Project Athena

Project Athena was a joint project of MIT, Digital Equipment Corporation and IBM in the period 1983 to 1991. The goal was the production of a campus-wide distributed computing environment for educational purposes. As such, the project at least at MIT until today (2011) is still current.

Project Athena was an important milestone in the early history of distributed computing with a desktop metaphor. In this project, the X Window System, the authentication protocol Kerberos and the Zephyr notification service originated. Athena also influenced the development of thin computing, LDAP, Active Directory, and instant messaging.

Historical Overview

The original objectives of the Project Athena were the following:

  • Development of computer-based learning tools for use in diverse learning environments
  • Acquisition of a knowledge base for future decisions about the use of computers in education
  • Creation of a computing environment that supports various types of hardware
  • Facilitating the exchange of ideas, programs, data and experiences within the MIT

To achieve these goals, the Technical Committee decided to build a distributed computing environment. The students should have access to high-performance graphics workstations, which should have a computing power of 1 MIPS, a main memory of 1 MB and a screen with 1 megapixel after the then state of the art. After they had logged on to any workstation, they should get over central services directly access to a comprehensive set of files and programs. Despite various hardware vendors the user interface should look like the same everywhere, and for the administration of hundreds of workstations only a small crew should be required. These demands led to the development of " stateless " " thin client" workstations.

In the project a number of techniques have been developed that are widely used today, such as the X Window System, the Kerberos authentication protocol, the Xaw widget set, the Zephyr Notification Service, one of the first instant messaging services, and the directory service Hesiod. The X Window System was started as a joint project of Project Athena and the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT.

After the completion of the Athena project in June 1991, the resulting system was called Athena computing environment and the management information system WITH organization transferred. The Athena system is still used in the MIT community in many ways, including in the computer labs, which are distributed over the campus. It is also suitable for installation on PCs ready.

A computing environment for the training

Athena is designed with the aim to minimize the amount of work for its operation. This was achieved in part by the now so-called "thin client " architecture and standardized desktop configurations. This also training expenses, for installing, upgrading, and troubleshooting is reduced.

While maintaining its original goals of access to the Athena system in recent years has been greatly expanded. While 1991 saw the access is usually via computer labs in university buildings, access was expanded to include student dormitories, fraternities and independent living communities. Some halls of residence have officially supported Athena cluster.

Originally used Athena Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD ) operating system for all hardware platforms. Mid-1990s were the public computer labs mainly of SPARC hardware from Sun Microsystems Solaris Operating System and Silicon Graphics (SGI ) workstations based on the MIPS hardware and the operating system Irix. The SGI hardware has been retired because their production ended in 2006. Linux -Athena was then in version 9 with Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system introduced on cheaper x86 or x86 -64 hardware. Athena 9 also replaced the internally developed " DASH " menu system and the Motif Window Manager ( mwm ) by a more modern GNOME desktop. Athena 10, which will be released 2009, then only on Ubuntu Linux (derived from Debian) based. Support for Solaris is probably all set.

Training software

The original idea in the Project Athena was that there would be no lectures specific software that would be developed in conjunction with the teaching program. Today, computers are, however, mainly for so-called "horizontal" applications like e- mail, word processing, communications and graphics used.

The greatest impact of the Athena project on training was the integration of third -party software in the courses. MATLAB and Maple are used in a large number of natural and engineering science events. The professors expect their students to these applications have access and can handle it, to edit their projects and homework; some have rewritten their originally produced for the X Window System training software on the MATLAB platform.

There were some examples of subject-specific software training at MIT and elsewhere, but it is not used in wide circles and their contribution to the improvement of education is controversial.

Contribution to the development of distributed systems

Athena was not a research project and the development of new models of computer use was not a primary aim of the project, but the opposite was the case: the MIT wanted a quality computing environment for teaching. Obviously, the only way to achieve this, to build such an environment, even in the use of available components, which have been expanded by its own software in order to produce the desired distributed system. However, the fact that this was a ground- breaking development in an area that was for the whole computer industry is of great interest worked strongly in favor of MIT, by attracting large funding from industry.

Experience has shown that an advanced development that aims to solve important problems, is more successful than the advanced development to disseminate a technology that is still looking for a problem to solve it. Athena is an example of an advanced development that should solve an equally urgent as important problem. The need to solve a real problem, Athena gave to step forward to focus on key issues and to resolve them, and not to let it distract you from scientifically interesting but relatively unimportant issues. Therefore Athena yielded very significant contributions to the technology of distributed computing and triggered by the way a training problem.

The going back to Athena innovations in system architecture and design principles are, in modern terminology, including:

  • The client -server model for distributed computing with a " three-tier " architecture
  • The thin client ( stateless ) desktop computer
  • A system-wide security system (Kerberos, encrypted authentication)
  • A directory service ( Hesiod )
  • The X Window widely used in the Unix community system
  • The X tool kit ( XTk ) for the easy production of graphical user interfaces
  • Instant messaging ( Zephyr )
  • A system- wide directory tree
  • An integrated system-wide maintenance system ( Moira Service Management System)
  • An online help system ( OLH )
  • A public bulletin board system ( Discuss )

Many design concepts that have been developed for the OLH, occur today in popular help desk software packages.

Because the functional advantages and benefits for system management, which provided the Athena system, were not available in any other system of the time, its use on the MIT campus also spread. In accordance with the strategy of MIT, the software has been made ​​available to all interested parties free of charge. DEC made ​​a real product of it and offered it along with support services on the market. A whole series (probably 40-60) academic and industrial organizations installed the Athena software.

The architecture of the system was used outside of MIT. In particular, the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE ) software was built on the Open Foundation concepts that were originally introduced by Athena. Later, the Windows NT operating system from Microsoft took on the Kerberos protocol and other basic architectural design decisions that were first implemented in Athena.

Users outside of MIT

The computer graphics and animation company Pixar Animation Studios used most of the first 50 Athena systems for the rendering of the movie The Adventures of André and Wally B., before the general use of a computer was fed.

The Iowa State University operates an implementation of the Athena system called Project Vincent, named after John Vincent Atanasoff, the designer of the Atanasoff -Berry Computer.

The North Carolina State University operates a variant of the Athena system called Eos / Unity

The Carnegie Mellon University operates a similar system Project Andrew from which the AFS emerged, which is used in the Athena system as a file system.

The University of Maryland College Park operates a variant of the Athena system, which originally was called Project Glue and now TerpConnect.