at.

Once your request reaches the Web Server, the Web Server responds back to your computer by "serving" you the web page of the address you requested. The same communication, besides when you type in a web page address to your browser, happens every time you click on a link on a web page.

what happens when I access a website

This concludes the section on the basics. Don't worry though, because a lot of other terms and functions will be explained and covered in the rest of the pages of all 5 steps.

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