The Internet Analogy List

To help you think about the concepts we employ…

The World Wide Web is a World Wide Town

Your computer is like an assistance dog, trained to run and fetch things for you to look at.

Your website is your collection of belongings and furniture and appliances.

Your webhost is your landlord.

Your server, where your website resides, is like the house or apartment you rent.

The mail server is an old-fashioned post office.

The DNS, or domain Name server (or nameserver) is the town gossip, who knows everything about everybody., and specifically is able to give directions to your house to strangers in town.

A domain Name is your unique name (joansmith.com, mybusiness.net)

Your IP address is the street address where your house is built.

Cookies

Cookies? Nope, no-one’s baking anything. Here’s the simplest way to describe a cookie:Imagine that you’re a first-time customer in a great big store. When you walk in, the greeter pats you invisibly on the back, and slips a business card in your front shirt pocket. The card has on it only the name of the store, and a unique number.

If you just look around, and then exit, the store doesn’t need to enter stuff on the card – but if you join the points club, enter a draw, buy with a credit card, or other stuff, the greeter may magically make a note on the card in your pocket, depending on their privacy policy and your own agreements.

This mean that your private info is kept on *your* computer, not on theirs.

The next time you come back, the greeter pats you on the back, and picks your pocket. It finds the card, (ignoring cookies form other stores and sites) and sees that you’ve been a gone for a while, and have shown interest in buying Science Fiction books. “Hi, Joan Smith.” it says “We have some new SF books since you’ve been here last.”

By far, most cookies are used for forces of good. It’s often convenient for you to have a site (where you’re a legitimate user) know who you are. Many cookies are used to stop repeat visitors from getting the same pop-up window again and again. Many membership sites, where you have to log in, can’t work without cookies, because without them, every new page will treat you like a first-time surfer.

Cookies can be set to evaporate after a certain time (days or years or minutes or when you hit the “log out” button).

There’s a potential for abuse here, certainly. But mostly they’re just useful.

HTML

Called hypertext markup language, HTML ain’t very daunting if you start easy.Think of a page from a textbook from your high school days.

Now imagine that it all had to be typed out on an old-time typewriter, and you couldn’t make some things bold and some things italicized and couldn’t separate the paragraphs in any way — everything is just one long string of unremarkable text.

Now, imagine that you could type little thingies into that page so that when someone looks at it, they see the heading and the subheadings, the discrete paragraphs, the bold, the italic, the graphs and the pictures.

That’s what HTML does. The “thingies” are called tags. Tags generally come in pairs, one to say “start doing this”, and one to say “stop doing that”. Your browser (Mozilla, Opera, Internet Explorer, etc) knows how to interpret the tags.

Reading from the left to right, there will be one tag that says “start making this text bold” and then, after a word or a sentence, there’s another tag that says “stop bolding now”.

There’s all sorts of tags, for “This is a header” “here’s a paragraph” “this text is a link to Google.com”, and “stick an image right here”… and many, many more.

To save space and keep things simple, the tags are standard and as brief as possible. Instead of saying “make this bold”, we put in a tag, and instead of saying “stop being bold”, we use a tag.

The reason it works is that the consortium of folks who develop HTML and the software folks who make browsers have mostly (kinda) agreed on what little tag means what. If they disagreed, the browsing public would not be able to see anything except what their own little browser was trained to see. (Which is why really old browsers make designers tear out our hair — they’re behind the times, and haven’t been trained to read the newest tags)

Fonts

When you build a website or contract to have one built, you decide what fonts (typefaces) you’d like to use.

(Fonts can be in word-graphics, like in a logo, or in navigation bars. Human eyes can see this as text, but it’s really a picture of text, and machines can’t read it, and search engines can’t pick it up, so that ain’t what we’re talking about here.)

The thing to remember when you choose the text font for your website is this: it doesn’t matter how cool the font is that you choose — if the person viewing your site from his or her computer doesn’t have that very same font installed, they’re not going to see it — they’ll see a substitution font.

There are a couple of technical methods for having fancy fonts embedded in a webpage, but they’re often expensive, difficult, or annoying for the client, and they can “break the page” (make it look wonky or unreadable) in many browsers.

What you can do is, in the html-coded font specification for the page, list the cool font you really want folks to see first, and then give a few secondary and tertiary options that also appeal to you. Chances are good that someone will have at least one of them.

Email

POP3 mail

POP3 stands for Post Office Protocol 3. That’s because your server acts very much like a real post office.

Here’s how it goes.

