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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 18:05 GMT


Mapping the internet

Data pathways around the globe

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

As you read this you are somewhere in cyberspace. But, as you move from website to website, as the data that is sent to and from your browser or e-mail program gets passed around, have you ever wondered what the internet actually looks like?

[ image: Interconnections between domains]
Interconnections between domains
Some researchers have tried to make maps of cyberspace but how do you produce a map of something for which distance is irrelevant? All users of the net know that a website housed on a server on the other side of the world is just as easy to access as one in the next room - bandwidth considerations notwithstanding.

So if the usual concept of distance is out how do you make a map of the Internet?

On a simple level it is a network of servers with data links connecting them across the Earth's surface and with some data connections reaching up into space to satellites.

But we all know that this "physical map" is not what cyberspace looks like. It is also possible to produce a map using internet provider addresses. This is what a team of scientists at Bell Labs in the United States have been doing.

[ image: The Internet is far more than datalinks]
The Internet is far more than datalinks
Their map has 100,000 nodes and has a tree-like structure or perhaps it looks like a lung?

The "map" can be coloured in many ways using actual geographical positions or network capacity for example. In some versions of the maps you can see the distinct identity of different domains such as .edu for educational or .mil for military.

By making maps at regular dates they will even be able to make a movie of the internet growing.

What internet cartographers have realised since they first started this task is that there will be many maps of cyberspace, just as there are many types of maps of the Earth based on different geometrical projections or on different properties of the Earth's surface, such as relief or climatic or political maps.

[ image: The internet: Growing in an organic fashion?]
The internet: Growing in an organic fashion?
No one of these maps gives all the information about the Earth and no one of them is any more correct than the other - each type of map is good at showing one particular aspect of the whole.

So it is in cyberspace.

The data that moves around is just binary 0's and 1's but that's not much use to humans. We need text, images, audio and visual information so charting their movement is another way to visualise the web.

To some cyberspace is a network of bridges between computers, for others it is a network of bridges between people.

Some see it as tides of ideas rippling through an information ocean, others as if each internet site is a star connected by paths of infolight with total darkness in-between them.

[ image: Social interconnections in Australia: The Internet is like this]
Social interconnections in Australia: The Internet is like this
In some ways the growth of the internet, by a factor of a million in just a few years, is like the big bang that created the cosmos.

The big bang expanded creating its own space and time in which it could move into. Likewise cyberspace is exploding into cyberspace and creating cyberspace as it expands.

The maps being created show us that we will need new, more powerful browsers that do more than just go back and forward through cyberspace one step at a time. Eventually others that will allow a different type of navigation through the net will join the forward and back button on your browser.

Perhaps no one really knows the shape of the Internet. All we can know is its edge and at the moment that edge is the surface of our computer screens.

But it will not be like that for long.

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