Internet Starter Guide

Welcome to the Internet "quick start" guide. This guide introduces the main concepts and facilities of the Internet with the aim of getting you started quickly. It assumes no prior knowledge of the Internet.

The Internet is a world-wide computer network dedicated to the transmission of information between consumers and services. How it started and why is not relevant to this guide but is has been around for more than 20 years!

Computer networks carry information from one point to another. The set of rules defining how information must be formatted for sending and receiving (transmission) is called a protocol. The protocol defines how messages are structured and addressed - a bit like the format of a letter and the address on an envelope. The standard protocol used on the Internet is called, not unsurprisingly, Internet Protocol(IP).



Internet Protocol and addressing standards are the key to success of the Internet. Every service and user on the Internet has a unique address. These addresses are long numbers and not very easy to use so the Internet implements a naming scheme and automatically translates names to numeric addresses. For instance if you enter http://www.smallbusinessadvice.org.uk into your browser address line and hit send or go then the Internet translates this to a numeric address and can then locate and connect you to the site.

Not only does the internet translate names to numeric addresses but because addresses are structured, the Internet can work out the route from your PC to the traget service. Because the Internet is global there are potentially many different routes between a PC and a server. This is one of the greatest unsung features of the internet - if there is a failure somewhere the Internet automatically routes traffic/connections around the problem.

What is the World Wide Web?

For the first 20 years of its existence the Internet was an Academic network linking Universities and similar establishments around the world. Two developments changed all that.

HyperText Markup Language (HTML)

In 1989 Hypertext Markup Language(HTML) was invented. HTML is the standard for formatting text and images to create Web pages. HTML defines a number of tags that can be used to modify the appearance of text and to load, size and position images.

One of the most important features of HTML was an addressing scheme for linking to resources - still commonly called the Universal Resource Locator or URL. An example of a URL is

http://www.smallbusinessadvice.org.uk


URL's can be written into Web pages, creating clickable links to other pages and/or images, located on other Web Servers located anywhere on the Internet.

HTML and URLs provided the means to develop web sites as we know them today. A single page on a web site can be made up of text and images loaded from many servers across the internet. For instance a page may carry a weather forecast and a news ticker as well as the main site details.

It is this ease of cross linking information that led to the term "Web"- hence the term World Wide Web(www). The real power of the Web is the way a user can connect to a Web page and by using the mouse, click on links and travel from server to server, unaware of the geographic location of any of the servers!

Web Browsers

HTML provided a way of building and displaying web pages but development of the WWW was slow until in 1994 Netscape released the first commercial Web Browser.

Netscape Navigator provided a standard user interface to the web, enabling point an click navigation (surfing the web) and it introduced concepts that are now taken for granted - the back button, refresh, favorites, history etc.

Coming as it did at the same time as the massive increase in PC numbers, this Browser unleashed the potential of the Internet and the World Wide Web. In the space of 12 months millions of users around the world had acquired the Netscape Browser!

The Web Browser market generated huge demand for Internet access and a market for new services. The Browser, being based on HTML standards for presentation was independent of the underlying computer operating system and Browser versions were released for Windows, UNIX, Macs etc.
This common user interface across different platforms was eventiually recognised by Microsoft as a threat and they had to invest heavily in Internet Explorer development, and use the expensive tactic of supplying Internet Explorer as free software to recover market share from Netscape.

Today's Browsers are complex, functionally rich products compared with the first versions but they still retain the key attributes of the original Browser. If a Web Page uses standard HTML then any modern Browser on any computer, should be able to display it correctly. This flexibility is essential where the identity of visitors to a Web Site is unknown and service providers cannot dictate user software choices.

Another important impact of Browser development has been the enabling of new approaches to business. For instance it is possible to build business applications using Web technology to replace conventional solutions and gain the benefits of web working - mobility of users, flexible user access, efficient networking, and easily maintained solutions. As a result, Web technologies are infiltrating all aspects of business.