Firstly, You have to have an agreement with some server somewhere to act as your post office, and you’ll have gotten a username, password, and the names of the POP3 (your mail comes in) and SMTP (your mail goes out) servers. Either you or some geek you know will carefully type all this info into the right place in your email application, which keeps it so you only have to type in this info again if you change something major.

You sit at your computer. You wake up your email application, and say “Go get my mail, eh?”
The email application sends a request along the line to the specific server you have the agreement with. This can be your own domain (yourname.com, yourbusinessname.com, yourhobby.com, somesillything.com) or the domain name of the folks who sell you internet service. (shaw.ca, telus.net, aol.com)

Say, for instance, that your email address is elaine@elainemiller.com (yes, I know it’s actually my email address, but bear with me). Your username is elaine, your password is banana, and your pop3 server name is pop3.ElaineMiller.Com.

The dialogue would go kinda like this if you could translate it into English.

Emailer: “Knock, knock.”
server: “pop3.ElaineMiller.Com post office. Whose email do you want?”
Emailer: “Elaine’s email please. I am Elaine’s computer.”
server: “Prove you are Elaine”
Emailer: “The secret password is… banana”
server: “Okay, I’m spitting your email down the wire to you. Four messages.” (Ptoo! Ptoo! Ptoo! Ptoo!)
Emailer: “Four messages. Got ’em all. Delete your copies.”
server: “Messages sent and erased off of this computer. Pleasure to serve you!”

Okay. Now your email is in your home computer, as files, and your emailer helps you view and work with the contents of those files.

When you choose to send something, you talk to a different part of the server.

Webmail

Think of webmail like a post office that you have to visit in person, from any computer anywhere. Instead of handing your mail to you and letting you go home with it, the imaginary postal clerk holds each piece of mail for you, opened out and flat against the glass between you, and you read it there. One at a time.

You can send replies, forward email, delete, store it, simply by typing directions to the clerk behind the window. *

When you leave the post office, you’re don’t have a bag full of mail — anything you haven’t deleted is still in the post office, and the next time you visit (no matter where you visit from), you can look at it all over again.

Some companies are famous for offering free webmail services, such as Hotmail, Yahoo, and so forth. These services generally don’t offer a POP3 service unless you pay for it.

Webmail access to your POP3 account

Many hosts (like DykeTech.Com) give you webmail access to your regular POP3 box. Confused? Here’s how that goes.

On Monday you sit at your regular computer, open your email application and ask for your mail. It shoots down the line to you, and there it is in your computer.

On Tuesday you’re in Banff for a conference, and you go to an internet cafe, and use the browser to access your mailbox. Now, Monday’s mail is on your computer at home, so you can’t see it. But Tuesday’s mail is right here. You read a few, reply to the important ones, and delete three SPAM mails, and then leave the cafe to enjoy the scenery for the rest of the day.

On Wednesday, you’re back at your home computer. You open your email application, check your mailbox, and down the line comes not only Wednesday’s mail, but Tuesday’s as well — except for the deleted messages, which are gone for good.

If you don’t have a home computer, or want to keep all your mail on the server for some other reason, you’d best be sure you have a big mailbox. Just like in real life, mail takes up space.

* You can ask the imaginary webmail clerk to save a message or its attachment to whatever computer you’re on, as well

Design and Content

Design is more than the look of the page and the fonts you choose. It’s also how the material is presented an used, how the navigation gets you from place to place, plus any interactivity — like forms, or membership log-in areas.In its simplest form, bare-bones design is putting unadorned text and graphics together (content) and linking pages to other pages in the site and outside of it. (That linking is what makes it a world wide web.)

– You decide what the site will contain. A one-page info sheet for your business? A bunch of your high school poetry and some pictures of your dog? A home for your online diary (blog, weblog)? A big community site with forums and memberships? A catalog of all your wares?
– You decree what it’ll look like, according to your skill level, your taste, or the skills of whomever you hire.
Disco balls? Flashing lights? Quiet pinstripes?
– You decide how big your site will be. Do you want a mansion or a simple information kiosk? How many rooms (subdirectories with webpages)? Sparse and spare, or lush and overstuffed? Organized or chaotic?

Webpages and Surfing

A webpage, generally, is a single file, with perhaps other files attached to it (by means of the author linking stuff within the text of the document), such as graphics, sounds, or scripts.When you type in a URL (the wordy version of the address of a file) in the address bar of your browser, or click a link on another page, or click a link in your mail program, you are actually asking for your computer to fetch a file for you, off the server that houses that webpage.

