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HowStuffWorks: Connectivity

This entry on connectivity has a starting point here for your handy reference.

Connectivity is at its core a discussion of how the actual connections between devices happen, in other words how does data get from A to B, C, D, E and back again? The groups of articles including some connections to things like High Speed Dial-up and the like, but this discussion will focus either on technologies that are present or are possible waves of the future.
Current Technologies


Photo Credit: BryanAlexander via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: BryanAlexander via Compfight cc

Ah, modems, without which you cannot connect to the internet unless you are somewhere that has a hardline (T1, T3) infrastructure.  Modem is actually a contraction of the word “modulator-demodulator.”  As you likely know, it sends data over phone, fiber optic, or cable lines.  The modulator end of things codes the data into a signal that works with whatever line you are utilizing. The demodulator turns the signal back into data. Wireless signals do this in the form of radio signals. Early modems used gradual degradation to test phone lines and ratchet their speeds back a notice if the line couldn’t handle the faster speeds. ADSL (or asymmetric digital subscriber lines) became popular in 1999 and were asymmetric because they sent data faster in one direction, taking advantage of dedicated copper wires used by the phone company. Current modem technology used by our ISPs (internet service providers) send packets of information between you and your ISP using PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol).

Cable Modems

Perhaps the most oft used in the U.S. for broadband connectivity, the cable modem is available over your coaxial cable that brings you hundreds of channels with nothing to watch. The coaxial cable is capable of carrying far more megahertz of signals than your cable provider currently uses for providing you with television programing. Thus, the extra signal space can be used to transfer data packets. Often the wiring prior to your household wiring is fiber optic, increasing the amount of carrying capacity available (depending upon where you live or it might be coaxial all the way down). The signal being send (downstream if into your home device) and received (upstream send from your device) require a cable modem on your end and a  Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) on the ISP end. Much like the old school dial up modems, cable modems have modulators and demodulators internally to handle encoding and decoding duties. They also include a turner which splits tv signal from data signal; a MAC which handles the interface with hardware and software bits of the internet protocols for handling the signals, the MAC is often connected with or integrated with a Central  Processing Unit (CPU) because the coding processes are relatively complex because of all of the splitting up of data, and finally there is the connection into the device (router or pc). How well your cable connection can provide data may depend upon how close you are to being the first user to connect through a particular assigned cable channel. Therefore, speeds may not be as advertised.

Fiber Optics are lovely,

Photo Credit: kainet via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: kainet via Compfight cc

optically pure glass that we talk about when we discuss cable or updated phone based connectivity. They are about a hair-width and are bundled by the hundreds or thousands. They have 3 basic parts – the core through which the light carrying the signal runs, the cladding which is an “outer optical (or mirror-like) material that reflects light back to the core, ” and a protective buffer coating.The fibers must be pure so that as the light bounces along between the core and the cladding, minimal degradation occurs. Fiber optic transmission systems include the transmitter (producer and sender of signals) the fiber itself, an optical regenerator (used to boost signals) and and optical receiver (which receives and decodes).  Advantages of this system are lower cost, smaller size, higher carrying capacity and less signal degradation than wire, lower power needs,  non-flammable, lightweight, and flexibility.

Satellite Internet

An option for those who live in rural areas who aren’t connected or have less than optimal connections to traditional communication infrastructures. It functions through a dish-to-dish broadcast. It is slower than either cable or fiberoptic connections. The satellite system sometimes requires you to have a modem to handle the coding work and like all satellite systems is susceptible to issues with signal loss due to poor weather conditions, improper placement, and interference from blocking structures.  A more full description and history can be found here.


Powerline Based Broadband or BPL

This has a fascinating potential to reach far more people than fiber optic lines or cable lines because power lines are already a near-ubiquitous infrastructure already in place. Essentially using the same technologies power companies already use to monitor power grid function via radio frequencies, this technology would use similar frequencies to connect users to the internet. The frequencies would need to be shielded (as cable and fiberoptic lines are) because the fluctuating power current would cause disruptions. Developers claim that this has been dealt with. They have also created specialized silicon modems to separate out the data from the power current. Currently the technology is being vetted by the FCC, but both FEMA and ham radio operators have series questions about how this technology will be implemented. FEMA is working on a compromise with the FCC, but the ARRL (ham radio folks) believe that ham and shortwave radio will be greatly interfered with. So the technology is currently in bureaucratic limbo.

