There is no clear way to classify what kind of network the Internet is, in part because there is nothing else like it. The infrastructure of the Internet is also constantly evolving, and any current classification of the Internet would not square with earlier iterations of it. Similarly, our current ideas about what the Internet is may be inadequate for what it could become in the future.
Networks are typically classified by their size, so the Internet could most easily be classified as a Wide Area Network, or WAN. The next smallest network is a Metropolitan Area Network, or MAN, which would be something like a city-wide network. A WAN is anything bigger than a MAN. The description of a WAN is broad, and could be applied to the Internet, but generally is not. The Internet is most often thought of as its own kind of network.
The first real computer network was a military project called ARPANET, designed so that the loss of one network node in wartime would not bring the entire network down. A second network, NSFNET, came online in 1985 as a network between various universities. In 1988 NSFNET began to connect to other networks. Soon after, commercial Internet service providers emerged to connect to this network, further expanding its reach. Upgrades were made and more networks were connected, and the Internet grew without any clear design or structure.
Network of Networks
Because the Internet evolved instead of being designed, it is often called a network of networks, that is, a large number of insular networks connected to a larger, backbone network, which allows communication between the different networks. This design is in part a necessity, because connections between continents are extremely expensive, but in other cases it is a haphazard and inefficient way of doing things.
The Internet has evolved rapidly from its humble beginnings in 1988, and continues to evolve. People have put serious thought in to, for example, how the Internet could evolve to accommodate interplanetary settlements. Others envision a global wireless broadband network, similar to the networks available to mobile phones.
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