The teeny-weeny Web server

It's the size of a match head and costs a buck, but can serve audio clips and thousands of Web pages.

By Jamais Cascio

Published August 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Remember the olden days of computing, way back when a Web server was laughably massive -- at least the size of a box of matches? Those steam-engine days are long gone, thanks to Hariharasubrahmanian Shrikumar, a computer science graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. Hariharasubrahmanian (Shri, to his friends) has developed a Web server that works on a $1 microprocessor the size of a match head. If Shri has his way, these micro-Web servers will soon be everywhere, from alarm clocks to corporate air conditioning systems, perhaps even riding on the backs of small animals as tracking devices.

This micro-Web server, called the IPic, can currently be found here, but -- since it gets moved around a fair bit -- has its contents mirrored here.

This initial IPic server, which resides on a PIC 12C509A microprocessor, is tiny. Really tiny. No, really, really tiny -- in terms of both physical size and software. In just 1K of memory, Shri has managed to build a standards-compliant TCP/IP stack, a telnet server and an HTTP (Web) daemon capable of serving up dynamic content and even (very small) Java applets. The IPic server is currently delivering up to 7,000 hits a day, serving up postscript files, small audio clips and even a brief history of the universe -- all from a system whose total size, including data storage, power management and wires to connect it to the network, is less than that of a U.S. quarter.

Shri sees a day when every action that needs to be controlled, from running a bath to setting up a printer, will be managed via a Web interface. With data traveling over electrical wires or wirelessly through the air, every device and system can chatter with the others, making the whole home or office "smart." Such a vision is conventional wisdom among the digerati, who variously see Sun's Jini or Microsoft's "Digital Nervous System" as the means to that end, with a corresponding investment in large servers and system upgrades.
What makes IPic different is that it's simple, and it works. With a chip that costs about a buck and code so tight it could be handwritten on a 3-by-5 index card, IPic really could be built into everything from light sockets to doorknobs.

But the concept doesn't stop at urban infrastructure. Cheap, reliable micro-Web servers would be a boon for everyone from environmentalists to United Nations inspectors to worried parents. Add a micropower radio transmitter and a tiny Charged-Coupled Display camera to the IPic, and you have a remote monitor the size of a pack of chewing gum (including battery) and accessible from anywhere over the Internet. Stick them to endangered species, to missiles, to wayward kids ... and really have something to worry about when the message comes back "404 Not Found."

Jamais Cascio

Jamais Cascio is a scenarist and writer working in Los Angeles, where he's still waiting to be discovered.

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