Also fascinating reading is the link on How an Interplanetary Internet might work. Check it out. It could be our future.

Why is this all so interesting? 

The above forms of physical hardware are the stuff of the interwebs. Without them data cannot be packaged, sent, and processed by our laptops, desktops, tablets, or phones. Understanding some of the basics also helps us ask questions about access. For example, the old 56.K baud modems that operated over phone lines were slow, granted, but as infrastructure they were significantly cheaper. Did they perpetuate greater access than expensive cable modems because they relied upon infrastructure that the U.S. Government helped put into place and backed decades ago?  What are the possibilities of internet satellite? People who argue against net neutrality point to them as ways of creating greater access but the subscription price per month is higher than cable, which is costly, and the reliability is questioned by some.

The choices we are able to make about modems, connection types, purchase/renting of hardware will affect our abilities to connect to the network.


Brain, Marshall. “How Modems Work.” <> 21 Jan 2014.

Franklin, Curt. “How Cable Modems Work.” <> 20 Jan 2014.

Freundenrich, Craig. “How Fiber Optics Work.” How Stuff <> 21 Jan 2014

“How does satellite Internet operate?.” <> 20 Jan 2014.

Valdes, Robert. “How Broadband Over Powerlines Works.” <> 21 Jan 2014

Cloudy with a Chance of Connection

Cloud Computing, A World Connected

How Stuff Works? Assignment

Image comes from Wajeeha blog.

Image comes from Wajeeha blog.

Things to Know Before Diving In (or, swimming up?)

If you are like me and have a love/hate  relationship (with a lot of cursing involved) with your computer, techie jargon is less than fun to decipher. So, this is a brief, and not at all exhaustive, list of terms (with definitions) to refer back to whenever necessary (which I will probably be doing often).

Intranet vs. Extranet - An intranet is a private network, usually used by companies, that is founded on internet technologies but is inaccessible to the global internet community. An extranet is an intranet that is shared between more than one organization, making it accessible to particular individuals outside of the specific company but still remains inaccessible to the main internet community (an example on the BBC website was that of inventory management) (Schofield). As a way to assist companies with intranets and extranets in relation to cloud computing, Google released the Google Search Appliance, which allows users in a company to search through their documents and other data in much the same way an internet user would search for information through a search engine (though it comes with a hefty price tag).

Client Computer (or computer network) is the physical computer owned and operated by the client rather than the cloud operator. This could be a personal computer, work computer, or set of computers in either the home or the work place that is/are going to be linked to the cloud system (Strickland).

Back End vs. Front End – With cloud computing, there is the Front End, which is the user interface (this can be in the form of mobile music apps like Amazon Player or iTunes), and the Back End, which is the server and cloud-computing services (Strickland; Crawford). One of the main concerns with cloud services (along with issues of security and privacy) is that as more and more users come to depend on cloud services, users will no longer need to rely as heavily on IT specialists, so those workers will find more jobs on the Back End than the Front End (Strickland, “Cloud Computing”).

Middleware is a software that allows computers on a network to talk to one another and is part of the central server (Strickland, “Cloud Computing”). An example of this would be Oracle Fusion.

Redundancy here is defined as the process of making copies of data for backup. Since the cloud is information on a hard drive not owned by the client (think of cloud computing as renting digital space), the owner of whichever cloud system is being used (Google, Amazon, and Apple are top contenders) then makes copies of data to different physical computers in case of a computer crashing, power outage, and the like. Redundancy is necessary to keep the cloud operator from losing a client’s data (so pitchforks aren’t necessary…most of the time). (Strickland, “Cloud Computing”)

Grid Computing System ”is a computer network in which each computer’s resources are shared with every other computer in the system.” This provides great possibilities for researchers who require high processing power from computers than what an individual computer is capable of, especially if the grid system was the basis for the cloud system (Strickland, “Grid Computing”).

Server Virtualization is a nifty procedure that tricks a server into thinking that it is actually multiple servers, “each with its own operating system” (OS), which in turn eliminates a lot of “unused processing power” and reduces how many computers are actually necessary (Strickland, “Cloud Computing”)

Autonomic Computing is mostly theoretical at the moment, with labs like NEC Laboratories America doing research on how to create such systems. This type of system would hypothetically manage itself in regards to repairs and problem prevention within a networked system, which also has the potential to decrease IT jobs considerably as the system would be taking care of itself (Strickland, “Cloud Computing”).

