How data reaches our computers

How data reaches our computers

Tuesday, 5 March, 2019

Our reliance on internet data means it’s easy to take connectivity for granted.

Everything that happens on our computers, smartphones, TVs and consoles can be broken down into a string of zeroes and ones – the binary data powering any digital device.

Every website you visit, every program you watch and every email you send involves a vast array of zeroes and ones being beamed around the world in fractions of a second.

Each zero or one is referred to as a bit, and groups of eight bits are commonly bundled together into a byte.

Internet data is transferred in packets containing no more than 1,500 bytes – a miniscule fraction of most media files, webpages and other online content.

It’s worth bearing this in mind next time your broadband router has a momentary outage, since it’s quite miraculous the internet works at all…

From server to screen

In the main, we tend to consume online content rather than produce it.

Third-party content is uploaded to gigantic warehouses, where it’s stored on specialist hard disc drives known as servers.

These servers are designed to distribute information to multiple destinations at once, using large amounts of internet bandwidth and processing power to multitask.

When you’re online, your devices are constantly sending requests to host servers for information such as webpage content or music files.

This information is converted into binary data packets, and distributed down a global web of internet connections.

Long-distance fibre cables transmit internet data at the speed of light, though the connections between local telephone exchanges and our homes are often relatively sluggish copper wires.

Data packets regularly arrive out of sequence, depending which routes they’ve taken from server to screen.

(Some routing protocols choose the shortest route between server and screen, while others seek paths with the shortest delay – known as latency).

The recipient device then has to reassemble received packets into their original format – a portion of video footage, character movements in an online game, a breakfast selfie, etc.

Each packet is wrapped around header and footer data explaining where it came from and where it’s going, as well as which part of the overall file it comprises and what data it carries.

Once it’s been reassembled in the correct order, the information is displayed on your device.

Incredibly, this whole process typically occurs in less than one second. Until something goes wrong, that is.

How (and why) things go wrong

There are numerous factors which might interrupt the steady stream of internet data:

  • A dropped connection. Broadband routers and microfilters occasionally stop working, while software glitches and malicious activity can also cause a connection to fail
  • Broadband provider outages. Less commonly, your broadband provider could experience a major failure, like last December’s mass outage across the O2 mobile network
  • Network traffic. It’s harder for data packets to reach their destination when the internet is busier. A packet might set off along one route, but then have to follow a different path
  • Nodes. Every time data packets are distributed through a server, router or another node on the internet, delays increase and there’s a risk of data packets being lost or delayed
  • Overloaded servers. If too many data requests are received by a server, it may stop working. This could happen deliberately, as part of an orchestrated DDoS attack
  • Malware. Similarly, malicious software squatting on a device’s hard drive might redirect internet bandwidth for other uses, or throttle internet speeds out of sheer devilment
  • WiFi interference. Issues within the home may also affect broadband delivery, such as wireless interference from baby monitors or too many devices hogging bandwidth
  • Client device limitations. Running too many programs or filling internal storage can diminish a device’s ability to request and process received data quickly enough.

Next time a website takes a few seconds to respond, or you experience a slight stutter in video streaming, remember what’s actually involved in digital data transfers.

It helps to put minor inconveniences like router reboots into perspective.

Neil Cumins author picture

By:

Neil is an expert tech writer. He's written hundred's of Guides to all things broadband!

News What's the story?

Keep up with the latest developments in UK broadband.

UK 5G network goes live – are you up to speed?

Here's everything you need to know about the new mobile broadband network.

UK 5G network goes live – are you up to speed? Read more

TalkTalk offers exclusive £80 reward to new fibre customers

The huge bonus is available to anyone signing up for a 'Faster Fibre' bundle through BroadbandDeals.co.uk

Read more

TikTok ‘gifts’ empty kids piggy banks

Children are most vulnerable to 'influencer' donation pleas

Read more

Netflix ruins 90’s cartoon, enrages internet

The streaming giant came in for criticism for 'straightwashing' Japanese cult classic anime.

Read more

Porn-block pushed back by clerical errors

Further delays to the child-protection measure, with the process mocked as an 'utter shambles'.

Read more

How to watch Wimbledon online for free

How to make sure you don't miss out on the action from your favourite sports stars.

How to watch Wimbledon online for free Read more

Fast fines for ISPs could end the “Loyalty Penalty”

But could the proposed measures mean worse deals for those who shop around?

Read more

Boris Johnson mocks full-fibre roll-out plans

The likely next PM boasts plans to beat current targets by 8 years, but is it all just hot air?

Read more

Broadband and phone companies to put Fairness first

Telecoms providers commit to raising standards.

Read more

UK to get legal right to decent and affordable broadband

New legislation will ensure minimum speeds for every UK household.

Read more

GDPR – One year on

The landmark legislation gave people the ‘right to know’ when their data had been hacked.

Read more

Help Learn with us

Make the most of the internet with our broadband library.

Why Ofcom’s USO is more than pie in the sky

Why Ofcom’s USO is more than pie in the sky Read more

Protecting your small business against cyber attacks

Read more

Could 5G end fixed-line home broadband?

Read more

How broadband availability varies across the UK

Read more

Which social media platforms should I be on?

Read more

Will you get online on holiday?

Stay connected during your get-away.

Read more

Make the most of your broadband overnight

Make the most of your broadband overnight Read more

The main causes of slow internet connections

Slow broadband can be more than just an irritant - but what causes it, and what can we do to fight back?

Read more

Do you need to ramp up your broadband controls?

Read more

The different types of home computer

Read more

Will we all need gigabit broadband one day?

Read more
Back To Top