“The internet is a series of tubes”
— Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)
While the above quote has become a meme which is taken as a humorous comment by those in the know, the analogy is relatively apt.
As I’m sure you can imagine, when you push ENTER on a web-address, the method of procuring the requested data is a bit complex.
For our intents and purposes, your computer is the client and is connecting through a myriad of devices to another computer known as the host or server. The server responds to the request and the data goes back to you, showing up as a webpage, video, or online game all in less than a second (hopefully!).
Different companies and governments own the Wide Area Network (WAN) connecting equipment. Your business or you own the client computer and Local Area Network (LAN) equipment.
The image above represents the connectivity of Internet Service Providers in the US. ISPs own the switches and wires which connect them. ISP’s peer with other ISP’s or governments to allow for the internet as we know it (opposed to only being able to access servers connected to Comcast while on Comcast). The World Wide Web is a macro version of other computer communications. Imagine you’ve requested a file from your business’ server, it’s following a similar model as to the internet, but on a much smaller scope.
Similar to the above, if you were to look at the internet as a whole in abstract, it would look like the following:
That complexity is only increasing. As technology & demand progresses, the above image will become more complex, dense and efficient. If you’ve ever experienced a website which didn’t function for you, or was slow, but others didn’t experience your issues– imagine that your ‘line’ to that server is severed or damaged. A person connecting to a website from the east coast would go through a different ‘series of tubes’ than a person on the west coast. Or, if you had no connection at all, that line is severed before it gets anywhere useful, perhaps your computer, modem or the routing device in your neighborhood has been damaged.
Terms and Definitions:
A Proxy routes your data through very specific paths. If you had a proxy host in Europe while you’re in the US, your data would flow, securely, through whatever lines to get to the proxy host, and then go onto its destination. This makes it seem like you are in Europe, or wherever the proxy-host is located. You’ve probably heard of this technology to circumvent censorship. Examples would be getting around the great firewall of China, or watching shows on Netflix in a region Netflix doesn’t approve of.
A VPN or Virtual Private Network allows you to connect securely to resources. If you’ve ever wondered why you couldn’t connect to your work resources while at home, a VPN would allow for it. A VPN is similar to a proxy, except that instead of simply passing your data to and from your computer, it puts you on their private network, giving you access to servers or other workstations as though you were on that network. An example would be: You’re connected to your home wifi and can’t see any of the business computers but CAN see your TV, Xbox & Phones. You connect to your VPN and suddenly you can’t see your home resources but can see the business resources. Furthermore, unless there’s an issue, the connection is secure.
A VLAN or Virtual Local Area Network is a technique which separates local resources virtually, while using the same physical equipment. For instance, you could have one VLAN for your phones and separate VLAN for your Workstations. At some point, unless physically separated, VLANs aren’t distinguished, but before that happens, your routing device could give preference to one over the other. In the instance of a VLAN phone system, you would want to give that priority over internet browsing so that your phones are never choppy at the expense of a slower browsing experience. This type of segregation is great if you have need for multiple networks with different functions.
An AP or Access Point is similar to your wireless router at home, but more complex and less extensive. Your home WiFi is a router and can handle your entire network. An AP can be configured many ways and for many functions, but generally only handles one aspect: WiFi. An AP transfers the burden of routing and processing to other devices. Most commonly, an AP is setup to allow a continuous WiFi network, broadcast with different network names like Guest & Private. Phrased more clearly: access points allow you to walk around the building and have a seamless wifi experience.
A Firewall, at a basic level, determines what can get in and out of your network. More advanced firewalls can inspect traffic for viruses and filter certain websites. Both software (Windows) and hardware (appliances) firewalls exist.
A Modem acts as your gateway to the next device in line, as illustrated in the photos above. For business networks, it’s a good idea to have your modem simply do the connection and not any of the routing. For illustrative purposes, when connecting to a website the flow goes: Workstation-Lan Switch- Firewall-Modem- ISP’s switches…-Server
Fail Over Internet is a configuration wherein when one internet connection fails, services seamlessly and automatically switch over to a functioning connection. This requires that the business have two different ISPs, like Comcast & AT&T. In our experience, Comcast is down at least one day per year – if your business’ email, phones and internet are all through Comcast, are you OK with your business being down for a day? If the cost of being down for a day exceeds the cost of a year worth of ISP subscriptions, you have a strong case for this type of service. Fail Over Internet can sometimes be easier justified if you have two ISPs already, one for internet and another for your security or phone system – at that point it’s as simple as connecting an extra wire to a capable & configured device.