Sideways technology explanations

Years ago, I regularly taught my then-employer’s clients how to configure my employer’s client software. To do so, I had to explain what a server’s IP address and port number are. Here’s the explanation I used:

When you send a letter to a friend who lives in a house, you put the street address on the envelope. If that friend lives in an apartment, you add the apartment number to the address.

When you send a request for information (letter) to the server (building) where the database (friend) resides on a network, your client software addresses the request to the server’s IP address (address). All databases live in the equivalent of an apartment, even if the server is a one-apartment complex. That’s why your software also puts the port number (apartment number) assigned to the database on your request.

That’s what came back to me when I first found out about the Sideways Dictionary. It offers explanations of complex technology phenomena that  laypeople can understand. In other words, it offers analogies.

I’m not saying these analogies are full explanations. IT professionals who listened to my “IP address versus port” explanation weren’t totally enthralled with it. However, they understood the value of simplifying these concepts. When laypeople (i.e. the people I was teaching) understood them, they felt more comfortable with the software.

If you have five minutes, check out the dictionary. It defines terms I used above but did NOT define, like server and database. Several analogies have been contributed for each term, and they’re good.

When I consider the vast number of domain-specific terms in the IT field, I realize two things about the Sideways Dictionary:

  • it covers many popular concepts
  • it is woefully short on topics explained relative to the number that could be explained.

If you know an analogy, please contribute. (I submitted the “port number” analogy above, and the site told me it would be considered.)

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