My First Web Server


Jeremy Zawodny's reminiscing about his first Web server and got me thinking about my first server.

In 1993, I left the University of Idaho's CS department to take a position at BYU. I was a formal methods researcher and at that time, the only way to run FM software was on big servers. So, I spent a summer at BYU waiting for my HP Workstations to show up. Kelly Hall had transfered to BYU from Idaho with me as a grad student. We were both bored.

Kelly came in one day talking to me about HTTP and something called Mosaic. Since we had nothing else to do, we grabbed a copy of the NCSA Web server and put it on some machine we had on loan--I don't even remember what it was, but probably something that ran HPUX. We wrote some shell script-based CGIs and quickly decided that Perl was the way to go.

A little while later, we started using Plexus a pure, Perl-based Web server. At the time, plugin architectures for Web servers were not really very mature, so if you wanted your Web server to do something else, you hacked it. Having a Web server based on Perl made that very easy (even though it was slow).

Since this was the first Web server at BYU, we decided to build pages for the CS department and even BYU itself (BYU, even mentions it in their history of computing at BYU). I got in trouble from Risk Management for posting maps of the building on the Web. Even in 1993, BYU's Risk Management group was worried about terrorists. :-) The most serious application we had for a long time was an online, searchable set of documentation for the HOL Theorem Prover. At the time, it was amazing to search 750 pages of reference material and get what you wanted.

The most famous thing on our server, however, was the LAL Cat Archive, a large number of cat pictures we'd been collecting for a few years--I named my machines after cats--still do. The archive was even listed in Newsweek Magazine after Room Twelve listed it on their top ten Web sites in 1996. At one point, I think the cat picture archive was eating up a substantial portion of BYU's bandwidth because they always complained about it.

I started using the Web to teach CS330, Concepts of Programming Languages in January 1994. Many of the notes we created then are still in use in the class today, although now they're on a Wiki. At that time, students didn't know what a Web browser was, so the first assignment was meant to introduce them to browsers and Web pages. It's hard to imagine how much things have changed.