It is worth just clarifying the positioning of the Internet and the WWW. The Internet is a computer network dedicated to transmitting information from one place to another. The WWW consists of thousands of Web servers connected to the Internet and using it for communications with users and other servers.
In effect, the WWW runs "on top" of the Internet. Web Servers are developed to accept requests for resources from the Internet - which means the server has no understanding of the location of the visitor - in the same building or across the world!

Domain names

As already explained the Internet uses a numeric numbering scheme to address computers and services. These numeric addresses are similar to telephone numbers with dots! e.g. 194.200.345.78. If you are going to build a web service then you will need a unique Domain Name.

Domain names must be registered with one of the Internet domain authorities. The Domain name registration process ensures that there are no duplicates, allocates a physical address to the Domain and adds the name into the worldwide Domain Name Service.

A domain address is structured along the lines of a postal address but each "line" of the address is separated by dots for instance "31.High-Street.Town.City.UK. The domain-naming scheme has been designed to operate on a global basis with several top level domain names - usually country codes.

Each top-level domain - for instance "uk" has a name registration authority responsible for all domain names below the overall index. Below each top level domain are several grouping domains defining types of addresses for instance .co defines commercial sites, .org defines non-profit making and .ac defines academicl sites.

Within each of these type domains users can apply for and register domain names. When a name is registered the naming authority checks to make sure there are no duplicates and then inserts the address and name into the Domain Name Service(DNS). The Domain Name Service consists of thousands or servers around the world, sharing address information. When your domain name is input to the DNS it is promulgated across the Internet in a few hours - quickly enabling Global access to your Web site from anywhere in the world.

Internet Email

Electronic mail is one of the oldest and most successful Internet applications but its uptake was limited by the technical nature of the Internet.

The big breakthrough in mass Email usage came with the Web Browsers as these incorporated Email client programs as standard so people could dial the Internet, login to their mailbox and send/receive Email.

Internet Mail is dependent (like the Internet itself) on a standard addressing scheme. The Internet Mail address standard is now quite familiar - "name@domain.co.uk"
The basic principle is that each user owns a mailbox where their Email is stored and each mailbox belongs to a domain address.

To use email you need to own a mailbox. There are several free email services available - the biggest being Hotmail but most ISP's will provide email services as part of their web site hosting packages.

To send an email just enter the address of the recipient, add the subject and message and Send. Your Email client program uses the Internet to send your message to the target address (domain).
> When it arrives, the receiving Email service locates the recipient mailbox by name e.g. "john_smith" and stores the message in the mailbox - usually in a folder called "Inbox" or similar. When the recipient next connects to the Internet and checks their mail they are advised that a new message is available and it is downloaded from the Internet Email Server to their local machine.

Because Internet Email is moved from server to server and stored in the recipients mailbox awaiting their collection it is both reliable and flexible. Email can be sent from different time zones to your mailbox but you can process during local office hours - ideal for collecting information, feedback or even orders from a Web Site!

The important features of Internet mail are;

Internet mail is now the world standard for Email, replacing many older, incompatible standards, enabling people around the globe to communicate easily at low cost.

Another powerful use of Email is as a Service-to-User information link. The smallbusinessadvice service uses Email in this way, all emails sent to visitors and Advisers being generated automatically by the service.

To get your own Email account search Google for "free email".

Internet Service Providers

So far this guide has avoided one subject - cost!

Who owns the Internet - and who pays for it? The Internet actually consists of hundreds of networks linked together. These networks are operated by different organisations. The Internet is a layered organisation - at the center are the global telecoms organisations operating the highest capacity "backbone" links with hundreds of smaller operators connected to each other and to the Backbone. This mass of network connections, combined with Internet Addressing and routing enables any user to access any service.

The smaller operators tend to interface directly to users - these are the Internet Service Providers(ISPs). The ISPs offer connection facilities, enabling users to access the Internet. Until recently most ISPs supplied dial-up connections - requiring the user to dial a telephone number and login before they could access the internet. Over the past 18 months there has been a dramatic growth in ADSL connections. These are high speed digital circuits that are "always on" and do not involve dialing the ISP (logon details are built-in to the circuit).

