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How the Internet Works: TCP/IP, Trace Routes and Hops

In an attempt to educate you about how the Internet works, this blog post will serve as the first in a long line of posts to come titled "How the Internet Works". My aim is simple: educate readers how various aspects of the Internet work, why they are important and how you can utilize them for personal means. This week in "How the Internet Works" TCP/IP, Trace Routes and Hops.

What is TCP/IP?

TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, are the underlying principles of what makes the Internet interconnected. Structured in two levels, TCP is the upper level of the pair which aims to take large sets of data and compile it into smaller sets of data to allow for transmission. Once packets arrive in another location, the TCP layer reassembles the smaller packets into usable data. The TCP layer of the duo controls how data is transmitted across the Internet.

The lower half of the pair, IP, functions as a location finder for the packets of information controlled by TCP. Much like a GPS pointing a driver to his/her destination, the IP layer of the combination tells the packets of information where to go.

Quick Summary: TCP, Transmission Control Protocol is in charge of information, data and packets. IP, Internet Protocol, is in charge of getting that data to its intended destination.

What are the Abstraction Layers of TCP/IP?

Embedded in TCP/IP sit four abstraction layers which handle specific tasks within the data packaging and transmission process. The abstraction layers are:

  • The Link Layer - Known as the lowest layer in the group, the Link Layer establishes physical connections between Internet equipment (nodes, hosts). The Link Layer allows physical hardware devices powering the Internet to link to one another for intended communication.
  • The Internet Layer - One level about The Link Layer, the Internet Layer is used to send packets of data from the origin host, across network boundaries, to its intended IP destination. The Internet Layer "facilitates internetworking."
  • The Transport Layer - The Transport Layer, one layer below The Application Layer, allows for communication between host-to-host or end-to-end when applied to applications embedded in network architecture. As the name suggest, The Transport Layer allows for the transportation of information, packets and data between host-to-host and end-to-end.
  • The Application Layer - The top layer of the four, The Application Layer allows for application data exchange used to establish, "process-to-process connections via ports." In English, The Application Layer allows data, information and packets to be received, transmitted and unpacked at their end point destination.

As you might be able to tell, The Abstraction Layers within TCP/IP are the major elements of how TCP/IP protocol functions. The four elements allow hardware to talk to one another, packets of data to be encoded with destination coordinates and packets of data to be successfully received at their destination port.

So now the question, why does any of this matter to me?

Pinging, Trace Routes, Hops and Internet Packet Routing

You reached this blog by way of accessing InformIT.com yet a more specific way of saying this is you reached this blog by way of accessing While you might know every website by its URL, the underlying architecture of the Internet knows every website by its IP address.

Every time you send a packet of data to a website or to a specific location on the Internet, the IP of TCP/IP is utilizing individual IP addresses as a destination point. However for your packet request to reach its destination, it is never a straight path. Just like flying around the world requires landing and taking off from multiple airports between port of origin and destination, for your packet request to reach its destination requires many stops between.


Point in case, pinging a website and performing a trace routes. Pinging a website allows the end user to discover the IP of a website and performing a trace route of that website allows the end user to see how many destinations and gateways it takes for your packet to access the destination website of choice.

Just like flying around a world, the further the distance, the more gateway stops your traffic has to make. As noted by the linked video above, from my current location in New York City, accessing www.36levelsabove.com.au - an Australian hosted website - requires 12 stops. In Internet parlance, every gateway server your traffic has to access to reach its intended destination is a hop. Thus, the more hops your traffic takes, the more gateway servers your packet request is routed through.

The more hops needed for a packet to reach its destination equates to more time.

Quick Summary: Underlying Internet infrastructure is comprised of TCP/IP, Abstraction Layers, IP Addresses, Trace Routes and Hops. These elements make up the interconnected nature of the Internet.

In my next "How the Internet Works", I am going to cover CDN's, POP's and data centers, all of which are natural offshoots of this conversation.

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