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August 13, 1999
Graduate Student Builds World's Tiniest Web-Server
J M A Shenoy in Amherst
The inventor of the smallest Web-server in the world, 33-year-old Shrikumar, a Ph D candidate at a school here, is thinking of the great use the Web-server would have in offices and home.
"Right now, this is an investment of intellectual property," he says. He expects it to "eventually" be built into silicon, "and not remain just a software application". The eventual applications of his discovery could be "phenomenal," he says.
"There is no reason why the $ 17 toaster one buys from K-Mart cannot be connected to a computer," he says. His discovery could become a part of everyday life in homes across the world, he asserts. "I was not doing something just to break the record," he adds.
Each of the appliances we use in offices and homes has its own array of buttons and indicators, he points out. "We can now replace all of these with one easy-to-use point-and-click Web-browser," he suggests. 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," he says.
"Every lamp socket and window sash in one's home could be controlled from the Internet," he says. "You could install a Web-cam, password-protected of course, to check on your babysitter and children at home."
Schoolchildren could conduct science experiments by placing sensors outdoors, and adjusting them via the Internet, he continues. "These students could read not only the thermometer and barometer at their school, but also monitor weather conditions all over the country," he adds.
"Another use would be having schoolchildren monitor the soil and water purity in their area," he continues. "These tiny Web-servers can be installed in the wild, and the kids could monitor them from the computer at school," he says.
"I don't think theft of the sensors is an issue, because of the low cost," he adds.
Shrikumar is glad that after nearly six months of "going insane with this crazy hobby," his brain is finally getting some rest.
A Ph D candidate at the University of Massachusetts computer science department, Shrikumar built his Web-server, working in his spare time and using parts purchased at a local electronic store. He has reportedly has beaten many contenders including researchers at several big universities and corporations.
"For a long time I have been reading about people claiming that they had created the smallest Web-server," Shrikumar says. "So I told myself that I would create a Web-server much smaller than theirs."
"When you are obsessed with an idea, you can't let it go," he says with a chuckle. Seriously, he says his father, S H Subrahmanian, a physics professor and his mother, Kokilamani who taught biology, had instilled in him from his childhood the ideals of tenacity. "My sister and I were always encouraged to pursue our goals despite obstacles," he says. His sister is attending a college in Bombay.
Working at his home, often at 12-hours stretch, Shrikumar came out a few weeks ago with a Web-server about the size of a match-head and which costs less than $ 1 to construct. The previous title for the world's smallest Web-server was held by a researcher at Stanford University.
His 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, he says.
"This sets the limbo bar in this race down to a new, lower peg," he adds. "Since I am using the tiniest eight-bit computer chip on the market, my product is unlikely to be surpassed soon."
Though Shrikumar is still waiting to receive the patent for his discovery, he has been getting a number of phone calls from hi-tech companies.
"But I do not expect anything to happen overnight," he says. "Maybe I have to wait for a year to see my invention being widely used."
Shrikumar, who earned his first degree in India at BITS, Pilani, after studying at Kendra Vidyalaya in Bombay, says he came to America in 1992. He worked for several years at the National Centre for Software Technology; he also developed start-up technology for computer networks which was used by Datapro. "Even today," he says, "I would rather go back to India than go to Silicon Valley."
Meanwhile, he hopes to complete his PhD in about six months. And answer a lot of questions about his invention, and study offers from computer firms.
How does he substantiate his claims?
"There is no formal verification," he says. "The basic questions to ask are: Is the device there? Does it work?"
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, he says.
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.
"The match-head server went online about four weeks ago," he says, "since then it has served about 45,000 Web pages to about 6,000 users from 56 countries."
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, he explains. 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.
He says 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.
He recalls John Romkey, a well-known computer-networking researcher, predicting 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," he says, laughing. "And it costs less than the bagels that my toaster often chokes upon."
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
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