Internet Basics

Peter Mason <> wrote this article in 1997

The Internet

About the Internet

How it started

The Internet has evolved from an an experimental computer network created by the USA's Department of Defense in the 1960's into a global network spanning over 160 countries, linking over 60 million users worldwide. Since the introduction of standards for the World Wide Web were devised and developed at Europe's CERN laboratory, there has been a rapid uptake in the use of the Internet by individuals, governments and corporate organisations.

How it works and Who owns it

The Internet is not a single network but rather a "network of networks" of computers, which all conform to standards maintained by mutual consent. The Internet Society ( is a voluntary organising body for this purpose; checking protocols and setting naming standards (domain names). It does not verify what traffic or service content is being provided and in this sense, no-one owns the Internet.

The standard format means that any file may be sent to or requested from anyone who is attached to the network. The system can be used for discussion, sharing of ideas and research and exchange of large amounts of information. Email and the world wide web are simply examples of the types of file which can be sent between computers. The effectiveness of email as a communications tool, the development of the web, with it's graphical presentation, and of the tool to view and access this information, Mosaic, were instrumental in advancing the popularity of the Internet. Mosaic was the first example of a web browser and has been developed for a wide range of computing platforms.

To send and receive emails and to publish information on the Internet, however, requires a permanent connection. As this means maintaining an (expensive) open communications channel to the Internet, intermediaries, known as Internet service providers, host files, mailboxes other services on a permanently connected computer, an Internet server. Their customers may then temporarily 'dial up' or telephone the server when they want to retrieve files from other computers on the Internet, or email messages which have been sent to them

Optional: About ISPs

The London InterNet eXchange ( is a not-for-profit association representing the 28 largest ISPs in the UK. It manages the hub at which they connect their networks together to exchange over 90% of UK Internet traffic. Its members all operate their own International links to the global Internet, and a majority of them provide access services to UK customers.

Most of the other service providers resell connections to the Internet locally by reaching an agreement with these major providers,. Many of them are members of the
Internet Services Providers Association of the UK (, a recently established trade association representing the interests of the Internet industry. It has developed a Code of Practice for its 60 members, many of them service providers


Internet Tools

Electronic mail (email)

Email is probably the most useful example of the transfer of files between computers. It is;

When used in conjunction with mail attachments and mailing lists, email can enhance collaborative working, help you to keep in touch with others in the same field and participate in discussions. While it may not replace face to face interactions, it can certainly make these meetings more efficient, giving participants a chance to review agendas, previous minutes and other material beforehand.

Although email is text-based, you may wish to exchange formatted text, data, audio or video material, for example to work on a word processor document with a group of people. This is where mail attachments can help. As long as the recipient has the same or compatible software, you can attach a file, such as a drawing or a spreadsheet, to an email message. The file will then be copied onto their computer when they pick up their email message. They may then decide to edit this copy and send it back to you in the same way.

Collaborative working may also be realised through the use of mailing lists. Computers can be programmed to respond to specific e-mail messages. You send a message to an email address at an Internet computer which acts as an electronic forwarding office. This 'starbursts' your message out to anyone else who has subscribed to the list. You can keep in touch with many users at once and if any of them reply, their message will be sent to you, along with everyone else on the list. Material for this book was discussed and distributed using this method.


Joining a list
Lists can be set up manually, where someone has to update the list by adding and subtracting members, or automatically where computer software does this by reading commands in your email. To subscribe to either type of mailing list, you simply send an email to the coordinating address with the correct information in it. The exact command will depend on what type of manual or automatic list it is. The main automated mailing lists (mail servers) are Listserv, Majordomo and Listproc.
Other services
Mailing lists may offer other services, such as FAQs for beginners and digests of topics discussed for those who just want to keep informed about what's been decided. This keeps down the amount of unnecessary activity on the list.

