Help me grok the internets
May 12, 2006 3:43 AM   Subscribe

So, it looks like this internet thing is here to stay and it's playing a bigger and bigger role in my professional and personal life. Hence, I want to bite the bullet and learn how it really works. I'm looking for suggestions of great resources (online and otherwise).

I've recently built a modest high-performance computing cluster (for computational biology), which has caused me to have to think about networking in general and security in particular. While I've always been happy with computers (use linux all day, program C and Perl, built several PCs) I've never really felt like I understood networking and the internet. Now it seems to me that the 'net is getting more and more important in terms of business, culture, etc. and I don't see this changing anytime soon, so I've come to the conclusion that a better understanding would be a Good Thing. If I can acquire this understanding online for free, so much the better. What are the best resources for learning about the technical side of the 'net? Sites that explain how the different protocols (http, tcp, ip etc) work? Perhaps there's a blog out there that explains the technical side of current news stories (network neutrality; the .xxx domain name; VOIP)? A site that gives excercises I could do on my home or university network (run different servers; make various types of secure connections)?

I realise that this is kind of a vague (and long!) question and that 'just google it' is a perfectly valid answer; nevertheless, I've been impressed by the level of technical knowledge I've seen on the green and would value the personal recommendation of MeFites. Feel free to ask for clarification.
posted by primer_dimer to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From a network operations perspective, ie, the folks who run big ISPs, I think lurking on NANOG is invaluable.
posted by sohcahtoa at 3:58 AM on May 12, 2006

And the protocols themselves (http, TCP, etc) are all documented in their rfcs.
posted by sohcahtoa at 4:02 AM on May 12, 2006

The best explanation of how TCP/IP works would be TCP/IP Illustrated Volume 1 by Stevens.
posted by joelr at 4:20 AM on May 12, 2006

You may like to take a look at CircleID, 'a community hub for the Internet's Core Infrastructure & Policies'. Also, Clay Shirky writes about the internet.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:21 AM on May 12, 2006

The bibles: Stevens and Comer. Definitely not free, not current and won't cover all that you're asking for. But I don't know any networking professional that doesn't own one or the other of those books. I get 99% of my protocol knowledge from the RFCs now, but I still refer to the book on occasion. (By accident of history, I'm a Stevens guy, but YMMV.) Plus, for the beginner, they're going to be a much more effective soft start than hitting the hardcore specifications.
posted by Mr Stickfigure at 4:21 AM on May 12, 2006

You may also enjoy this documentary from the 70's, Computer Networks - The Heralds of Resource Sharing.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:26 AM on May 12, 2006

If you're not already familiar with it, there's the wikipedia page on the OSI model. It's not exactly the way the internet actually works, but it's close enough that it's useful for a "big picture" abstract sense of things.

You can also play around with Ethereal and look at what kind of messages your own computer sends and receives.
posted by juv3nal at 4:42 AM on May 12, 2006

For the history angle I recommend Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll. While the book is about the capture of a hacker the story is true and occurred in the early days of the net (pre-90s) and provides a great overview of the beginnings of the movement and the spirit that existed back then.

I can't recall if they discuss the Altair in there, but if they don't find a book that discusses it as well. The technical angle isn't important but understand how and why it triggered the PC revolution. All of the protocols that guide the net now were made by these folks or people like them, so it'll help with understanding the impetus.

If you are really looking for trouble Google's USENET archives has material from '81 on so you can search by Date and see the discussions that were taking place pre-web and back in the bitnet days. Google put together a few neat ones to illustrate the point. has an archive of web browsers, including Mosaic 1.0, which still works right out of the zip file on my XP computer. Go have a look at Google's "simple" site by going to File, Open URL. You can't type into the status bar... that was an innovation, believe it or not.
posted by jwells at 5:55 AM on May 12, 2006

I sold a mess of books on eBay recently, and the highest-paying was that Stevens one. It's almost quaintly out-of-date in some places, but a great grounding in the protocol.
posted by sohcahtoa at 5:59 AM on May 12, 2006

This may be hard to believe, the entire first half of Networking with Microsoft TCP/IP (at least the edition I have) contains no mention of Microsoft or their products. I consider it superior to TCP/IP Illustrated for gaining a fundamental understanding of networking starting from what's on the wire and working your way through higher and higher level protocols.

The second half of the book is a pretty typical Windows book, filled with silly screenshots and "click here" procedures.
posted by majick at 6:51 AM on May 12, 2006

IBM publishes the Redbook TCP/IP Tutorial and Technical Overview for free. Pretty comprehensive and recently updated on IP v6 f.i.
posted by jouke at 9:11 AM on May 12, 2006

Best answer: "Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself." - Morpheus

If you really want to understand the stuff that makes up the Internet, far & above the best way IMO is to get a graphical ethernet sniffer like Ethereal that can decode packets & protocols at all the different levels & just watch traffic go by. Do some web browsing & see the HTTP fly by. Login to your email client & see if you can spot your password. Mount a remote Windows share & see how insanely chatty Windows networking is & how many different protocols there are for it. Take a detour through the DNS packets & be amazed at how many different servers can be involved in just a simple lookup. Dip down into the ethernet frames & see how the most basic building blocks fit together to build a complete session. Track a TCP connection all the way from the three-way handshake to the final FIN. Start a collection of strange packets that just shouldn't exist. Wonder in bemusement as you see your network getting probed, scanned & attacked by intruders & malware. You'll never see the Internet the same way again.
posted by scalefree at 10:23 AM on May 12, 2006

I took the Cisco Certified Network Associate yearlong course and feel confident that I know (at least more than I did) how the internets work. During the course, our professor played this for us, which was fun and informative.
posted by Lynsey at 10:44 AM on May 12, 2006

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