Although virtually all of us use the internet daily, few consider how it even functions. You know you need an internet-connected device, you know you need a router, but the rest seems like rocket science for the average user.
While it’s not essential for everyone to know the inner workings of the internet, if you’re running a business (online or offline) and need to optimize your site’s performance, you need to be familiar with the basics of it. At the very least, you need to understand the web, the net, and HTTP. So, let’s get to it.
Before we get into the HTTP essentials, which allow us to enjoy everything that the internet has to offer, it’s crucial to clarify one thing – the web and the internet are not the same. The fact that the two terms are used interchangeably is a linguistic issue, not a technical one.
The internet is a computer network. It connects all the computers around the world, allowing data to be moved from one place to another and enabling data sharing in the form of browsing.
Although many see the internet as an intangible concept, it’s very much tangible. It’s physical infrastructure, connected by optical fibers, cables, wires, routers, and dependent on communication protocols.
On the other hand, we have the world wide web, invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. It’s a web page network, not a computer network. It is essentially an application of the internet (in the same sense as email or instant messaging are applications of the internet) that links information between computers.
In a nutshell, the internet is like a library, while the web is the collection of books within it.
There are three main mechanisms, or components, that make up the web:
All the online information is stored on web servers – every page, picture, and website is located on a server. That server can be a simple computer or an entire facility with thousands of dedicated machines. Regardless, it’s what powers the web.
To access the information stored on servers, you need a web browser – Chrome, which dominates the market, Safari, Opera, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla, and the like. When you search online for information on your favorite actor, for example, your browser needs to communicate with a site’s servers like IMDb and send an information request. The servers process the request and send a reply; then your browser shows you your search results.
For the browser and the server to communicate, they need to use a data transfer protocol, which is where HTTP, or HyperText Transfer Protocol, comes in. HTTP governs how data like text, images, video files, and other hypermedia gets transported on the web.
In a nutshell, the browser sends an HTTP request, which often contains common HTTP headers to add more information, then the server sends an HTTP response, and you get access to your search results.
As mentioned, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was the inventor of the web and all the accompanying technology – servers, browsers, user interface, and HTTP.
The entire invention was a simple research project at the Swiss research institute CERN. The aim was to enable electronic linking between documents so that it would be easier to retrieve essential information. By 1990, the research project had evolved into the world wide web, and we had the first-ever web server go live.
We wouldn’t have the modern internet without the invention of the web and its related technologies, including HTTP.
HTTP enables a seamless transfer of information between the client (or browser) and the server and creates a network of information. Its purpose is to standardize how browsers and servers communicate.
Thanks to HTTP, you can seamlessly go from one page to another and browse the web. All the information online is presented in the form of hypertext documents, and each document contains hyperlinks that can take you to another page or another website altogether without having to type anything.
HTTP, as we know it today, has undergone an evolution of sorts since its invention:
The original version was a simple client-server protocol. It enabled only the transfer of a single hypertext document. As soon as the server had sent a response to the request, the connection was terminated.
To allow for a better and faster transfer of data between the client and the server, HTTP 1.0 was introduced. HTTP 1.0 was browser-friendly, introduced common HTTP headers, and allowed for the creation of metadata. The server response was no longer limited to hypertext – other types of media could also be transmitted.
HTTP 1.1 allowed the browser to send multiple information requests to the server without terminating the connection after every single one. The server could send back multiple responses but in chronological order only, which significantly slowed the response time and page load speed.
Standardized in 2015, HTTP 2 allowed browsers to send multiple requests on a single connection and servers to send multiple responses in any order, increasing the response rates and page load speed. Check this article to dig further into the most common headers.
Without the invention of HyperText Transfer Protocols, we wouldn’t enjoy all the benefits of the modern web. HTTP enables fast, seamless communication between browsers and servers and gives you access to all the information available online.