Authorization Format is a procedure that would give users limited access to “data and applications relevant to [their] jobs.” This is a way for clients and cloud operators to strengthen privacy, along with authentication (which is what we do when we type in passwords to Google Drive, iTunes, and a whole host of other applications that we use on a daily basis) (Strickland, “Cloud Computing”). Privacy and security are both big issues for those who are trying to decide whether cloud services are right for them and/or their companies as the client is allowing the cloud operator to take data and store it in digital space (and physical hard drive space) rented and not owned by the client.

Onwards and Upwards to SkynetCloud

Cloud computing, which is gaining dominance in how we deal with data across different fields (such as business, academics, shopping, listening to music, and personal communications), is the essence of a network. The cloud system is capable of linking devices from desktops, laptops, mobile phones, gaming consoles, and tablets and linking them together as a way to store data so that the client can be anywhere in the world and still have access to his or her information without the need to carry a particular device. This does raise a lot of questions and concerns (those in love with the Terminator franchise like I am will be reminded of Skynet without the rampaging, murderous robots…just yet) about security and privacy as the client is essentially handing over data to an outside party who then stores the information on physical computers elsewhere (several, if you remember from the term redundancy, as a way to keep data from being lost due to an accident or hardware malfunction).

Conference Poster for the 2012 South by Southwest Conference.

Archived Conference Poster for the 2012 South by Southwest Conference.

For those who a little wary of placing their personal data in the hands of strangers on a computer they will probably never see, cloud computing may be closer to home than they realize. These systems have become especially prominent in the act of listening to music because a person can buy a song from Amazon or iTunes and listen to it on his or her phone while on the go, or the user can use the digital radio station-esque Pandora and listen to the random song list the program generates and then adapts to the user’s liking or disliking of individual songs (Strickland, “Music Clouds”; Crawford, “Amazon Cloud Player” and “iTunes Cloud”). With iTunes Cloud, users can sync their devices (generally without too much issue) together in order to create backups and share files across devices. Images, music, contact lists, videos, and other media are no longer restricted to just a computer or phone, making it easier for content to be retrieved should something malfunction or need to be replaced (Crawford, “iTunes Cloud”). This has further connection ramifications as such software turns a home into a network as computers can link together not just on internet connections, but also through Home Sharing. In effect, we and our devices both become nodes of connection, linked together through cloud computing systems.

Cloud computing itself has the feel of science-fiction as it allows users all over the world to connect their devices to each other in a closed system where only they have access, or they may extend their reach outwards and participate in larger virtual communities founded on cloud technologies. In a major way, cloud systems are reshaping our relationship to data and data storage as we no longer need to worry about our computer crashing or not having access to documents while on a trip; cloud operators promise us that our data will be there when we need it, wherever we are (unless we are lost on some remote island or stuck in the most remote region of some mountain where cell phone service is non-existent, which is becoming less and less a possibility it seems). Cloud computing is all about interconnections, whether for personal data storage, applications, collaboration, or business efficiency. It allows any device with internet connection to link to whatever cloud computing system the user has access to, and information has become just a few clicks away. This technology, for better or worse, is enhancing the image of the world as a digital network, with us as the nodes and cloud as the connectors.

ENGL894 Asynchronous Activity: How connected are you?


Crawford, Stephanie. “Does ‘to the Cloud’ Mean the Same Thing as ‘Let’s Google That’?” How Stuff Works? How Stuff Works, 08 Aug. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Crawford, Stephanie. “How the Amazon Cloud Player Works.” How Stuff Works? How Stuff Works, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Crawford, Stephanie. “How the Apple iCloud Works.” How Stuff Works? How Stuff Works, 08 Aug. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Schofield, Jack. “What are Intranets and Extranets?” BBC WebWise. BBC, 09 Sept. 2010. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Strickland, Jonathan. “How Cloud Computing Works.” How Stuff Works? How Stuff Works, 08 Apr. 2008. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Strickland, Jonathan. “How Grid Computing Works.” How Stuff Works? How Stuff Works, 25 Apr. 2008. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.

Strickland, Jonathan. “How Music Clouds Work.” How Stuff Works? How Stuff Works, 08 Aug. 2011. Web. 17 Jan. 2014.