Complex technology

What is the Difference Between the Internet and the World Wide Web?

Many times people conflate the Internet and the World Wide Web. They are not the same and it is worth knowing the difference to understand better the technologies which modern living relies upon.

These topics can get pretty deep but I’ll keep it high level and simple. Let’s have a look…

What is the Internet?

Whole Internet

In the 1960s, the US DOD became interested in using computer networks. Via DARPA, the military funded research on various types of networking technologies. Later in the 1970s this became ARPANET – the first packet switching network implementing the TCP / IP protocols. Eventually this project was split into ARPANET and MILNET. MILNET is for the military and ARPANET evolved into the modern day Internet.

  • IP = Internet Protocol – the central protocol of the Internet. A networking communication protocol for transmitting datagrams across networks. The routing function yields internetworking which basically is the Internet.
  • UDP = User Datagram Protocol – connectionless communication over an IP network
  • TCP = Transmission Control Protocol – sits atop IP and provides reliable and ordered transmission with error checking. This is an example of connect-based communication.

A computer must be IP software installed before it can access the Internet

What was Life Like Before the Internet?

Analog vs digital signals

The world was once analog. From Morse Code and the telegraph to the telephone, communication has utilized electricity and signals on wire to get the message across. Older communication mediums had some drawbacks:

  • Limited access – often reaching everyone or even many wasn’t feasible
  • High cost – running all those lines is expensive – telephone wasn’t a viable business until the cost of service became low enough for the average family to have a phone installed. This has been resolved with the massive economies of scale like the Network Effect that helped Facebook take off
  • Difficult transitioning – if no one has a telephone then the service is useless. If everyone has a telephone then the service is a necessity

The Internet gave us ubiquitous access at great scale. Like the telephone system, the Internet gave us communication like never before.

Local Area Networks

Groups of computers could be networked together in a “local area network” to communicate among themselves by some defined, shared, and understood protocol. Often they were connected using hubs and switches. When the Internet began, LAN technologies were just emerging. XEROX labs had created a prototype of LAN technology which became Ethernet.

How Does the Internet Work?

Essentially, the Internet is a network of networks all operating with Internet Protocol (IP). This massive collection of machines grouped in various networks across the globe all function and act like a single network. Special purpose machines called routers route the messages across WAN and LAN networks.

Internet Service Providers (ISP) such as AT&T, Charter, Spectrum, etc. connect you to their backbone of the Internet and route traffic to the relevant networks. This can be broken up into Tier 1 ISPs which form the core of the Internet to regional and local ISPs.

Binary allows us to form character encoding which allows for the transmission of messages that are translated to be human readable.

ASCII table chart

What Services Are Available on the Intenet?

Many services are available – you may already be familiar with some:

  • Electronic Mail aka Email
  • Bulletin Board Services aka BBS / Newsgroups
  • World Wide Web aka www
  • Wikis
  • Blogs
  • Search Engines
  • FTP
  • SSH
  • Telnet
  • VPN
  • VOIP

What is the World Wide Web?

World Wide Web image with HTTP

Often attributed to Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989, HTTP laid the foundation for the www to exist. In 1991 the WWW emerged and was quickly popularized. HTTP is a request-response protocol implemented via a web browser program.

Integrated links called hyperlinks were very important in the structure of the www. Text, images, audio, videos, etc. are all media which can be linked and consumed by the www.

Many different kinds of web sites can exist:

  • Corporate sites
  • Personal Blogs (like this one!)
  • Those old Geocities sites you have from the 1990s
  • Government sites
  • Weather sites
  • Driving directions
  • Online retail sites

How do We Use the WWW?

Accessing the World Wide Web requires a computer, an Internet connection, and a browser.

Netscape Navigator web browser

Using the web is straightforward – we use a tool called a web browser. This is a program that displays HTML over the HTTP protocol and allows for interaction with web pages. Common browsers include Microsoft Edge (the successor to Internet Explorer), Google Chrome, Brave (a Chromium build), Firefox, and even command line browsers such as Lynx for Linux systems.

How are the Internet and World Wide Web Different?

To summarize, the Internet and World Wide Web are not the same thing. The Internet is a network of networks all running the same IP communications protocol so they understand each other. The World Wide Web is a service that uses the Internet and the HTTP protocol.

InternetWorld Wide Web
Created DateLate 1960sEarly 1990s
DescriptionNetwork of networks running TCP/IP protocolsService atop Internet using HTTP protocol and hypertext
ProtocolsTCP / IP / UDPHTTP
Created ByCollaboration of US military, academia, and private businessTim Berners-Lee and CERN

I hope this history lesson has made clear the differences and relationship between these two technologies with such impact and usage in our daily lives.

There are so many other relevant terms and concepts (NAT, DNS, etc.) which are outside the scope of this article.

If you want to see how I wired my house with Cat6 Ethernet, this is worth a read. Lots of pictures and details:

Thanks for reading!

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