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Web Development for the Non-Programmer

Posted on September 14, 2010 by Trevor

"Web Development for the Non-Programmer" will be a new series of articles I'll be posting (along with my one-off articles). In it, we'll explore the facets of web development on a conceptual level, without going into technical details. This will help you to understand what your developer is doing and better communicate and plan development projects. You shouldn't need more than basic knowledge of computers to understand these articles.

Conceptually, web development is using technology to allow large numbers of dispersed people to communicate. It shares this goal with development in other medias such as radio and television, telephone and cellular technology, and even newspapers and magazines. More specifically, web development uses computer technology to deliver individualized, interactive communication to a large group of people. It does this using the Internet.

The Internet is the name for the worldwide network of computers connected to each other by cable, fiber optic backbone, and satellite using the Internet Protocol (IP), which gives each device a unique address at which it can be found. The internet has a hierarchical structure: large fiber-optic "backbone" cables provide the major links between hubs, and mid-level Internet Service Providers (ISPs) connect individual computers with these hubs. The internet is simply a way for computers to connect with each other, and is used for many different kinds of connections. It can be used to transfer files, play "online" games, send messages and email and even remotely control devices. Often, specialized computers called "servers" are set up whose primary purpose is to automatically provide services over the internet so that other computers (called "clients", and usually human-operated) can access them. There is one service on the Internet that allows certain computers to be referred to by an alias (called a "domain name") rather than their IP address. When using this service, a client will connect to a Domain Name Server (DNS) and pass it the domain name of the computer it wishes to reach (for example, ""). The DNS then sends the client the IP address of the target computer, and the client then connects directly to the target computer. Many different services make use of domain names to make internet addresses more accessible.

One specific type of service that uses the internet is called the World Wide Web (or Web, for short). Web servers provide documents (or "pages") and resources in a specific format that allows them to "link" to each other (and other services). The primary purpose of the web is to display formatted text, but web documents also typically incorporate images, embedded media, and dynamic content. Web documents are human-readable, but are usually displayed in a program called a "browser" (like Firefox or Internet Explorer) that interprets the encoded document and reacts to user input. Each web document is identified by a unique Uniform Resource Locator; a piece of text composed of the domain name of the server and a server-specific path to the document.

To display a web document, first the browser consults the URL, getting the address of the document's server. It then passes the path to the server. The server provides the document, either by retrieving it from storage or by running a program to generate it dynamically. It sends the document to the browser, which builds a visual representation to display to the user (including retrieving any other documents that may be necessary). Often the browser also reacts to user actions such as mouse clicks on various elements of the document by changing how the document is displayed or by retrieving new documents from a server.

The Internet and the Web are the platforms on which web development takes place. Web developers create software and documents for the servers that provide the web pages to clients, and make sure that the clients can view them correctly. Some web developers maintain complete control over every aspect of the server, while others simply write the documents that are to be passed to the client. There are several current topics regarding the internet framework that are of special interest to web developers. One is IPv4 saturation: the current format for IP addresses only has room for a limited number of addresses and is likely to run out of new addresses this year. There is a new format called IPv6 that provides room for many more addresses, but it has not been universally adopted yet. Another issue is net neutrality: the idea that ISPs and backbone servers treat all servers and service types equally (for example, they don't prevent access to certain web pages).

Make sure to come back next month when I talk more in detail about the basis for web pages and online programming languages.


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