How does the internet work?

In the beginning, there was ARPANET, which, on my mind, is basically The Shield from the Marvel Universe. But I digress.

In the beginning, there was ARPANET, established in the 1960ies, as the first packet switching network, to allow people to access computers remotely. Instead of circuit switching, which is a one-to-one connection, data is divided into small bits at lift-off and becomes one again at landing.

Ok, it is not that simple, but it is fairly simple.

What is very simple and still valid is the fact that serverless, cloud, immersive, virtual, dematerialized, containerized… whatever buzzword you can think of, they all still need a machine to work.

This machine – a server, which is nothing more than a powerful and odd-looking computer – it’s attached to actual physical cables.

What do you know, cables break all the time. And so do machines. This is a short video that shows the actual cables

The internet is the physical infrastructure used by the world wide net, which is an information system.

I am always surprised to see how people whose businesses are online don’t have the faintest idea of how things work.

And I am not talking about becoming a certified sysadmin, I am talking about realizing that “the internet” looks a lot more like the scene from the It Crowd than any sci-fi movie.

So, the next time you read:

  • 100% secure
  • 100% uptime
  • 0 risk
  • or any other absolute

just know that it’s impossible.

Ok, just know that it might be possible if you have an unlimited budget, or if you are the only person knowing the complex password of a service, which is not written anywhere, not even in a password manager. And even in this case, you never know, you might get that information extracted from you with truth serum (is this even a thing? Not sure but since 100% security exists only in fantasy-land, I might as well go for a bit of sci-fi myself).

Years ago, I attended a talk by Thomas Vitale, at the time a young student of the MSc program in Computer Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin, and he said one thing that really stuck with me

As long as people are involved (and machines are programmed by people, yes even AI!) there is no such thing as 100% secure.

Next time you get mad because a service you use is down or it gets hacked, or data is leaked, just know that probably someone inadvertently pulled a plug or left their laptop open on a Starbucks table 😉

And there are some very good chances that they are not even working for the service you are mad at. They could be further down the line: for example, someone working at the server farm, or an engineer of one of the pieces of software used for the servers ¯_(ツ)_/¯

I highly recommend you watch Thomas’s talk. I also recommend kids’ videos, without any intention to insult your intelligence. The software industry, since its dawn, has represented itself as a lot more complicated than it is.

Enjoy 😉

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