The Internet

The Internet: how does it work? #

Suppose you’re sitting in your apartment, watching some crazy person on Zoom tell you about this new website about electronics that everybody is talking about. She says that the name of the website is andnowforelectronics.com, and she pastes a link to the site into the chat window. What happens when you click on the link?

First, name resolution #

First, your computer sends a universal datagram protocol (UDP) packet to port 53 on a domain name system (DNS) server somewhere on the internet. The job of a DNS server is to look up the IP address of the website you’re looking for in the distributed global database of domain names.

If you have wireless where you live, the server that your computer targets is probably your wireless router. If you’re using your phone, it’s a server that’s run by AT&T, Verizon, or some phone company like that, and your phone was told where to find it when it connected to the cellular network. You could also be using a public server; for example, Google runs two public DNS servers at the weird IP addresses 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4.

So your computer sends off the UDP packet saying, “Hey, where can I find andnowforelectronics.com?” Despite the site’s worldwide popularity, your wireless router probably has no idea, so it makes a request like yours to the DNS server run by whoever sells you an internet connection, like RCN or Comcast.

But again, despite the site’s worldwide popularity, Comcast has no idea where to find it, so it makes a request to the authoritative name server for all the domain names that end in .com. If Comcast’s server didn’t know where to find that server, it could ask one of the 13 root name servers; those servers' addresses are hard-coded into the Comcast server’s memory, but Comcast has seen bajillions of requests for .com addresses before, so it surely has the .com name server address cached.

Finally, the .com server sends Comcast over to the authoritative server for andnowforelectronics.com, which is a server run by a domain name registrar in Paris, France, called gandi.net. Their name server, ns1.gandi.net, at long last, answers the question! They do this because I paid them to register the domain name and provide these DNS services, and they know the right IP address because I typed it into their website last summer.

Here’s what the Gandi name server sends back:

id 65452
opcode QUERY
rcode NOERROR
flags QR RD RA
;QUESTION
andnowforelectronics.com. IN A
;ANSWER
andnowforelectronics.com. 10799 IN A 23.239.11.134
;AUTHORITY
;ADDITIONAL

That IP address, 23.239.11.134, gets passed back to your web browser, and all the DNS servers along the way cache the answer, in case someone else wants to know where to find the site.

Second, connect to the webserver #

Now your computer knows the IP address of the webserver you’re targeting. The server is one at a datacenter in New Jersey, owned by a company called Linode. I pay them $5/month, and they let me use their server. The server is almost certainly a multi-core behemoth that is running lots of virtual servers in parallel using a hypervisor, but as far as I can tell, it’s just like any other Linux server. My best guess is that the server is in the Cologix data center in Cedar Knolls, NJ: https://goo.gl/maps/J5UagBYytmXPBHRz8

The next step is that your computer sends out a TCP packet to start a connection to the server at 23.239.11.134. Your computer only knows the IP address of your wifi router, so it sends the first packet to that address and hopes it gets there. Your router has no idea how to connect to a server in New Jersey, so it sends the packet upstream to a router at Comcast (or Tufts, or wherever you’re getting your internet connection). Your packet will be passed along from router to router. The routers along the way don’t know where to find your server, but they each contain a huge table that lists how to get to different networks.

If we use a tool called traceroute, we can see the steps that our packet takes to get to the server. From my house in Somerville, here’s the path it takes. (The path might be slightly different each time.)

Tracing route to andnowforelectronics.com [23.239.11.134]
over a maximum of 30 hops:

  1    <1 ms    <1 ms    <1 ms  192.168.1.1
  2     2 ms     1 ms     1 ms  192.168.0.1
  3    11 ms    11 ms    12 ms  10.23.192.1
  4    39 ms    11 ms    13 ms  bdle1-sub212.aggr1.bos.ma.rcn.net [146.115.22.195]
  5    13 ms     9 ms    10 ms  hge0-0-0-10.core1.sth.ma.rcn.net [207.172.19.191]
  6     9 ms    10 ms    10 ms  207.172.18.70
  7    19 ms    33 ms    15 ms  et-0-0-13.cr1-bos1.ip4.gtt.net [69.174.18.121]
  8    15 ms    14 ms    14 ms  ae10.cr3-nyc3.ip4.gtt.net [89.149.140.182]
  9    17 ms    30 ms    15 ms  ip4.gtt.net [173.205.38.198]
 10     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 11     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 12     *        *        *     Request timed out.
 13    16 ms    19 ms    18 ms  li688-134.members.linode.com [23.239.11.134]

Trace complete.

Third, we ask the server for the webpage #

I’m going to omit the details of how HTTPS works for now. We send a message to the server IP address that literally contains the letters GET and a URL, and then the server sends back HTTP/1.1 200 OK and a bunch of HTML and Javascript for your browser to render. There are a lot more details on the Mozilla Developer Network page on HTTP.

MAC addresses and IP addresses #

Each device on the internet has two different kinds of addresses: media access control (MAC) addresses and internet protocol (IP) addresses. A device can have more than one of each. (The “MAC” in “MAC address” has nothing to do with Apple’s Mac computers.)

Each MAC address is globally unique; it’s like a serial number for the device. IP addresses are unique on the global internet, but they can be reused on smaller subnets, like your home wireless network.

You might think to yourself, “Wait, why do we need two sets of addresses. That seems stupid.” Indeed, it does seem that way at first. The difference is that IP addresses are arranged in a giant structure like a pile of balls, with similar IP prefixes grouped together. For example, Tufts is assigned all of the 65536 addresses that match the pattern 130.64.xxx.xxx, but within that network, devices have all sorts of different MAC addresses.

