Online glossary: We break down tricky technical terms

Getting online and using modern technology is almost a requirement for small businesses in the 21st century. But, along with the technology, you often get a lot of jargon that means nothing to an inexperienced user.

Here, Viatel has put together a list of ‘technobabble’ and what it means.

ADSL: See Broadband and DSL

Anti-virus: Not a humbug sucking relative, but a software program that protects the internal company computer network from malicious software. Commonly run in association with a firewall and a spam filter.

ASP: Application service provider, these host applications, such as financial packages, supply chain management databases for companies and lease expensive software packages to reduce initial capital outlay, but do not provide the Internet connection.

ATM: Asynchronous Transfer Mode. A networking protocol allowing data to be transmitted rapidly, see transfer protocol. Most commonly deployed on very large corporate networks and across international telecommunications links.

Attachment: A file or document that has been included with an email. Opening attachments from unknown sources is one of the most common ways of contracting a virus, aside from travelling on the London Underground.

Bandwidth: A measure of the data capacity of your connection, or how much information can be squeezed down your line. Similar to plumbing, a sewer pipe will carry more water than the small bore pipes that supply your taps, hence the common expression “You need a fatter pipe”. Measured in bits per second.

Broadband: An ‘always-on’ Internet connection in contrast to dial-up. Broadband comes in more flavours than ice-cream. Speeds range upwards from 256 kbps, but standard offeringsat present go up to 2 Mbs. To tailor the speed and cost you can choose how many other companies share your line (the contention ratio). Further variety comes with asymmetric and symmetric connections – see DSL.

Browser: Software allowing you to access the World Wide Web. The browser translates HTML into meaningful sounds  and pictures. The two most popular browsers are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator. Bit (kb, Mb, Gb): The smallest unit of information on a computer, and the basis of the logic that underpins all  modern day systems. See bytes.

Bits per second (bps): The amount of data transmitted from one device to another per second. Common abbreviations are kbps (Kilobits per second – a thousand bits) and Mbps (Megabits per second – a million bits). See bits.

Bytes (KB, MB, GB): A unit of storage capable of holding a single character, a byte is normally equal to 8 bits. Common divisions are kilobytes (1,024 bytes), megabytes (1,048,576 bytes), and gigabytes (1,073,741,824 bytes). The correct abbreviation for bytes is a capital B. A lowercase b indicates bits.

Co-location: Placing your server, usually a Web server, in a dedicated facility to ensure it stays up and running, and is kept safe and secure. This removes the risk of it being unplugged by the cleaner as they vacuum your office. See hosting, failover and data centre.

Contention ratio: The number of other organisations sharing your bandwidth. Normally expressed as a ratio, 20:1 means you might have to share your connection with up to 19 others. The bandwidth offered is the maximum available and actual speeds will often be much lower. Essentially the same as trying to travel by car on the M25; on a busy day everybody slows down.

Data centre: A managed facility containing racks of servers monitored by technical staff. ISPs will generally run their own data centres or lease space and staff in one. Essential to provide effective co-location and hosting services. Also known as Internet Hotels, but you wouldn’t want to try and strike up a conversation in the bar.

DHTML: Dynamic HTML, simply web content that changes every time it is viewed. See transfer protocol.

Disaster recovery: An umbrella term for technologies and services that ensure the IT functions of a company are interrupted for the shortest time possible in case of an unforeseen event such as fire, flood or yak stampede. At the most basic level this is storing back-up copies of data on tapes or servers at an alternate location. ISPs generally provide a range of services – often backing up systems remotely over your Internet connection. See Failover.

DNS: Domain Name Server. The World Wide Web runs on numbers. Just as you might phone Bob on 020 876 etc., the IP address for is rendered as Domain Name Servers are the equivalent of Directory Enquiries converting these numbers back into names so that they’re easier for humans to remember.

Domain name: A name linked to one or more IP addresses. Domain names are used within URLs.

DSL (ADSL/SDSL): Digital subscriber line – the most common type of Broadband connection as it can be run over existing phone lines, rather than over specially laid cable, or wireless connections. The various letters to be found in front of DSL indicate whether the connection is Asymmetric – where it’s quicker to download than send data, or Symmetric – where it’s as quick to send as to receive data.

e-commerce: Not a colloquialism from Yorkshire but a general term for conducting business online. One of the few survivors from a nineties trend of prefixing the letter ‘e’ onto common activities. Another survivor is email.

Email: Electronic mail – communications sent over the Internet. Generally your Internet Service Provider will set you up with a mailbox and also software to scan incoming emails for viruses and spam. One of the most productivity boosting technologies to emerge in the past ten years, and an excellent way of keeping in touch with your customers, friends and all manner of fraudsters. See Spam.

Encryption: See PKI.

Ethernet: See LAN.

Failover: A backup system to ensure critical IT systems keep running. Such measures are said to improve resilience and redundancy.

