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Network Basics

We are truly in an information society. Now more than ever, moving vast amounts of information quickly across great distances is one of our most pressing needs. From small one-person entrepreneurial efforts, to the largest of corporations, more and more professional people are discovering that the only way to be successful in the '90s and beyond is to realize that technology is advancing at a break-neck pace---and they must somehow keep up. Likewise, researchers from all corners of the earth are finding that their work thrives in a networked environment. Immediate access to the work of colleagues and a ``virtual'' library of millions of volumes and thousands of papers affords them the ability to encorporate a body of knowledge heretofore unthinkable. Work groups can now conduct interactive conferences with each other, paying no heed to physical location---the possibilities are endless.

You have at your fingertips the ability to talk in ``real-time'' with someone in Japan, send a 2,000-word short story to a group of people who will critique it for the sheer pleasure of doing so, see if a Macintosh sitting in a lab in Canada is turned on, and find out if someone happens to be sitting in front of their computer (logged on) in Australia, all inside of thirty minutes. No airline (or tardis, for that matter) could ever match that travel itinerary.

The largest problem people face when first using a network is grasping all that's available. Even seasoned users find themselves surprised when they discover a new service or feature that they'd never known even existed. Once acquainted with the terminology and sufficiently comfortable with making occasional mistakes, the learning process will drastically speed up.


Getting where you want to go can often be one of the more difficult aspects of using networks. The variety of ways that places are named will probably leave a blank stare on your face at first. Don't fret; there is a method to this apparent madness.

If someone were to ask for a home address, they would probably expect a street, apartment, city, state, and zip code. That's all the information the post office needs to deliver mail in a reasonably speedy fashion. Likewise, computer addresses have a structure to them. The general form is:

a person's email address on a computer: user@somewhere.domain
a computer's name: somewhere.domain

The user portion is usually the person's account name on the system, though it doesn't have to be. somewhere.domain tells you the name of a system or location, and what kind of organization it is. The trailing domain is often one of the following:

Usually a company or other commercial institution or organization, like Convex Computers (convex.com).

An educational institution, e.g. New York University, named nyu.edu.

A government site; for example, NASA is nasa.gov.

A military site, like the Air Force (af.mil).

Gateways and other administrative hosts for a network (it does not mean all of the hosts in a near.net.

This is a domain reserved for private organizations, who don't comfortably fit in the other classes of domains. One example is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (see section The Electronic Frontier Foundation), named eff.org.

Each country also has its own top-level domain. For example, the us domain includes each of the fifty states. Other countries represented with domains include:

The United Kingdom. These also have sub-domains of things like ac.uk for academic sites and co.uk for commercial ones.

The proper terminology for a site's domain name (somewhere.domain above) is its Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN). It is usually selected to give a clear indication of the site's organization or sponsoring agent. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's FQDN is mit.edu; similarly, Apple Computer's domain name is apple.com. While such obvious names are usually the norm, there are the occasional exceptions that are ambiguous enough to mislead---like vt.edu, which on first impulse one might surmise is an educational institution of some sort in Vermont; not so. It's actually the domain name for Virginia Tech. In most cases it's relatively easy to glean the meaning of a domain name---such confusion is far from the norm.

Internet Numbers

actually a 32-bit number, but is most commonly represented as four numbers joined by periods (.), like This is sometimes also called a dotted quad; there are literally thousands of different possible dotted quads. The ARPAnet (the mother to today's Internet) originally only had the capacity to have up to 256 systems on it because of the way each system was addressed. In the early eighties, it became clear that things would fast outgrow such a small limit; the 32-bit addressing method was born, freeing thousands of host numbers.

Each piece of an Internet address (like 192) is called an ``octet,'' representing one of four sets of eight bits. The first two or three pieces (e.g. 192.55.239) represent the network that a system is on, called its subnet. For example, all of the computers for Wesleyan University are in the subnet 129.133. They can have numbers like,, up to 65 thousand possible combinations (possible computers).

IP addresses and domain names aren't assigned arbitrarily---that would lead to unbelievable confusion. An application must be filed with the Network Information Center (NIC), either electronically (to hostmaster@nic.ddn.mil) or via regular mail.

Resolving Names and Numbers

Ok, computers can be referred to by either their FQDN or their Internet address. How can one user be expected to remember them all?

They aren't. The Internet is designed so that one can use either method. Since humans find it much more natural to deal with words than numbers in most cases, the FQDN for each host is mapped to its Internet number. Each domain is served by a computer within that domain, which provides all of the necessary information to go from a domain name to an IP address, and vice-versa. For example, when someone refers to foosun.bar.com, the resolver knows that it should ask the system foovax.bar.com about systems in bar.com. It asks what Internet address foosun.bar.com has; if the name foosun.bar.com really exists, foovax will send back its number. All of this ``magic'' happens behind the scenes.

Rarely will a user have to remember the Internet number of a site (although often you'll catch yourself remembering an apparently obscure number, simply because you've accessed the system frequently). However, you will remember a substantial number of FQDNs. It will eventually reach a point when you are able to make a reasonably accurate guess at what domain name a certain college, university, or company might have, given just their name.

The Networks

The Internet is a large ``network of networks.'' There is no one network known as The Internet; rather, regional nets like SuraNet, PrepNet, NearNet, et al., are all inter-connected (nay, ``inter-networked'') together into one great living thing, communicating at amazing speeds with the TCP/IP protocol. All activity takes place in ``real-time.''

The UUCP network is a loose association of systems all communicating with the UUCP protocol. (UUCP stands for `Unix-to-Unix Copy Program'.) It's based on two systems connecting to each other at specified intervals, called polling, and executing any work scheduled for either of them. Historically most UUCP was done with Unix equipment, although the software's since been implemented on other platforms (e.g. VMS). For example, the system oregano polls the system basil once every two hours. If there's any mail waiting for oregano, basil will send it at that time; likewise, oregano will at that time send any jobs waiting for basil.

BITNET (the ``Because It's Time Network'') is comprised of systems connected by point-to-point links, all running the NJE protocol. It's continued to grow, but has found itself suffering at the hands of the falling costs of Internet connections. Also, a number of mail gateways are in place to reach users on other networks.

The Physical Connection

The actual connections between the various networks take a variety of forms. The most prevalent for Internet links are 56k leased lines (dedicated telephone lines carrying 56kilobit-per-second connections) and T1 links (special phone lines with 1Mbps connections). Also installed are T3 links, acting as backbones between major locations to carry a massive 45Mbps load of traffic.

These links are paid for by each institution to a local carrier (for example, Bell Atlantic owns PrepNet, the main provider in Pennsylvania). Also available are SLIP connections, which carry Internet traffic (packets) over high-speed modems.

UUCP links are made with modems (for the most part), that run from 1200 baud all the way up to as high as 38.4Kbps. As was mentioned in section The Networks, the connections are of the store-and-forward variety. Also in use are Internet-based UUCP links (as if things weren't already confusing enough!). The systems do their UUCP traffic over TCP/IP connections, which give the UUCP-based network some blindingly fast ``hops,'' resulting in better connectivity for the network as a whole. UUCP connections first became popular in the 1970's, and have remained in wide-spread use ever since. Only with UUCP can Joe Smith correspond with someone across the country or around the world, for the price of a local telephone call.

BITNET links mostly take the form of 9600bps modems connected from site to site. Often places have three or more links going; the majority, however, look to ``upstream'' sites for their sole link to the network.

@vskip 0pt plus 1filll @flushright ``The Glory and the Nothing of a Name'' Byron, Churchill's Grave @end flushright