Binary Numbers and the Lightning Internet

Have you ever wondered how the Internet is organized? Imagine billions of devices sending and receiving information between each other. Whether computers communicate from within the same room or across the other side of the world doesn’t seem to matter in terms of finding each other. So how do all the Internet connected devices find each other within milliseconds of a request?

When it comes to the digital world, the binary number system is used to provide logical mathematical addresses. But binary numbers were not selected because they are an ideal numeric system in computers, in fact, binary is the most inefficient number system because it is limited to the use of just two digits – 0 and 1. But it just so happens that when it comes to electrical pulses between 0 and 5 Volts we are limited to on and off – and these voltages are easily translated to binary 1 and binary 0.

So it almost seems counter intuitive to say that billions of devices are finding and sending information between each other quickly and efficiently using the most inefficient number system imaginable. But we know that this is the case because we use and experience the Internet every day.

The unspoken hero behind this lightning locating is the addressing that drives the Internet. It is brilliantly constructed into a hierarchical structure much like the way we narrow down our own residence by Country, State, City, Street and Street number – the Internet uses an ingenious mechanism called masking in order to group large numbers of computers into a single statement.

Masking (or network masks) work by identifying large address blocks that can be further divided into smaller sections. Say for example that I assign all computers in the first floor of the building with an identifying number beginning with ‘1’ and all computers on the second floor with an identifying number beginning with ‘2’. No matter what sequence of numbers the floor administrators assigned to each computer within the floor we would always be able to identify the first floor and second floor computers very quickly by just looking at the first digit. This is a very fast and efficient process.

Network Masks on the Internet work in the same way. The power is in the flexibility. One can assign a very general mask – much like our previous first floor/second floor computer example – or a more specific mask in order to pinpoint a specific computer within a building.

So next time you access your favourite website without knowing whether you are accessing web servers close to you or on the other side of the world, take a moment to ponder the hierarchical brilliance that are the binary network masks and how this concept made possible a superhighway with millions of simultaneous visitors anywhere in the world using just ones and zeros.