Fibre network: A network where data is transmitted as pulses of light over glass fibres. This is a faster alternative to sending electrical signals over copper wires, which have traditionally formed our telephone lines. Mainly used for long distance and data rich communications, these fibre links are very expensive to maintain and most firms tend to lease capacity on others’ networks. Some larger firms, especially international operators actually own the fibre-optic network.

Firewall: A flaming necessity. Software or hardware that sits between the Internet and a company network preventing unauthorised access. Firewalls effectively function as bouncers, preventing undesirables from gaining access to your network. They come in many flavours depending upon how they filter information, but all essentially perform the same role.

FTP: eff-tee-pee. The sixth tent in a hippie commune. See transfer protocol.

Hacker: A computer enthusiast who delights in obtaining unauthorised access to others’ digital property. Although glamorised in films such as ‘The Matrix’, it is rare for a hacker to have flawless skin and attract beautiful women, though many do possess long black leather coats.

Host: To provide the infrastructure over which services are run. The next step on from co-location. A common hosting agreement is for ISPs and telecoms companies to host the websites and applications of other firms on their own machines, rather than just provide space for the business’ server in their rack. Such a relationship benefits companies by providing them with access to 24 hour monitoring and more robust systems unlikely to be crashed by the boss’ son playing computer games.

HTML: aitch-tee-em-el. See transfer protocol.

HTTP: aitch-tee-tee-pee. See transfer protocol.

Hyperlink: The useful underlined blue words in documents or on websites that link you to more information. Internet: The Internet is a massive interconnected network of computers, it differs from the World Wide Web which is a layer of software that runs on top of it and is based on HTML. Pedants may extract pleasure from pointing out that the two are not the same, however this line rarely wins the ladies.

Internet Protocol (IP): eye-pee. Internet Protocol is the digital equivalent of the postal service, though more reliable. It allows you to address individual packets of data (discrete chunks of information) and send them off across the Internet without establishing a physical connection with the receiving computer.

IP address: See DNS.

IP Sec: eye-pee-sek. A type of encryption applied to data sent over a VPN to keep it safe from prying eyes. Generally used to secure confidential company information.

IP transit: The leasing of capacity on another operator’s network for running IP services – see Fibre network.

IDS: eye-dee-ess. An intrusion detection system, the quiet man of Internet security. Similar to, and used in combination with, firewalls. In contrast to a firewall which functions like a bouncer, an IDS works rather like its MP namesake, staying discreetly in the background. An IDS doesn’t necessarily prevent attacks, but instead may trigger an alarm and record the activity. Unlike Mr Smith it is very effective at preventing backstabbing attacks from within the system.

ISDN: eye-ess-dee-en. Integrated Services Digital Network is a dial-up technology, which uses a dedicated digital phone line for faster data transmission. Increasingly replaced by ‘always-on’ Broadband especially DSL, which tends to be cheaper and faster.

ISP: eye-ess-pee. Internet Service Provider – if Internet Protocol is the digital equivalent of the postal service then your ISP is the Royal Mail. ISPs provide you with a connection into the Internet, and usually take care of the delivery of your email and the hosting of your website.

LAN: lann. Local Area Network, a network of computers confined to a small area – generally an office. Many LANs can be connected together to form a wide area network or WAN. An example would be the corporate network of a high street bank, with each branch having its own LAN and being part of the WAN. The most common protocol to transmit data over a LAN is ethernet – see transfer protocol for more on how these work.

Leased line: A permanent telecommunications connection between two points. Generally the local telephone exchange and a business with heavy telecoms use. It is the motorway to the standard telephone wire’s ‘B’ road.

Mailbox: This is the space assigned to you into which your emails are sent. It can be hosted externally by an ISP, or locally on your server or PC.

Mail server: See server.

Malware: Short for mailicious software, includes things such as viruses, trojan horses and worms. All of which circulate freely on the Internet and through spam email, and try to subvert your computer to their programmers’ will. See Virus.

Network: A system of computers interconnected to share information. See LAN and Internet.

Packet: A discrete chunk of information transmitted over a network, usually incorporating the destination address. See IP. Peer to peer: Known to its friends as P2P, this is a type of network architecture where all computers are equal, with equivalent capabities and responsibilities. Like Marxism the fans of this system enjoy cultivating beards.

Ping: A method of determining whether an IP address is open or not. This is a small packet of data sent to an address with the instructions to send a reply straight back. Often used to troubleshoot problematic Internet connections. Rather like shouting “Can you hear me?”

PKI: pee-kay-eye. Public Key Infrastructure. A variety of encryption technologies all designed to validate and authenticate parties involved in transactions occuring over the Internet. Unfortunately there’s no commonly agreed system yet, and most agree this is holding up the development of e-commerce.

POP: pop not pee-oh-pee. Point of presence – an access point to the Internet. In the same way stations such as Tottenham Court Road connect London Underground to the outside world, so too do POPs provide an opportunity to plug into the Internet. Typically owned by ISPs the availability of a POP in your area will determine the availability of various telecoms services.

