The Web Explained

I set myself a bit of a challenge.  I wanted to explain how the World Wide Web worked in the simplest terms possible.  I wanted to explain it such that my very non-technology minded 65 year old mother-in-law could understand it.  This is the same woman that doesn’t seem to understand that Netflix and Apple TV are two different things.

This was a challenge – a conceptual challenge. I couldn’t use fancy terms or arcane acronyms.  I couldn’t bore her with tedious minutia.  I would have to relate it to her knowledge and her experience.  In other words, I would have to teach like I’ve never taught before.

This is what I came up with…


WWW Explained

So, there are lots of computers out there. These computers are connected together with wires. Across these wires the computers can send signals back and forth to one another. Well, a while back computer programmers realized that a lot of software would work better if one program was split such that part of the work was done on one computer and part of the work was done another. One of the computers, which we call the server, does centralized work that is shared by all, while the other computer does work that is unique to itself. It’s kind of like when you walk into a restaurant and the “server” brings everyone a menu, takes their orders, and returns with their food. Your job as the “client” is to order just what you want and then eat the food returned to just you.

Well the World Wide Web follows the same pattern. Web pages are stored on a server, which is just a computer somewhere elseFood and the web explained. Because the Internet is global, this computer could be anywhere in the world. You, the website visitor, use your computer to view the web pages. The browser on your computer is the client. It is the software that makes the request to the server (orders the food) and then displays the web page (eats the food). The server accepts the page request (assuming it’s on the menu) and processes it (makes the food). The server then sends the processed page back to the browser (a finished dish!).

But everything doesn’t always happen as planned. If a page you request does not exist (like requesting an item not on the menu), an error is returned. Sometimes the page you request does not come out the way you want (the dish served doesn’t taste right). It could be something didn’t work right just this one time (the cook screwed up the recipe), so you can try the request again. Or sometimes the data used to make the page is messed up (the food is rotten). Or the problem could just be that the site was not programmed correctly (the recipe sucks).

There is actually a lot of other stuff going on behind the scenes that could make this process much more complex. For example, the browser may not know where the server is located and might have to look up the address for the server – the Internet address, not the physical address. Also, the server may act like a client and request information from other servers, like a database server.


To my delight she said she understood it.  Hooray!  Success!

What do you think?  Are there easier ways to explain how the World Wide Web works?  I would love to hear your ideas.

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