The Information Age: A New Highway Under Construction

By Maj. James P. Edmiston

    The Internet; an Intranet; Shockwave; Java; Bandwidth; “Pipelines.” Is this the new fishing terminology in Hawaii? No, these terms are the new jargon spoken by cybernauts, information junkies on the Internet. But what is the Internet, this seemingly incomprehensible network which now links millions of computers throughout the world? How does a message in San Diego get delivered to Paris?

    In the beginning of time, man had no spoken language and communicated via grunts and gestures. Languages as we know them evolved over a long period of time. In Greece, in the time of Socrates, several centuries after Homer, thedominant oral culture was over-taken by written technology; i.e., pen and ink.

    In Europe in the late 15th century, Gutenburg forever changed history with his invention of moveable type. The telegraph further reduced the scope of the world by transmitting a “digital” signal almost instantly from one point to another. Telephone service became universal because it was deemed a necessity by society, and therefore, by the government.

    Now we have cellular telephones in our cars and satellite receivers in our homes. The influx of electronic communications and information processing technologies, abetted by the steady improvement of the microprocessor, has rapidly brought on a condition of critical mass in the global society.

    The use of remote computer resources is as common today as the use of typewriters was 20 years ago. There are commercial on-line services, such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and America On-line. Your ATM card accesses your bank account in another state, stockbrokers or other traders consummate a deal thousands of miles away from where they sit, and multinational companies routinely transfer large amounts of proprietary data between distant sites. They all involve accessing a network, allowing remote computers to exchange information almost instantaneously. The Internet is the “superhighway” through which all the data flows. Almost as soon as computers were developed, the need to transfer information between machines became apparent. Initially, this was accomplished by writing the information to an intermediate medium, such as magnetic tape, punched cards, or floppy diskettes, and then physically carrying the medium to another machine for further processing.

    In the 1960s, U.S. government officials began to realize the impact computers would have on education, military operations, and technological research and development.

    The government, through the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), established an electronic link between various research laboratories, scientists, educators, and the military. One of the main goals of the ARPAnet research project was to develop a network with certain characteristics. The creators wanted a network whose communications would not be seriously impaired if physical sections of the network were lost in a nuclear attack to the United States (remember, this was at the height of the Cold War). Also, the network needed to allow for the addition and removal of new nodes (separate access points or computer networks) with minimal impact, and to allow computers of many different types to communicate easily.

    From this military research and development effort, the Internet was created. Today, it boasts over 155 connected countries and over 40,000,000 users. Internet users can take a “virtual” tour of the White House or the Smithsonian museums. Users can gaze upon the works of past masters at the Louvre, see the latest star clusters discovered by NASA, or view the horrific aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown from their homes.

    A recent poll by CNN and Time magazine reported almost 85 percent of the general population believe the Internet is good for the U.S. economy. However, an astounding 57 percent of those people reported they could neither explain nor understand the Internet.

    A large part of this awareness-without-understanding may stem from the fact the Internet is so intangible. How many people have seen the Internet? What store do you go to buy it? How do you drive on the Information Superhighway? Does it have defined lanes?

The Inside Track of Networks, Modems and Routers

    Since it began, the ARPAnet has expanded due to both technological and political (including societal) advances. It has evolved through several iterations and finally, due to demand from users, combined with the five National Science Foundation (NSF) super computing centers. By 1990, the Internet as we know it, was created. By the end of 1991, it became clear the Internet was growing so fast the NSFnet backbone would soon reach its capacity to transmit data. Private industry entered to assume some of the “responsibility” for the Internet.

    Since April 1995, the backbones and major arteries of the Internet have been owned and operated by a group of larger network service providers, or NSPs. Home or business users connect to local Internet service providers, or ISPs, thru modems, who then connect to NSP networks such as UUnet's Alternet, IBM's Advantis, and those of companies such as AT&T, MCI, and Sprint. Some NSPs also provide local service, although the core of their business is serving ISPs. This competition results in reduced access charges for the home user. Most ISPs charge about $20 monthly for unlimited Internet access, whereas a year ago this service would have cost about $100.

    ISPs connect to NSPs by lines leased from local telephone companies. The NSPs operate the local and national networks, in most cases using lines leased or bought from one of four companies: AT&T, LLDS Worldcom, MCI, and Sprint. These companies own the copper, fiber-optic, and satellite networks across which the telephone networks and Internet backbones run. There are approximately 70,000 private networks comprising the Internet, making the Internet a true “network of networks.”

