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Project Athena was a joint project of MIT, Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM to produce a campus-wide distributed computing environment for educational use. It was launched in 1983, and research and development ran until June 30, 1991, eight years after it began. As of 2017 , Athena is still in production use at MIT. It works as software (currently a set of Debian packages) that makes a machine a thin client, that will download educational applications from the MIT servers on demand.
Project Athena was important in the early history of desktop and distributed computing. It created the X Window System, Kerberos, and Zephyr Notification Service. It influenced the development of thin computing, LDAP, Active Directory, and instant messaging.
Leaders of the $50 million, five-year project at MIT included Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science; Jerry Wilson, dean of the School of Engineering; and Joel Moses, head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department. DEC agreed to contribute more than 300 terminals, 1600 microcomputers, 63 minicomputers, and five employees. IBM agreed to contribute 500 microcomputers, 500 workstations, software, five employees, and grant funding.
Project Athena began in May 1983. Its initial goals were to:
Although MIT already had many computers, they were mostly used for research and administration, not by students. The project intended to extend computer power into fields of study outside computer science and engineering, such as foreign languages, economics, and political science. To implement these goals, MIT decided to build a Unix-based distributed computing system. Unlike those at Carnegie Mellon University, which also received the IBM and DEC grants, students did not have to own their own computer; MIT built computer labs for their users, although the goal was to put networked computers into each dormitory. Students were required to learn FORTRAN and Lisp, and would have access to sophisticated graphical workstations, capable of 1 million instructions per second and with 1 megabyte of RAM and a 1 megapixel display. Upon logging into a workstation, they would have immediate access to a universal set of files and programs via central services. Because the workstation used a thin client model, the user interface would be consistent despite the use of different hardware vendors for different workstations. A small staff could maintain hundreds of clients.
The project spawned many technologies that are widely used today, such as the X Window System and Kerberos. Among the other technologies developed for Project Athena were the Xaw widget set, Zephyr Notification Service (which was an early instant messaging service), and the Hesiod name and directory service. The X Window System originated as a joint project of Project Athena and Laboratory for Computer Science, and was used by Athena.
The project received an extension of three years in January 1988. Developers who had focused on creating the operating system and courseware for various educational subjects now worked to improve Athena's stability and make it more user friendly. When Project Athena ended in June 1991, MIT's IT department took it over and extended it into the university's research and administrative divisions. As of April 1999 the MIT campus had more than 1300 Athena workstations, and more than 6000 Athena users logged into the system daily. Athena is still used by many in the MIT community through the computer labs scattered around the campus. It is also now available for installation on personal computers, including laptops.
Athena continues in use as of 2015, providing a ubiquitous computing platform for education at MIT; plans are to continue its use indefinitely.
Athena was designed to minimize the use of labor in its operation, in part through the use of (what is now called ) "thin client" architecture and standard desktop configurations. This not only reduces labor content in operations but also minimizes the amount of training for deployment, software upgrade, and trouble-shooting. These features continue to be of considerable benefit today.
In keeping with its original intent, access to the Athena system has been greatly enlarged in the last several years. Whereas in 1991 much of the access was in public "clusters" (computer labs) in academic buildings, access has been extended to dormitories, fraternities and sororities, and independent living groups. All dormitories have officially supported Athena clusters. In addition, most dormitories have "quick login" kiosks, which is a standup workstation with a timer to limit access to ten minutes. The dormitories have "one port per pillow" Internet access.
Originally, the Athena release used Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) as the base operating system for all hardware platforms. As of April 1999 public clusters consisted of Sun SPARC and SGI Indy workstations. SGI hardware was dropped in anticipation of the end of IRIX production in 2006. Linux-Athena was introduced in version 9, with the Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system running on cheaper x86 or x86-64 hardware. Athena 9 also replaced the internally developed "DASH" menu system and Motif Window Manager (mwm) with a more modern GNOME desktop. Athena 10 is based on Ubuntu Linux (derived from Debian) only. Support for Solaris is expected to be dropped almost entirely.
The original concept of Project Athena was that there would be course-specific software developed to use in conjunction with teaching. Today, computers are most frequently used for "horizontal" applications such as e-mail, word processing, communications, and graphics.
The big impact of Athena on education has been the integration of third party applications into courses. MATLAB and Maple (especially the former) are integrated into large numbers of science and engineering classes. Faculty expect that their students have access to and know how to use these applications for projects and homework assignments, and some have used the MATLAB platform to rebuild the courseware that they had originally built using the X Window System.
More specialized third-party software are used on Athena for more discipline-specific work. Rendering software for architecture and computer graphics classes, molecular modeling software for chemistry, chemical engineering, and material science courses, and professional software used by chemical engineers in industry, are important components of a number of MIT classes in various departments.
Athena was not a research project, and the development of new models of computing was not a primary objective of the project. Indeed, quite the opposite was true. MIT wanted a high-quality computing environment for education. The only apparent way to obtain one was to build it internally, using existing components where available, and augmenting those components with software to create the desired distributed system. However, the fact that this was a leading edge development in an area of intense interest to the computing industry worked strongly to the favor of MIT by attracting large amounts of funding from industrial sources.
Long experience has shown that advanced development directed at solving important problems tends to be much more successful than advanced development promoting technology that must look for a problem to solve. Athena is an excellent example of advanced development undertaken to meet a need that was both immediate and important. The need to solve a "real" problem kept Athena on track to focus on important issues and solve them, and to avoid getting side-tracked into academically interesting but relatively unimportant problems. Consequently, Athena made very significant contributions to the technology of distributed computing, but as a side-effect to solving an educational problem.
The leading edge system architecture and design features pioneered by Athena, using current terminology, include:
Many of the design concepts developed in the "on-line consultant" now appear in popular help desk software packages.
Because the functional and system management benefits provided by the Athena system were not available in any other system, its use extended beyond the MIT campus. In keeping with the established policy of MIT, the software was made available at no cost to all interested parties. Digital Equipment Corp. "productized" the software as DECAthena to make it more portable, and offered it along with support services to the market. A number of academic and industrial organizations installed the Athena software, probably numbering 40-60 in all.
The architecture of the system also found use beyond MIT. The architecture of the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) software from the Open Software Foundation was based on concepts pioneered by Athena. Subsequently, the Windows NT network operating system from Microsoft incorporates Kerberos and several other basic architecture design features first implemented by Athena.