September 1992
ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources
Syracuse University
Syracuse, New York 13244-2340
Phone: (315) 443-3640
Fax: (315) 443-5448


By Roy Tennant

This digest briefly describes the Internet computer network, the
physical connections and logical agreements that make it possible,
and the applications and information resources the network provides.

The Internet

The Internet is a worldwide network of computer networks. It is
comprised of thousands of separately administered networks of many
sizes and types. Each of these networks is comprised of as many as
tens of thousands of computers; the total number of individual users
of the Internet is in the millions. This high level of connectivity
fosters an unparalleled degree of communication, collaboration,
resource sharing, and information access. In the United States, the
National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet) comprises the Internet
"backbone" (a very high speed network that connects key regions
across the country). The NSFNet will likely evolve into the National
Research and Education Network (NREN) as defined in the High-
Performance Computing Act of 1991 (P.L. 102-194, signed into law by
President Bush on December 9, 1991).

Physical Connections and Logical Agreements

For the Internet to exist, there must be connections between
computers and agreements on how they are to communicate. Connections
can consist of any of a variety of communication media or methods:
metal wires, microwave links, packet radio or fiber optic cables.
These connections are usually established within areas or regions by
the particular networking organization with authority or economic
interest in that area. For example, a university academic department
may lay Ethernet cable to connect its personal computers and
workstations into a local area network (LAN), which is then connected
to the cables the campus laid to connect its buildings together,
which is then linked to cables laid by a regional network, which
itself ties into the NSFNet backbone, the infrastructure for which
was funded by the U.S. government. Therefore the path between any two
points on the Internet often traverses physical connections that are
administered by a variety of independent authorities.

For disparate computers (from personal computers to mainframes) to
communicate with other computers over a network, there must be
agreements on how that should occur. These agreements are called
communication protocols. At present, the Transmission Control
Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite of protocols defines how
Internet computers are to communicate. In the future, the Open
Systems Interconnection (OSI) suite of protocols promulgated by the
International Standards Organization (ISO) may be supported on the
Internet as well. These protocols define how certain applications are
to be accomplished: electronic messaging, online connections, and
the transfer of files.

Electronic Mail

Electronic mail, or e-mail, is a fast, easy, and inexpensive way to
communicate with other Internet users around the world. In addition,
it is possible for Internet users to exchange e-mail with users of
other independent networks such as CompuServe, Applelink, the WELL,
and others. Internet users often find that the expanded capability to
communicate with colleagues around the world leads to important new
sources of information, collaboration, and professional development.

Besides basic correspondence between two network users, e-mail
presents additional opportunities for communication. Through various
methods for distributing e-mail messages to lists of "subscribers,"
e-mail supports electronic discussions on a wide range of topics.
These discussions bring together like-minded individuals who use such
forums for discussing common problems, sharing solutions, and arguing

Another type of electronic communication that is growing in
popularity is the electronic journal, or "e-journal." Although some
e-journals require certain types of software and hardware to display
each issue, most e-journals are distributed to a list of subscribers
as an e-mail text message, either complete as one issue, or
retrievable at the article level by mailing a command to a software
program that automatically sends the appropriate file. The very
definition of a "journal" is undergoing change in the electronic
environment, as e-journal publishers experiment with different
publication models (e.g., sending articles out individually as soon
as they are ready rather than waiting until a group of articles are
gathered for an "issue").

Remote Login

Remote login is the ability of a computer user in one location to
establish an online connection with another computer elsewhere. Once
a connection is established with a remote computer, the user can use
that remote system as if their computer were a hard-wired terminal of
that system. Within the TCP/IP protocol suite, this facility is
called Telnet. Utilizing Telnet, an Internet user can establish
connections with a multitude of bibliographic databases (primarily
library catalogs), campus information systems of various
universities, full-text databases, data files (e.g., statistics,
oceanographic data, meteorologic data, geographic data, etc.), and
other online services. Many of these systems are available for any
Internet user to access and use without an account.

What makes this application truly remarkable is that ease and speed
of access are not dependent upon proximity. An Internet user can
connect to a system on the other side of the globe as easily as (and
generally not much slower than) he or she can connect to a system in
the next building. In addition, since many Internet users are not at
present charged for their network use by their institutions, or at
least are not charged by the level of their use, cost is often not a
significant inhibitor of usage. Therefore the barriers of distance,
time and cost, which are often significant when using other forms of
electronic communication, can be reduced in the Internet environment.
A compensating disadvantage is that initial costs for Internet
connection can be high, and access can be technically demanding.