Protocol: Set of rules by which various Internet devices communicate between themselves to transmit data. For example IP, ATM, FTP. See transfer protocol.

Rack: An expensive set of shelves. This is the metal cabinetin which various servers sit and which the IT department guards jealously. The flickering array of lights is one of the few Star Trek innovations to make it into the real world. Redundancy: Nothing to do with the dreaded P45. This simply indicates the presence of back-up systems to take over if it all goes wrong.

Remote user: In networks, remote refers to anything not connected directly to your computer. Remote users can therefore be considered as anything from a laptop user in reception, to a road warrior in Germany, to your “homeworking” boss in his bed. New networking technologies such as VPN allow these users to be connected into the corporate network securely and inexpensively over the Internet.

Resilience: See Failover.

Router: A device that forwards data to the correct destination. Effectively a set of railway points across two or more networks, forwarding data off one and onto another and ensuring your data stays on track. Routers communicate amongst themselves to determine the best path for forwarding the data. Commonly these act as gateways between two LANs, a LAN and a WAN, or a LAN and the ISP’s network.


Server: The daddy computer on a network which manages all the network resources. Generally these are kept in racks and guarded by the IT manager. Often there will be separate servers to manage files, printing, email, network traffic and databases. Servers can generally be accessed by all computers on the network, so for instance any user can save files onto the file server or access their mailbox.

Service Level Agreement: Often abbreviated to SLA, this is a contract between two parties that commits a service provider to guaranteed levels of system performance across various indicators, and appropriate penalties if these are not met. Normally SLAs relate to things such as uptime or response time, i.e. how reliable your Internet connection is.

Software: Not a range of comfy slippers advertised within Daily Mail supplements but the programs and routines that control the functioning of the hardware and direct its operation.

Software patch: If you get a puncture you pop a patch on it. Software patches are simply pieces of code to repair holes or bugs in applications and operating systems. It is important to impose a strict patching policy to ensure your systems stay secure. See Virus.

Spam: Unsolicited emails, generally begging for your help to release funds from an obscure bank or promising to increase the size of your manhood. Spam filters run by your ISP or on your computer can help to reduce this irritation. Incidentally the name is derived from Monty Python’s spam chanting Vikings, the link being it just won’t shut up.

Switch: See Hub.

Transfer protocol: The software language spoken across the Internet. This comes in more dialects than Chinese, but the two main ones are: File Transfer Protocol (FTP) for moving entire files onto and off the Internet and Hyper Text Tranfer Protocol for download only. HTTP defines how messages are formatted and transmitted, and what actions Web servers and browsers should take in response to various commands, i.e. when you type in a URL, what happens next. HTTP’s close relative is HTML or Hyper Text Markup Language, this covers how web pages are displayed and formatted.

Trojan horse: Not a Greek porn star, but rather a nasty piece of malware. See Virus.

URL: you-arr-el. Uniform Resource Locator. Interestingly this can help you locate a woggle and scout cap but is capable of far more. It is the address you tap into your browser, for instance: The first part instructs the browser to use HTTP protocol to fetch the webpage from the Web, whilst Viatel is the domain name.

Virus: A malicious program that runs on your computer without your knowledge or permission. Variously known as trojans, worms or plain old viruses dependent upon their behaviour. The effects of viruses can vary from annoyance, pop-up messages, to complete system failure. Common methods of entry include via email, or through unpatched security breaches. A firewall, anti-virus application, and regular patching are the best defence. Penicillin is no protection.

VoIP: vee-oh-eye-pee or vuh-oy-puh. Voice over IP, commonly pronounced vee-oh-eye-pee. A term applied to both the hardware and software that allows you to make phone calls over the Internet. The advantages are cheapercalls and the ability to integrate telephone calls with your PC applications.

VPN: Virtual Private Network: A method of connecting computers securely over the public Internet or shared networks. All data transmitted is encrypted and only available to authorised users. Useful for setting up inexpensive and flexible corporate networks. It is rather like the way the Queen travels; whilst she’s speeding along a public road, she’s protected by blacked-out bullet proof windows and police officer outriders. Unlike the way the Queen travels VPNs are cheap to run.


WLAN: Increasingly wireless LANs are becoming popular. These as the name indicates dispense with wires and instead communicate via radio waves. As radio waves travel through walls. it is important to consider the security of the network and to ensure your firewall covers both the wired LAN and the wireless LAN.

Web page: A document on the World Wide Web, every page has a URL.

Web server: See server.

World Wide Web/www: See Internet.

Worm: See Virus.

XML: ex-em-el. XML stands for eXtensible Mark-up Language and is a way of sharing data across different computer systems and applications. Basically any digital device in the future should be able to both create and view XML files allowing data to be swapped from one application to another. Just received a party invite as a word document? No problem – it’ll transfer into your diary automatically, so no excuses for missing the mother-in-law’s birthday.


The above is an edited selection of terms from the Viatel Technobabble dictionary


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