A list may be run by a particular individual or group which vets who joins the list and removes troublesome members.
  • Open Discussion List - Anyone can sign up and anyone who is signed up can post to the list.
  • Partially Restricted List - Only those authorised by the list administrator can sign up to the list. Once signed up anyone can post messages to the list.
  • Closed (moderated) List - For distribution only. Only those authorised by the list administrator can sign up or post to the list.

On the web:


Tools for Interest groups:
Forums, Conferences, Newsgroups, Bulletin boards and Usenet

Known as a newsgroup, discussion forum or conference depending where it resides on the Internet, forums are places where you can "post" and read articles or email, with an electronic post box where you can rummage through the messages. There is likely to be a forum about anything you can think of - and some you couldn't even imagine!

They can either be open to anyone - as are newsgroups on the Internet - or limited to subscribers to a particular service like Compuserve or GreenNet, or still further limited to a smaller or interest group, people who share a common interest in a particular topic. Some are moderated; either the content or members are controlled. Newsgroups are owned by the people who set them up and have rules of use and etiquette, often appearing as FAQs or resource files, which should always be followed.

Each participant can join the electronic meeting at any time, without incurring overheads of travel, meeting costs etc. When a new participant joins the meeting, he or she can catch up with what has gone before by reviewing recent activity - most such forums keep the last few hundred messages "on view" and important sets of messages can be made available to future participants through an archive. In a conventional network, if you miss a few meetings you quickly get out of touch. In the electronic meeting point, all discussion is visible even to those who aren't able to actively participate.

Note: Usenet is the term for all such distributed discussion systems. The majority of modern Usenet traffic is over the Internet but the term Usenet includes many other systems which use different software and different standards.

Bulletin board systems (or BBSs) are a place for private email, discussion forums and libraries of files. They can run on the Internet via a service provider or may be set up independently. For example, individuals wanting to make information available to friends directly may provide a computer, modem and a telephone number which participants then use a modem to dial into, without needing an Internet account or service provider.

While email is sent to you, a bulletin board is for public 'notices' - you need to go an look at the notice board to keep up to date. The increasing use of the world wide web means that bulletin boards are slowly being superseded.

A proper balance of email, mailing lists, forums and bulletin boards can greatly improve communications.

On the web:


FTP and file archives

File archives are a way of making documents, programmes, pictures and other files available, either to anyone, or to those with the correct password. These files are created, updated and read by special software called an ftp client. The files can then be copied - or ftp'd - to and from any computer on the Internet. These files may also be accessed through a web-browser (see below)


The World Wide Web

Often confused with the Internet, the World Wide Web (or Web) provides easy access to the vast range of networked information people have put on computers all over the world. It is the multimedia publishing side of the Net and anyone can 'publish' by placing files on a computer connected to the Internet

To access the vast amount available, you simply send a request to another computer determined by it's unique address and the file is returned to your computer. The data is often free, and the cost of transfer again the price of a local call.

The structure of these documents (or web pages) has been defined through a language called HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Your browser understands the HTML instructions which come in a document, and uses them to display the document or 'page' in an attractive graphical way. After viewing, these pages can then be printed or saved locally to be referenced later. The standard format of these files means you can also use your browser to access file archives, newsgroups, directory searches, a variety of media such as video, sound, and image files and so on, although extra software may be required to interpret them and the transfer of large files, such as video, will be slow.

A key feature of web pages are hypertext links - the user can follow a "trail" of information from one computer to others simply by selecting a highlighted piece of text or an image. Each highlight corresponds to a new unique address, giving access to a new document. This may be, for example, a new page, an email address or a sound file.

Web publishing: Creating Web pages
Until recently, creating a web page meant learning the language, HTML, that these files are written in. There are now many editors to choose from which work like a word processor or DTP package, allowing direct entry of text and formatting. These documents are then sent to an Internet server, usually using ftp, allowing anyone in the world access to your this information. Although this is an efficient means of distributing information, there is an overhead. When a leaflet or newsletter is sent to print, that is the end of the process. However, web pages will require continual maintenance to ensure they stay up to date.


