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Student web server leads users on Internet paths

Like the rest of the global collection of networks known as the Internet, use of a network service initiated by MIT students is growing by leaps and bounds-and one of its components recently won an international prize.

The Student Information Processing Board, or SIPB, supports a server, or provider of information, through which computer users all over the world can access information about MIT and other services, including professional basketball and football statistics and weather forecasts. Matthew Gray, former chairman of SIPB, has also written a program designed to gauge the size of the World Wide Web, the route to the information contained on computers linked up via the Internet's vast highway system of wires and protocols, which allow different types of machines to communicate with each other.

SIPB, which this month celebrated its 25th anniversary, provides computer-related services such as software, MIT network news and documentation. SIPB also provides campus publications, clubs and living groups with a way of distributing their own home pages, which are customized network indexes for sources of information frequently accessed by users.

MIT has several other network servers aside from the SIPB World Wide Web Server. Information Systems has recently started a server to provide official information and documents relating to MIT (including a link to TechInfo), and The Tech has its own server containing back issues of the newspaper. The Tech is one of the few college papers that is available both on paper and electronically, according to contributing editor Eric Richard, a junior in computer science and prospective SIPB member. This spring, it was accessed by people all over the world seeking information about the David LaMacchia case. "We've had other colleges come to us and ask how they can get this kind of stuff on line," he said.

About a year ago, SIPB members including Chad Brown and Mr. Gray, a junior in physics, were experimenting with Mosaic, a public-domain software program that provides an easy method of navigating and locating information on the Web. "We were looking at other Web servers and we just said, `Let's start a Web server ourselves,'" he recalled.

Among the offerings that SIPB has been adding since its server started up is the World Wide Web Sports Information Service begun by Mr. Richard. He took information already on line and combined it with photographs and statistics scanned in from media guides he obtained from every NBA team. "I pulled together sources of information and put it in one place, made it look nice and made it so people could access it easily," he said. He added football information shortly after the recent annual NFL draft in April.

The service also incorporates daily updates of league standings and box scores that others on the Internet provide. Although much of this information is available in newspapers, "users can access it any time, and there's not the constraint of space that you have in newspapers," he noted. "You now have control over whatever information you want to see and when you want to see it."

The service has been quite successful, averaging about 5,000 accesses a day, he added. Its popularity was confirmed last month at the International World Wide Web Conference in Switzerland, where network users voted it the 1994 Best of the Web award in the entertainment site category. Other nominees were MTV, Wired magazine, and the Global Network Navigator.

Mr. Gray wrote an interface to the National Weather Service server whereby users see a map of the United States and use a mouse to point and click on any location to obtain the weather forecast for that area. Another SIPB service provides the elevation and exact latitude and longitude of almost any town in the country. Jeremy Hylton, 1993-94 editor of The Tech and a senior in computer science and engineering, added a program whereby Shakespeare plays already available on the Web can be methodically searched for names or other references.

The World Wide Web Wanderer, also written by Mr. Gray, searches the Web and compiles data on how many servers there are on the Internet. As of June 5, 1993, there were 130 sites providing information, he said; by December, that number had grown to more than 600, and there are about 1,500 today. "It's growing on a scale of two to three servers a day," he said.

**Figures compiled by the National Science Foundation reveal the exponential growth rate of the worldwide electronic transmission of information. In March 1993, about six terabytes (six trillion bytes, or 6 million megabytes) of data traveled over the NSF Backbone, which is the "big pipe" for data being transmitted between physically distant points, Mr. Gray explained. Of that six terabytes, three gigabytes (3 billion bytes) went by way of the World Wide Web. In March 1994, however, 14 terabytes of information were transmitted over the NSF Backbone, 518 gigabytes of that via the Web. The amount of data now being transmitted in one day exceeds the amount for the first three months of 1993 and for all of 1992. The SIPB Server itself now receives more traffic in one hour than it did during an entire day last December. "The World Wide Web has gotten really big really fast, and people are psyched about it," he said.

An indication of the burgeoning power of globally networked data is the fact that the business world has begun to embrace a technology that started as a tool mostly for universities and the military. For example, CommerceNet is a network started just this spring by a consortium of Silicon Valley corporations to disseminate services and commercial information about themselves. Several banks also offer sophisticated on-line services as well. "It's been fun the past couple of months watching more and more companies pop up on the Internet," Mr. Richard said.

In an attempt to capitalize on this business potential, several MIT students have just formed net.Genesis Corp., a consulting firm which will "work with companies that want an Internet presence and put them up there to their best advantage," explained Mr. Richard, the firm's software services engineer. Others in the company include Mr. Gray, the primary software architect; CEO Rajat Bhargava, a senior and master's candidate in electrical engineering and computer science; Matthew Cutler, president and a junior in mechanical engineering; and freshman Craig Wisneski, director of new media.

"A lot of companies out there are beginning to see that the Internet and the World Wide Web are the best ways of putting information out there," Mr. Gray said. This corporate material joins the dizzying array of words, pictures and sounds already available at the touch of a button, ranging from books, government documents and legislation, scientific papers, gene descriptions from the Human Genome project, authors' readings of their work, wire service news, paintings and more. "The masses of information out there are just incredible," he observed.

A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 1).

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