From Server To Screen: The Journey Of A Webpage
This web page did not simply spring into being…
It’s a seemingly simple process. Type a domain name into the address bar of your preferred web browser, and a page of information will be displayed within a few seconds. Yet few people really understand the processes behind the provision of website data, other than a vague understanding that “it’s sent over the internet”. So how does information get from the web hosting provider to your screen?
In technical terms, the recipient device will request data transfer from the hosting server, with information passing through a series of nodes before the browser reassembles the program code using header and footer information to identify packet order.
For those who are less familiar with the above jargon…
In plain English, your web browser requests information from a hosting server – such as the ones we manage at WestHost. A web hosting server is a remote computer, dedicated to the storage of all the information about your website. Information for numerous websites is stored within our global data centers, which makes us the first responders whenever someone requests a web page from one of the sites we host. Once the Return key has been pressed (or a link has been clicked), the recipient computer requests all the information associated with that particular web page.
The process of sending this data could be likened to the postal system, but with one fundamental difference. If you order a book through the post, it will be sent in a single cohesive package. Ordering data through the internet involves the book being broken down into individual chapters, which are sent one at a time in separate packets. This payload data travels along numerous different routes throughout the internet’s web of connections – a method of equalizing data volumes called packet switching. The contents page will be sent separately, and the recipient device will use the contents to determine which order the chapters should appear in. The index page from the back of the book will also be used to identify missing content, and any chapters that have got lost en-route will be requested a second time. This process is governed by Transmission Control Protocols, which can also ensure that each chapter arrives quickly by redirecting it along the most efficient route at that particular millisecond.
With all the data safely delivered to the recipient device, the web browser can begin assembling the book back into the order dictated by the contents and index – officially known as header and footer files. Occasionally a chapter will be declared missing, which may result in the content not displaying correctly or making complete sense. This can be caused by a number of technical factors including corrupt header information, overcrowding on the network or a poor signal. Wi-Fi connections can experience interference from devices like baby monitors and microwaves, while mobile data connections are notoriously flaky.
In normal circumstances, the data being sent from server to screen is publicly visible to people with the ability to intercept it. However, data transmission becomes more complicated when additional security is involved, such as secure servers. Transport Layer Security (also known as SSL) shares unique cryptographic keys between sender and recipient, ensuring that the information can only be seen by those two devices. Visible evidence of TLS/SSL can be found in green address bars, padlock symbols or the presence of a letter “s” after the http address prefix. Extra security can slow down data transfer, but it’s essential for transmitting sensitive information like banking details or login passwords.
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