ISP's buy Internet access and bandwidth from the larger Network Operators and make this available to their customers. Obviously ISPs need to raise revenue to pay for their Internet access and this is done in several ways - charges for user access, sharing telephone circuit revenue, advertising fees, hosting service charges etc. The ISP revenues at the edge of the Internet flow upwards to the global network operators.

Internet Search Engines

The growth of the World Wide Web generated a massive increase in information available to Web users - located on Web Servers around the globe and this led to the development of the Internet Search Engine.

A search engine is a very large scale computer system connected to the Internet. It operates by linking to web sites and reading through the available web pages identifying key words, titles etc. These words are retrieved and stored in large, fast search indexes.

Search engines have become one of the points of entry for millions of Internet users. If you are looking for a product or service or specific information then a Search Engine search will provide a list of potential sites.

Because of this search engines can play a major role in the success of your Web Site/ebusiness service. In order to maximise the business effectiveness of your Web site you need make sure your site is registered with the main search engines and that your site maximises its potential for searches. For best results your site should include specific words and phrases that potential customers might use in searches.

There are several tricks that can be used to improve the position of your site in Search Engine hit lists. The best source of information about the registration process, indexing techniques and how to improve your hits is a search engine! Try "Search Engine registration" in Google to see a long list of sites offering help, and services - some registration services provide free options.

Where do I start?

So now you understand the basic components and functions of the Internet and you want to get started!

Connections

Most new PC's are now delivered with integrated modems enabling access through your telephone socket. A much better option if you are in a suitable area will be to use an ADSL service. An ADSL circuit supports high speed Internet working at the same time as supporting a voice telephone - so you can make/receive calls while using the internet. An ADSL line operates at 10 times the speed of a dial-up modem, it is "always on" and is usually charged at a flat rate per month.

BT, NTL and other Telecoms providers supply ADSL circuits, as do most ISPs. Again have a look at the options available using a search engine.

Web Browser

Most new PCs come equipped with a Browser pre-installed. If you want to load a newer browser or a different browser then the easiest way is to go to the supplier's web site and download a copy.

Browsers are large programs and can take some time to download. One of the latest Browsers - Firefox is also one of the smallest at 4MB so is quicker to download. Computer magazines also carry Browser versions and add-ons.

Selecting an ISP

You may select your ISP when looking for the connection package but there are one or two considerations that you should be aware.

ISP's offer a range of services. You should decide what services you need - for instance Internet access and email account. Do you plan to set up a web site in the near future? If so what Web space is available, at what charge? You might plan to set all of your employees up with email addresses so you could need 10 addresses within a few months. Check the email offerings of the ISP's.

Many ISPs offer free access and basic web site hosting but these services are generally only suitable for personal use. They generally offer additional services and options on a fee payng basis. It is important to consider the range of services - from free to gold standard, against you longer term plans. Will you be able to grow your services smoothly, does the ISP offer domain name services and email forwarding for your web sites etc.

ISP's who only offer chargeable services tend to offer more exclusive services, for instance improved Web hosting and statistical reporting, wider range of Email options perhaps more suited to business use, better network speeds etc

Your first Web Site!

There are several alternative approaches to establishing your first web site. Many ISPs offer free web hosting services where they provide disk space on their servers and a domain name within their own Domain. This approach can be ideal for testing and piloting ideas but has its limitations for business use. The disk space limits may be a problem and the domain name will probably not give the right impression (for instance www.freeservices_isp.co.uk/yourbizname).

Another option is to register your own domain name through the ISP or through a domain name registration organisation. Quite often your domain name can be pointed to an address at your ISP where you web service is located.

To gain access to some of the more advanced facilities - email senders, hit counters, statistics and backup services you will probably need to purchase a hosting service from the ISP. These hosting services offer a range of features and facilities. The best thing to do is to compare the services (check the ISP's web site) offered by the ISP and select the most appropriate. For a new venture this should be their entry level service.

Most importantly when considering building a Web Site for yourself you should consider the opportunity cost of learning and building - could you be making better use of your time to generate business rather than learning something you may not use again! If your site is to be competitive it needs to present a professional image and a specialist Web Design company can provide this quickly and economically.