Category Archives: how it works

Web Information Retrieval

Web Information Retrieval Authors:  Stefano Ceri,  Alessandro Bozzon,  Marco Brambilla,  Emanuele Della Valle,  Piero Fraternali,  Silvia Quarteroni Call Number SpringerLink   Year 2013 Online Online Access Series Data-centric systems and applications Subject Information retrieval.   World Wide Web.   From University of Mary Washington Libraries   In this book you will find and understand the principals of information retrieval. […]

An introduction to search engines and web navigation

Author: Mark Levene Call Number INTERNET   Year 2010 Edition 2nd ed. Publisher Wiley, Publication Hoboken, NJ : Wiley, c2010. Online Online Access Subject Internet searching.   Web search engines.   From University of Mary Washington Libraries   This book explains how search engines function on the web. It discusses the nature of why they are used and […]

How the Internet Works

Author: Preston Gralla Call Number INTERNET   Year 2006 Edition 8th ed. Publisher Que Pub., Publication Indianapolis, Ind. : Que Pub., 2006. Online Online Access Subject Internet – Popular works.   From University of Mary Washington Libraries   This book gives an overview on what makes up the internet for it to function. It gives detail about the architecture […]

What is Cloud Computing?

I have to admit, I hadn’t given a second thought to what the cloud actually was until it was brought up during our brainstorm. Can you tell that I literally just googled “What is cloud computing?” I can say that without embarrassment because I know I am not the only one.

From what I’ve read, both in the article by Eric Griffith for PC Mag and various other academic papers floating around in the library database, the cloud is exactly what you would imagine it to be– a nebulous, intangible thing that still manages to hold bytes upon bytes upon bytes of information. We might not know what it is, but we know that our iTunes is in it, so it must be cool in our books.

Joking aside, the cloud is essentially a hard drive without the hard. It’s a location on the internet where information is stored or synced with other information elsewhere– all without the physical storage unit that we’re accustomed to having. Think DropBox, Google Drive, or Windows SkyDrive. Most cloud storage is provided by Google, Apple, Amazon, and Windows (both on a commercial and individual level) as well as by companies that are specifically dedicated to providing online data storage.

Over the last few years, there has been a dramatic shift towards greater use of the cloud for storage. For big businesses, it means that files can not only be shared over long distances with many different people, but that each of those people now have permanent access to those files and any changes made to them by all the people with access. Instantaneously. On a smaller scale, it means that you have access to your Chemistry lab report on your phone or your laptop or your iPad and can pull it up for your professor when you forget the hard copy after only getting 45 minutes of sleep.

The benefits of this are pretty clear: instant access to your information from various locations, the ability to share it seamlessly with others and receive feedback, and peace of mind that the nudes saved on your phone won’t be gone when you drop it in the toilet.

On the other hand, according to Griffith, there are some cons that potentially outweigh the pros, the main one being that there is no cloud where there is no internet. That means that your access to your information is entirely dependent on your internet service provider, and you are therefore a slave to their rates, fees, and inconsistent bandwidth speeds. Ultimately, if the servers that provide cloud storage crash, you’re out of luck. Like my dad always says, “Did you back up your stuff on the external hard drive yet?”

“No, Dad.”

“Well did you put it on a thumb drive?”


Mapping the Internet


Image credit to Nicolas Rapp for Fortune Magazine

This article by Andrew Blum provides a terse but relatively complete description of how “the internet” makes it from your friendly neighborhood ISP to that little box on your desk– or pad, if you’re into the whole tablet thing. He tells us about the infrastructure of the global fiber-optic cable network that oh-so-speedily transmits all of your favorite cat videos (if you’re still confused on how that works, I recommend this video from the discovery channel). He talks about the “middle-mile” and “last-mile” problems that plagued internet providers in the 90′s and 00′s– which is essentially when ISP’s asked themselves “How are we going to quickly and cost-effectively convert digital information to analog information to digital information while also moving it from Point A to Point B?”

One thing that I frequently find myself forgetting is that “free Wi-Fi” isn’t actually free. Blum explains that the cost for this magical, invisible thing we call “the internet” varies with direct proportion to the distance of Point B from Point A, i.e. the farther you are from an internet exchange point, the more you have to pay to instagram your blueberry overnight oats complete with recipe.

You’re probably thinking “Well yeah, that’s pretty obvious and totally logically sound, so why is it important and/or relevant?”

Good question, Friend! The implications of this distance to cost proportion mean that companies who can afford to purchase spaces that are physically closer to internet hubs immediately have an advantage over their competitors, who have to wait longer to receive their information. Not to mention that fast internet equals less waiting for your page to load equals more time to actually get things done, and we all know that time equals money. Q.E.D., fast internet equals money. In the grand scheme of things, this means that the speed of the internet literally has some power to dictate which companies will be successful. Spooky thought, right?

That’s not all, either! As Blum states in his article, “‘Internet exchange points’ [...] for the most part, follow geography and population,” meaning that where there are people there is internet, and vice versa. This means that “boom towns” tend to crop up around new internet hubs, giving the nigh-omnipotent internet the power to physically shape our world around itself. Forget ghosts and goblins, I’m being the internet for Halloween. 




Open source software came up in the discussion of intellectual property and fair use in The Internet Course. I wasn’t really expecting it to come up at that point, but I was planning on bringing it into the discussion of privacy and openness next week. It also ties back the the how it works segment.

Through Apache, open source software serves up most of the Web, and through Firefox, a large number of people view it. Linux is big in the corporate server market, and Android dominates in the smartphone market.

Openness means anyone can use the software, but more importantly it means anyone can fix and upgrade the software. As Eric Raymond put it in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” But OSS doesn’t just power the internet, it happens because of the internet. We talked about creation and consumption a couple weeks ago. The collaboration enabled by worldwide instant communication is what lets open source happen, and flourish.

Cathedral-and-the-Bazaar-book-coverI read Raymond’s book a long time ago, so my memory is probably fuzzy. One story that stuck with me was that of a couple of programmers hired by a large corporation, possibly AT&T, to build a system that would let any of their employees print to any printer in any office in the company. Once they had the project done, they told the company that they needed to release it as open source. The company balked, naturally. Since they had paid tens of thousands of dollars to have this thing built, they couldn’t see a benefit to just giving it away. But the programmers told them that if they don’t open it up, every time they get a new printer and every time a printer driver gets upgraded, they would have to pay someone to write new code. If they give it away, other people will write the code for free, because it’s worth it to them or their employers.

People build open source tools to accomplish necessary tasks, but if selling software isn’t their real business, it can be advantageous to share the code. Someone else might make it better. And everyone benefits.