Here’s the URL to the title page of this very set of documents, all stretched out

(edit, Aug 2008: The address has changed a bit these days, but I’m leaving the old example in place so I don’t have to inject needless complications about the backend software I use to keep the site up to date, and the way it handily rewrites URLS for me. See, aint your head spinning just from that?)

http://

techdonkey.com/

internet-explained/

index.php

This part dictates the protocol, or language that you’re speaking, and starts you off at the root of the internet. This part is the domain name, which your browser will find out how to translate into your numerical (IP) address. This part says that in the techdonkey.com website, we go a level down into the “internet-explained” subdirectory. This part has the actual name of the file you’d like to see.

The browser contacts the server which houses the webpage or other file you’d like to see, and it asks for it.

The server, which just lives for this moment of service, hands over the file, which squirts down the wires to your computer.
If it’s a standalone file like a JPEG or GIF image file, the server’s job is done.
If it’s a webpage with embedded graphics or sounds or such, the browser and server conspire to fetch the linked files along with the webpage, so you’ll receive a small collection of files, and see one whole webpage, with background pattern, graphics, pictures, or sound.

When you click on a link to a page, that exact process starts all over again.

What’s a Website?

A website is just any size of collection of files on a server. If we’re talking about the website covered under the domain name TechDonkey.com, all the techdonkey files will be sitting on that server. Webpage files here, graphics here, mail over here, web scripts here, and so on.

Think of the server computer as the house the website lives in, okay? If the domains are small, or the server has lots of space, many websites can live in the same server (kinda like an apartment building with lots of tenants.)

Domain names and websites ain’t always the same thing.

ElaineMiller.com is one domain name and one website.
KAP.VancouverLeather.com is one whole complete website under a subdomain of VancouverLeather.
Your internet service provider (ISP) will often give you a few MB free web space in a subdirectory. It usually looks like: http://yourisp.com/~yourusername/

Sometimes a company’s site is very big, or has very different arms of business, so it splits up into a few domains.

Server

Just as a server in a restaurant hands you dishes and salt-shakers and drinks; a computer-type server hands you files like graphics and webpages and your email. Think of it as a smart, fast computer sitting blindly on a steel rack somewhere, with a fat cable up its arse connecting it to the internet. Really honestly, a server is merely a computer with a fetish (and a special set of software instructions) for serving. It lives to receive and carry out your requests, and its owner’s instructions.Just like your computer at home, a server has a hard drive, and files on that hard drive.

When someone like you talks to the server (your computer talks to that server via the aforementioned internet cable) it sends those files to you when you ask for them. Some files can be gotten by anyone who asks (like most webpages) , and some, their server will ask you for verification of who you are (username, password) before it’ll hand anything over.

Domain Names and IP addresses

Continuing the house analogy — imagine the house (server) your domain lives in as having an absolute street address, and when you move in, you put a sign over your door with your domain name, like a quaint wooden carved sign saying “Elaine Miller”.
Instead of your house address reading 1234 anywhere st, Vancouver, Canada, your IP address might read something like 211.111.11.11.

When you make a contract with a landlord (host) to rent a house for your household or business (server space for your website), you move in your stuff, product, or furniture (website files and online applications) and the landlord sets you up with some utilities, and you hang your little sign up.
But how do they find you?

Here’s the complex part. When I type your name (domain name) into the address bar of a browser, the browser learns that Elaine Miller (elainemiller.com) is located at 211.111.11.11, and knocks on the door of the server at that address to ask for the files you sent it for.

How does it find out what your IP address is? It asks the official town gossip — a “domain name server”.

“Say”, your browser says “Where is Elaine Miller Dot Com living nowadays?”
“Oh, Elaine Miller Dot Com, I know of her, she’s over at 211.111.11.11.

The official town gossips (domain name servers) all know each other, and all talk endlessly. When you move, or start a new household (a website with your own domain name), you tell your domain name registrar which particular domain name server is the one who is allowed to know your whereabouts most intimately. This is usually the DNS your webhost runs or accesses. You know, the gossip for your particular little village.

Since the Domain Name servers all gossip to each other, it tells two friends, then they tell two friends, and so on and so on. It’s called propagation.

“Did you hear? Elaine Miller Dot Com just moved to 211.111.11.11.”

Since there’s a lot of Domain Name servers, this process takes a while before every one of ’em knows where you are. (24 – 72 hours) If, in the meanwhile, someone’s browser asks for your domain’s address, the nameserver will be confused, and will not know where to send them, and the user will get an error message.
Domain Name Registrars

Registrars are like little tyrants, to whom you must apply to rent your domain name on a yearly basis. Each domain name + extension combo (name.com, othername.org, othername.net) is unique.
Registrars keep records of who owns (rents) which name, and part of the record (Besides your name and mailing address and phone number and such) is the name of the domain name server which is assigned to keep track of your number (IP) address.