    The NSPs' networks connect to one another at a variety of locations throughout the United States called network access points (NAPs). These locations are in New York, Chicago, Denver, San Diego, and San Francisco. Thus, through either an ISP or NSP, any Internet user's computer is connected to millions of other computers. Data is sent from one computer to another through devices called routers.

    The Internet is based on a packet switching scheme. This means that every file sent over the Internet, from e-mail messages to Web pages, digital photos or sound files, are broken into smaller chunks of data called packets. Each packet is labeled, including a destination address (called an IP address), and routers have the job of making sure all the packets get to the ultimate destination. Internet routers have a simple task: to send the packets they receive towards their destination, from router to router. A chain of routers, each of which knows the address of all the other routers on the Net (thanks to constantly updated router tables), passes the packets along to their final stop. Sophisticated computers themselves, routers “know” when to route the packet within their own network area or when to forward packets on to other routers. To do this work, routers not only exchange user data, they exchange data about the topology of the Internet itself. Like any other computer exchanging information, they use special routing protocols to exchange the data.

Data Intersection: .com, .net, .gov, .edu

    How do disparate computers exchange data? By using an agreed upon “standard” or “format” called the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/ IP). These are the protocols (software) which specify how computers communicate on the Internet. This connection-oriented transport protocol allows PCs to communicate with Macintosh's, Macintosh's to various UNIX boxes such as Sun's or Dec's or Silicon Graphics machines. Prior to the implementation of TCP/IP, there was no “universal language” which allowed these proprietary systems to communicate with each other. Communicating over the Internet depends more upon the protocol than the brand of computer or operating system you are using.

    Once data has been prepared, it is transmitted via servers—computers dedicated to the role of serving data. Any computer connected to the Internet can function as a server. While most servers are UNIX machines, there are increasing numbers of Macintosh and Windows NT systems functioning as servers. Servers run specialized software for each type of Internet application—including World Wide Web, Gopher, Usenet News, and e-mail.

    In addition to these application servers, every organization on the Internet agrees to run a specialized server to incorporate the site into the Domain Name System (DNS). The DNS allows users to specify alphabetical host names or addresses rather than numerical IP addresses, so in essence the DNS functions as a translator for users who cannot and do not want to remember a series of nine to 12 site address numbers.

    The Internet's commercial domain (.com) has been the fastest growing segment over the past two years and is now the largest domain. There were roughly two million commercial addresses registered with the InterNIC (the group which registers users and IP addresses) as of July 1995, compared with 929,000 in December 1994, and 717,000 in July 1994. The educational domain (.edu) is now the second largest segment, growing from 856,000 hosts in July 1994 to 1.4 million in July 1995. Organizational domains (.org) increased from 66,500 in July 1994 to over 200,000 in July 1995. During the same time period, network domains (.net, most users obtain Internet access thru a .net service provider), increased from 31,000 to over 300,000.

    A major development in the Internet's recent evolution has been the skyrocketing growth of the World Wide Web, an Internet service that organizes data using hypermedia. Each document can contain embedded references to images, audio or other documents, which can be accessed via a browser.

    The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) began to develop applications for use on the Internet in the late 1980s. As a result of the development of the World Wide Web by CERN (the high-energy physics research institute in Geneva, Switzerland), the NCSA introduced the first practical Web browser, Mosaic, in 1993. Today, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer browsers and others allow users to access over 40,000 Web sites around the world.

Caution: Still Under Construction

    Global networks are here to stay. High-speed electronic connectivity is now fundamental to business, research, military, government and daily life for many of us. As it continues to evolve, the Internet's component parts may change dramatically, its technical base will change with emerging technologies. The look and feel of interacting on the network will be markedly different in the future. One thing will not change: the Internet function of interconnecting a growing number of networks, computers, organizations and individuals around the world.

    This is the first of three articles which deal with the Internet and the information age. The second article will describe the “dark side” of the Internet and how data is compromised, misused, and our privacy invaded. The third article will deal with Information Warfare and what our military is doing to gain “information superiority.”

Maj. James P. Edmiston is a special projects officer attached to Headquarters, INSCOM.

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   Last Updated: January 23, 1997