File Transfer

Another application of the Internet is the ability to transfer files
from one Internet-connected computer to another. This function is
provided by the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) of the TCP/IP protocol
suite. In a method similar to using Telnet, network users initiate an
online connection with another Internet computer via FTP. But unlike
Telnet, this online connection can perform only functions related to
locating and transferring files. This includes the ability to change
directories, list files, retrieve files, etc.

Types of files that can be transferred using FTP include virtually
every kind of file that can be stored on a computer: text files,
software programs, graphic images, sounds, files formatted for
particular software programs (e.g., files with word processing
formatting instructions), and others. Many computer administrators
have set aside portions of their machines to offer files for anyone
on the Internet to retrieve. These archive sites support "anonymous"
logins that do not require an account to access, and therefore are
called anonymous FTP sites. To locate files, Internet users can use
the Archie service, which indexes files from over 900 separate
anonymous FTP sites (Tennant, 1993).

Extended Services

The three basic Internet applications of electronic mail, remote
login, and file transfer are also building blocks of more
sophisticated applications that usually offer increased functionality
and ease of network use. Tools such as Gopher, WAIS, and World Wide
Web go beyond the three basic Internet functions to make information
on the network easier to locate and use. Gopher is a project of the
University of Minnesota that uses a series of menus to organize and
automate access to information and other online systems wherever they
reside on the Internet. The Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS)
project of Thinking Machines, Apple Computer, Dow Jones & Co., and
KPMG Peat Marwick, seeks to provide a common interface to a multitude
of Internet databases. World Wide Web is a hypertext interface to
Internet information resources that was developed at CERN in
Switzerland (Tennant, 1993). This trend toward more powerful, user-
friendly networked information resource access systems is likely to
continue as the Internet grows and matures.

Future Possibilities

The backbone infrastructure for the United States portion of the
Internet (the NSFNet, or the Interim NREN) is largely supported
through federal government funding. For this reason, use of the
network has been limited to non-profit research and educational uses,
and commercial companies have established networking arrangements
that avoid using the NSFNet. Most recently, however, dialogues have
begun about commercialization and privatization of the NSFNet
infrastructure. The full effects of such a move on current Internet
users, especially research and educational institutions, has yet to
be seen. One certainty is that the breadth of information and the
services offered on the Internet will continue to burgeon, at an ever
more rapid rate.

Further Reading

Bishop, Ann P. (1991, December). The National Research and Education
Network (NREN): Update 1991. ERIC Digest. Syracuse, NY: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Information Resources. (EDO-IR-91-9). [Also in ERIC
as ED 340 390]

Farley, Laine (Ed.). (1991). Library resources on the Internet:
Strategies for selection and use. Chicago, IL: Reference and Adult
Services Section, American Library Association.

Kehoe, Brendan P. (1993). Zen and the art of the Internet: A
beginner's guide to the Internet. (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice Hall.

Lynch, Clifford, & Preston, Cecilia. (1990). Internet access to
information resources. In Martha E. Williams (Ed.), Annual review of
information science and technology. 26 (pp. 263-312). Medford, NJ:
Learned Information.

Malkin, Gary Scott, & Marine, April N. (1992). FYI on questions and
answers: Answers to commonly asked "new Internet user" questions.
Network Working Group, Request for Comments 1325. [Available through
anonymous FTP from host, directory rfc, filename

Polly, Jean Armour. (1992). Surfing the Internet: An introduction.
Wilson Library Bulletin. 66(10), 38-42+.

Scientific American. (1991). Special issue: Communications,
computers, and networks. 265(3).

Stanton, Deidre E. (1992). Using networked information resources: A
bibliography. Perth, WA: Author. [Available through anonymous FTP
from host, directory pub/bib, filename
stanton.bib or stanton.bib.wp]

Tennant, Roy; Ober, John; & Lipow, Anne G. (1993). Crossing the
Internet threshold: An instructional handbook. Berkeley, CA: Library
Solutions Press.

U.S. Congress. (1991). High-Performance Computing Act of 1991. Public
Law 102-194, December 9, 1991. Washington, DC: U.S. Government
Printing Office. [Available through anonymous FTP from host, directory nsfnet, filename nrenbill.txt]

This digest was prepared for the ERIC Clearinghouse on Information
Resources by Roy Tennant, Public Service Automated Systems
Coordinator, The Library, University of California, Berkeley.
September 1992.

ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced
and disseminated.

This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of
Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,
under contract no. RI88062008. The opinions expressed in this report
do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or ED.