Sunday, May 28, 2000

Wires, software weave Net's mesh

It's much like Postal Service

By Charles E. Ramirez
Detroit News

        CLINTON TWP., Mich. — Jennifer Knoll, a 20-year-old CVS Pharmacy supervisor, spends a few hours each week surfing the Internet.

        She's not alone.

        Almost 140 million people in North America will venture on the Internet at least once by the end of the year, according to Nielsen Media Research in New York.

        And the world economy is expected to reap about $10 trillion through business-to-business and business-to-consumer electronic commerce by 2004, according to the Gartner Group, a technology research and adviser group based in Stamford, Conn.

        “It's the dawn of a new age,” said Brian Kelly, president of Ford Motor Co.'s ConsumerConnect e-commerce unit.

        Yet while America is becoming more and more wired, few users know how the Internet works or who provides the “wires.”

        “I never really thought about it,” Ms. Knoll said. “I just log on and somehow end up in chat rooms talking with friends.”

        So for those like her, here's a quick Internet primer:

        Launching into cyberspace is fairly simple. A personal computer user starts the process by employing connection software — such as Netscape or Internet Explorer — and a modem to connect the terminal via a phone line or cable to a server at an Internet Service Provider. A server is a computer that stores electronic files. ISPs forward the information they get from businesses and consumers to the Internet at an access point nearest to them.

        The Internet is based on a few major fiber-optic lines that crisscross the country. Together, the lines are known as the Internet backbone, and they intersect in only a few cities — San Francisco; San Jose, Calif.; Chicago; New York; and Washington. The federally funded National Science Foundation and telecommunications and Internet companies like Sprint, MCI Worldcom, SBC, AT&T Corp. and America Online all own a strand of the Internet backbone. They donate their resources and computers to support the In ternet but pass some costs along to ISPs, who then charge their customers for access to the Internet.

        The Internet itself is a network of interconnected computers — including yours at home — that are located around the world. In fact, the word Internet is derived from the words international and network. The U.S. Defense Department conceived the Internet more than 30 years ago as a decentralized computer system that could exchange information and withstand a nuclear assault.

        “The beauty of the Internet is that it's impossible to stop because there's so many interconnecting highways on it,” said John Silvani, president of computer software and e-commerce services firm FES. “And no one agency or individual owns it.”

        Information is exchanged on the Internet through a pair of computer codes: the transmission control protocol (TCP) and the Internet protocol (IP). The first reduces data into small pieces called packets, shoots each of them through the network and then reassembles them into their original form once they reach their intended destination. The second ensures they're sent to the right place.

        The concept works like the Postal Service. A letter sent from a house is picked up and taken to the local post office. From there it's sent to a regional post office, which then routes it to a post office near its intended destination and then it is finally delivered to the recipient's mailbox.

        The Internet works the same way, with a series of routers that send data through the complicated network and ultimately to the designated audience. The IP serves as the local post office on the Internet. Routers on the backbone act like regional post offices and direct data in the appropriate direction.

        For example, e-mail sent from Detroit to Fargo, N.D., is broken down into packets, and each packet is put out onto the Internet. The IP makes sure it gets sent to the right computer address in Fargo. The TCP reconstructs the original e-mail as the packets arrive.

        “That's why it sometimes takes a while for an e-mail or Web site to build on a computer screen,” said Clint Crook, vice president of sales and business development for Biznet Internet Solutions Inc. “The packets don't arrive in sequential order because they all travel different distances.”


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- Wires, software weave Net's mesh