How does the Web work?

From tubes and satellites to web browsers, a look at how users explore the Internet. — Dreamstime/TNS

“The Internet is a series of tubes,” said the late American senator Ted Stevens back in 2006.

Though mocked and made into a meme, he was partially correct in describing the Internet.

The physical component of the Internet does involve fibre-optic cables and submarine cables, which carry telecommunication signals. These have the appearance of tubes, connecting computers and servers between different countries or even continents.

This is also why earthquakes can affect the Internet, as they can cause damage to these undersea cables.

In addition to these “tubes”, difficult to reach locations, including some rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak, are also connected via satellite.

But while the Internet is made up of servers and the data moving between them, the average person needs a method to make sense of it. Enter the Web.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) defines the Web as “an information space in which the items of interest, referred to as resources, are identified by global identifiers called Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI)”.

In simpler terms, people use web browsers like Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome to find, retrieve and present data stored on the Internet.

Browsers help users make sense of the building blocks of the Internet, called Hypertext, by turning it into webpages and also help users find new pages using hyperlinks.

Hypertext is a database format which enables data to be accessed directly from a display, and uses hyperlinks to connect different documents.

Hyperlinks are the links you’d see in a webpage that take users to a new page.

Web pages are written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) which are used to compose how the various elements of hypertext – such as text, tables and images – will be displayed on a user’s device.

Though the Web and Internet are sometimes conflated as the same thing, the Web is essentially a tool that leverages off the Internet’s resources and protocols.

This is summed up by the name of Microsoft’s old browser Internet Explorer, literally named for being a tool to explore the Internet.

Mozilla Developer Network's (MDN) Web Docs further explains the step by step, behind the scenes process that leads to the webpages that users see being displayed on their devices.

It makes an analogy that typing a web address into your browser is like the user walking to the shops.

The browser then goes to Domain Name Servers (DNS), which is like an address book for websites, and finds the real address of the server that the website lives on.

The browser then sends a message over the Internet to the server, requesting a copy of the website. This would be like the user going into a shop and placing an order for an item.

Once the server okays the request, it starts to send files to the browser in a series of small chunks (called data packets) which form a copy of the website, much like how a shop would package the product for you to take home.

Once the browser receives the data packets, it assembles them into a webpage users can read. The resulting webpage is the finished product, sent from the shop.

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World Wide Web , Tim Berners-Lee


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