But then what do we need MAC addresses for? (Maybe that’s the stupid part?)

We need MAC addresses so that we can assign IP addresses automatically. Say you connect your laptop to a new wireless network. Your laptop requests an IP address from the wireless access point (AP). When the AP replies, it has to address its message somehow. Without a MAC address, the IP address assignment couldn’t get back to your laptop. (MAC addresses are also used by low-level network switches, but you don’t need to worry about those much these days.)

To take our Raspberry Pi as an example, we can run the command ifconfig.

pi@raspberrypi:~ $ ifconfig
eth0: flags=4099<UP,BROADCAST,MULTICAST>  mtu 1500
        ether dc:a6:32:b0:6e:ea  txqueuelen 1000  (Ethernet)

wlan0: flags=4163<UP,BROADCAST,RUNNING,MULTICAST>  mtu 1500
        inet 192.168.1.217  netmask 255.255.255.0  broadcast 192.168.1.255
        inet6 fe80::ba5c:ddba:f04d:7271  prefixlen 64  scopeid 0x20<link>
        ether dc:a6:32:b0:6e:eb  txqueuelen 1000  (Ethernet)

From this, we can see the Pi has two MAC addresses, dc:a6:32:b0:6e:ea and dc:a6:32:b0:6e:eb. The first one is for its Ethernet port, eth0; the second is for its wireless connection, wlan0.

The first half of the MAC address is called the organizationally unique identifier (OUI). In theory, every device made by the Raspberry Pi Foundation should start with dc:a6:32. In reality, they also use at least e4:5f:01 and b8:27:eb. The second half of the identifier has no special meaning.

The Pi also has the IP address 192.168.1.217. This is the address assigned to the Pi by my wireless AP. You might recognize the network 192.168.1.x; it’s one that is reserved for small private networks like home wireless networks. (We call these RFC1918 addresses.)

But wait, how can we all use the same range of 192.168.1.xxx addresses at home and still look like unique nodes on the internet? That leads us to network address translation.

Network address translation #

Your wireless AP performs a few different services for you. The big one is the “wireless” part, where data is magically sent through the air with no wires, but it performs two other big roles: address translator and firewall.

When you pay for an internet connection (say, a cable modem from Comcast), their servers listen for a IP address requests. When you plug in your AP, it requests an IP address, and Comcast’s server assigns it one. Then, your AP sets up its own private network and listens for IP address requests from all your wireless devices. It gives out addresses, usually in the 192.168.1.x range.

Then comes the “address translation” part. When your laptop makes an HTTPS request to bing.com because you have some important searching to do, your AP strips out your IP address from the packets and replaces the address with its own IP address. (It also updates the IP and TCP checksums, if you were worried about that detail.) It then sends your modified packets out onto the internet and adds your address and the destination address to a translation table.

When a reply comes back, the AP looks up the address it came from in the translation table, finds your private IP address, does the reverse modification on the reply, and sends it back to your laptop.

An unfortunate side effect of NAT is that if a node on the public internet wants to initiate a connection to one of the devices on your private network, it has no way of connecting to it. It could send packets to the address of your AP, but there’s no way to specify which device the packets should go to. This is the “firewall” mentioned earlier– nodes on the public internet cannot initiate connections to the devices on your network. This brings us to ports and port forwarding.

Ports #

All of the packets that run between different IP addresses are categorized by one of 65536 destination ports. Typically, each port corresponds to a certain protocol.You can run any protocol on any port, but there are a few protocols that have been assigned ports, just to make things simpler.

  • SSH: port 22
  • HTTP: port 80
  • HTTPS: port 443
  • Flask: port 5000 (default just for testing)

(HTTPS is just HTTP plus encryption.)

You can think of ports like channels on a television, and the shows playing on the television are the different programs running on a server. This is how, when packets arrive at your Raspberry Pi asking to log in via SSH, it knows to hand those packets over to the SSH server running on your Pi. Similarly, anything that arrives marked “port 5000” gets passed to Flask (assuming Flask is running).

You can check what services are running on which ports on your Pi like this.

pi@raspberrypi:~ $ sudo netstat -plunt
Active Internet connections (only servers)
Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address           Foreign Address         State       PID/Program name
tcp        0      0 0.0.0.0:22              0.0.0.0:*               LISTEN      725/sshd
tcp6       0      0 :::22                   :::*                    LISTEN      725/sshd
udp        0      0 0.0.0.0:36784           0.0.0.0:*                           374/avahi-daemon: r
udp        0      0 0.0.0.0:68              0.0.0.0:*                           489/dhcpcd
udp        0      0 0.0.0.0:5353            0.0.0.0:*                           374/avahi-daemon: r
udp6       0      0 :::38804                :::*                                374/avahi-daemon: r
udp6       0      0 :::5353                 :::*                                374/avahi-daemon: r

Port forwarding #

We can now understand how to solve the problem of allowing nodes on the internet to access devices on your private network. Assuming you have the login credentials for the administrative interface for your wireless AP, you can set your AP to forward one of its ports to a port on a certain device on your internal network. For example, you could forward port 5000 on your AP to port 5000 on your Pi. Then, if you were running Flask on port 5000, it would be accessible to the entire internet.

One thing you should not do: forward port 22 to your Raspberry Pi, so you can SSH in remotely. Lots of other people (well, scripts) will try to SSH in remotely, and then your Pi will be, as they say, “pwned”.