Searching the Web

As it is so easy to publish and as educational institutes have invested in the opportunity for information sharing, there is an incredible amount of data available on the web. Unfortunately, the nature of the web means it is impossible to index all of this data. However, there are ways of finding what you want.

You can use a 'search engine' to hunt through the enormous databases of titles or content of web pages or use menu and subject driven systems such as Yahoo. The databases contain indexes of words and phrases associated with URLs and your task is to come up with words that match this index to list web pages or discussion areas which might be of interest to you. These search engines are amazingly powerful - but unless you are careful in specifying your search criteria you can end up with thousands of 'hits'.

Another option is to enlist the help of someone who has already organised the data for you and created a gateway page. This may be a national organisation specialising in a particular field, or a hobbyist. Either will usually present a list of useful links to sites of interest.

Finally, if you require an answer to something, you can ask an expert. This requires monitoring relevant mailing lists and forums and posing the question there. Beware that you don't waste people's time by asking for something that might be found in an FAQ list or file archive.


Internet Addresses

Internet Addresses are based on domain addresses. These take the form:

Generally, the domain-name is the name of a company or an organisation, here indicated by xxx. Domain-types relate to the type of organisation:




USA military

(Non profit)

Network provider,
xxx.uni or

The country code is optional; users in the US and international organisations often omit it, while a university in the UK would be, for example,

Our own domain name is "communities" and our Internet domain address is The domain address for the UK Government's Department of Trade & Industry is

On the web:
Registering Your Own Domain Name ( by Phillipa Gamse for guidelines on registering your own domain name.

Email addresses
To send a message (or email) to an individual you then need a further identifier for that person, for example or

Web addresses
To request a web page (or HTML) document from us, you'll need to specify a URL (Unique Resource Location). For example, this page can be found at This is usually prefixed by "http://" to indicate that it's a hypertext file, but most web browsers will default this in for you. www indicates that it's on the world wide web. The last part of the address is the name of the file on the server.


Getting Started

Requirements for getting online are similar to getting a mobile phone. You'll need the equipment (in this case a computer, a modem and a telephone line) and a service provider (an Internet Service Provider or ISP). As you use the service you'll incur telephone costs, and in the case of an on-line service like America Online or Microsoft Network, you may pay for time using the services

Computer Equipment - Minimum Requirements

To run email only, a 386 IBM Compatible PC or Mac Plus is sufficient, although some mail packages will also run on a 286. To run a WWW browser, a 486 IBM (Win 3.1) or Mac 68020 (O.S. 7.x), both with 8Mb RAM, is required


At standard entry level, we recommend purchasing the fastest modem you can afford, or get your hands on. As a minimum, this is 14,400 bps (bits per second, the speed the data transfers, also called V32.bis) from£80, although the standard is now 28,000 bps (or V34) from £120, 33,600 bps are coming in and there are faster ones coming along all the time, with 57,600 bps expected in 1997.
Modems can be internal or external to your computer, but external modems are more mobile, you don't have to take computer apart and there's less likely to be a conflict. Whatever type of modem you get, make sure it has BABT (British Approvals Board for Telecommunications) approval and, if it is external, that a cable is provided. You may also need an adaptor for your existing phone line.

On the web:
At, John Navas maintains a 28800 Modem FAQ that might be of help.


All may be downloaded free for charities or not-for-profit groups - your Internet Service Provider should provide details.

An Internet Account

An Internet service provider (ISP) is your link to the Internet. You buy the equipment and then pay them a monthly or yearly subscription to attach you to the Internet. This will vary from about £7 per month up to £15 but there will be variations in what you get for that as some offer extra online services (for example Which? or Compuserve). They may also charge you a set up cost, but if you pay this and then decide to change service you'll lose money. Beware of providers which charge for time on-line as this can quickly mount up. You'll may also want to check how many email accounts you get, whether they offer ISDN - and whether that comes at a higher cost.
A service provider should provide:

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