Explaining How The Internet Works To Family And Friends


A couple of weeks ago my wife and daughter were watching a movie on our Roku when stuff started to not work.  When I came into the room my wife asked me to explain how the Internet works.

Now, whenever someone ask me to explain something technical, I’m always a bit nervous.  The problem is, how do I explain this in a way that the person asking me can understand, giving them just enough to satisfy the question they are really asking, and yet give them a mostly accurate answer?  The problem with explaining stuff to someone who knows less than you about the subject is either that you end up  giving them way more information than they want or you give them too little information because you know it so well.  I’m sure most of my writing on this blog suffers from this very same issue.

So, I voiced my dilemma.  The result was that instead of me describing how it works, my wife explained how it works and I verified.  What she came up with, I think, is a pretty accurate description of how this all works.

The Internet Is Just Chipmunks and Poles

The Internet is really just a bunch of chipmunks and poles.  When you request something from the Internet, the chipmunk is set loose to go retrieve it from the computer the information is stored on.

Now here’s the issue.  The distance between your computer and the computer the information is stored on is too far for the chipmunk to travel in one jump.  So, we’ve placed a network of poles between our computer and every other computer on the Internet.  The job of the chipmunk is to find the shortest path from your computer to the computer you are trying to retrieve the information from.  Get the information, and then bring it back to you.

Chipmunks Can Read

Now, in our make believe world, the chipmunks can read, so at each pole along the way, there is information that tells the chipmunk which pole will get him to his destination in the shortest possible time.  So, he hops to a pole, finds out what the next pole is he should go to, and hops to that pole.  This continues until he arrives at his destination.

Now, because the Internet is very busy.  There are times when a pole is too busy to accept any more chipmunks.  Sometimes the pole has been shut down for repairs.  In that case, the chipmunk as to find an alternate path.  So, he reads the pole for the next possible pole and jumps to that pole instead.

This all works fine most of the time.  Lots of redundancy built in so that, most of the time, chipmunks trying to get from one point to another call all achieve the task without anyone knowing there was a problem along the way.


But, and you knew there had to be a “but” because we’ve all experienced the situation when we were not able to get the information we asked for from the Internet, there are a few times when this all breaks down.

First, generally from our computer to the first pole is a many to one relationship.  That is, the first jump my chipmunk can make is to one and only one pole.  If that pole is out of service, I won’t be able to get the information I’m looking for.

Second from the Internet to the destination computer we are trying to get the information from, there is also, generally, one pole.  So if that one is down, you won’t be able to get the information you are looking for.

Third, there is the possibility that the destination computer is down.

And finally, there may be an instance where our poor chipmunk can only go to one pole within the network to get to where he wants to go and that pole is too busy.

I’ve been telling people for years, once you understand how the Internet works, you’d be amazed that it works at all rather than being frustrated when it doesn’t work.

Hopefully, you can use this story the next time you need to explain how the Internet works.  Who knows, maybe it has even made the concepts work in your mind.


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About Dave Bush

Dave Bush is a .NET programmer and Certified ScrumMaster who is passionate about managing risk as it relates to developing software. When he is not writing or speaking about topics related to Application Lifecycle Risk Management (ALRM), he is an example to his peers as he develops web sites in the ASP.NET environment using industry best practices.