Tiniest Web-Server Built by Computer Science Graduate Student at UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass. - A graduate student in the University of Massachusetts computer science department has built what is believed to be the world''s smallest Web-server. It is about the size of a match-head and cost less than $1 to construct. The previous title for the world''s smallest Web-server was held by a researcher at Stanford University.

The design uses only the small microcontroller chip called the PIC, making the world''s smallest Web-server about 1/4 of an inch by 1/4 of an inch, according to Hariharasubrahmanian Shrikumar, who follows the Southern Indian custom of putting his surname first and is known as "Shri."

A Web-server is a specially-prepared computer which is connected to the Internet and makes information available on the World Wide Web. Until recently only desktop computers or larger machines could be connected to the Internet as Web-servers.

Shri built the Web-server in his spare time, using parts purchased at an electronics store. Due to the potential significant usefulness of such a device, the technical challenge of building the world''s tiniest Web-server has become the focus of many different teams of researchers around the world, he says. In the last few months, several contenders to the title have emerged, including researchers at major corporations and other leading universities. Since the match-head server went online July 14, it has served about 45,000 Web pages to about 6,000 users from 56 countries, according to Shri. The server''s Web page includes a picture of the computer alongside a quarter. It also offers a detailed technical description of the device.

In terms of technology, the achievement is not only in connecting a small computer on the Web, but also in the size of the network software that is running on the chip, according to Shri. The computer consists of an iPic TCP/IP stack running on 256 bytes of memory, using its own equally tiny operating system. Despite the small size, the TCP/IP stack is fully compliant with the requirements of the relevant standards. It is connected to the Internet through a serial port. Because the machine is a Web-server, it does not need a keyboard or display, but is operated from another computer using a Web connection.

The Web-server has been shrunk about two orders of magnitude, becoming almost 400 times smaller in physical size, and 1,000 times smaller in software size, Shri said. "This sets the limbo bar in this race down to a new, lower peg," he said. And because he is using the tiniest eight-bit computer chip on the market, the record is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.

The diminutive server is more than just a cute record-breaker, according to Shri, because it combines Internet technology with the microchips that run many of the appliances we use each day, both at home and at work. Each appliance has its own array of buttons and indicators. "We can now replace all of these with one easy-to-use point-and-click Web-browser," suggests Shri. As an example, someone who is forgetful, or merely fretful while traveling, could drop into an Internet cafe anywhere to check on the oven back home -- and turn it off as well. And he or she would not need specialized software, "a super-duper gizmo or an expensive wireless controller. All that''s needed is access via any Web-browser. Every lamp socket and window sash in your home could be controlled from the Internet," mused Shri. "You could install a Web-cam, password- protected of course, to check on your babysitter and children at home."

Other possibilities are related to the classroom. Schoolchildren could conduct science experiments by placing sensors outdoors, and adjusting them via the Internet. "These students could read not only the thermometer and barometer at their school, but also monitor weather conditions all over the country," Shri said. Another use would be having schoolchildren monitor the soil and water purity in their area. "These tiny Web-servers can be installed in the wild, and the kids could monitor them from the computer at school," said Shri. Theft of the sensors wouldn''t be an issue, because of the low cost.

John Romkey, a well-known computer-networking researcher, predicted in 1990 that one day every toaster would be on the Net. "I am not sure I would insist that my pop-up toaster deserves its own home-page on the Web, but should I want to do it, the technology is here," said Shri. "And it costs less than the bagels that my toaster often chokes upon."

Shri''s graduate research is unrelated to the Web-server project. Rather, it concerns the techniques by which complex computer systems which control machinery are built. Such automated machinery is often used in aviation control systems and robotics.

NOTE: Shri can be reached at shri@cs.umass.edu or 413/549-8484. You can visit the world''s tiniest Web-server, which offers images and a demo, at
http://www-ccs.cs.umass.edu/~shri/iPic.html. Technical details of the iPic TCP/IP stack are available at http://www-ccs.cs.umass.edu/~shri/iPicTech.html.