Athena adjusts as IBM, DEC grants end
By Jeremy Hylton
The 1991-92 academic computing budget will be $3.7 million, nearly 60 percent less than the current annual budget for Project Athena. The Athena project concludes on June 30 of this year, when grants and support from IBM and the Digital Equipment Corp. expire.
IBM and DEC contributed a combined total of approximately $6.6 million for Project Athena this year. Both companies may support future academic computing initiatives, Provost Mark S. Wrighton said. "I believe that both DEC and IBM are pleased with the Athena Project and are anxious to see what we will do next," he said.
The Institute will provide all of the $3.7 million budgeted for the coming year. Although the overall funding will decline because of the loss of outside sponsorship, the Insitute's contribution will rise from $2.4 million last year. "There's a substantial commitment being made by the Institute, as much as it can," explained Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Earll M. Murman, director of Project Athena.
Though the Athena project will be terminated, the Athena network and many existing services will remain. Because of the loss of funding, Athena's service delivery systems, which support the Athena network on a day-to-day basis, will be merged with Information Systems.
Details of the merger will be announced by Murman and Professor of Electrical Engineering James D. Bruce ScD '60, vice president for Information Systems, at a meeting of Athena and IS employees this afternoon.
Murman and Wrighton declined to comment on the specifics of the merger.
The academic computing the Institute plans to fund next year is below the level recommended by the Committee on Academic Computation in the 1990s and Beyond (CAC90), chaired by Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65. The CAC90 report presented three options for future computing at MIT.
The first option called for an increase in systems and services and would double the current Athena budget. The second option, endorsed by the committee, would maintain total current spending levels. The last option, called the retreat option, would cost only $2.4 million, and would decrease the number of available clusters and services.
"None of the three options turned out to be to fully implemented, primarily for financial reasons," Murman said. The CAC90 hoped that current spending would be maintained.
"The middle option, where the committee hoped we would end up, is not possible immediately, but will become possible in a few years," Murman said.
Layoffs expected for Athena,
The size of the new Athena and IS staff could be reduced by as many as 20 people, according to Murman. Other Athena employees may change positions or move to IS.
"With the conclusion of Athena there will be some head count that will be lost," Wrighton said. "What fraction of the people is a little bit uncertain, as we try
to define our new research initiatives."
The changes in organization will be announced today, but staffing changes will not be made immediately. "We're going to present an organizational plan for the merger of the Athena and Information Systems service/delivery aspects," Murman said.
"The date of the transition has not been specified. It will be sometime no later than June 30," he continued.
A new research and development program needs to be started to replace Athena's programs in that area, Murman said. "We have to start a second generation project for the type of leading edge educational and systems research, which is the other component of Athena," he said.
The staffing changes are not expected to affect student involvement with Project Athena. "I don't see any effect on the relationship with [the Student Information Processing Board]," Murman added.
Planning to begin for new
Wrighton will appoint a chairman to lead the task force developing new research activities. The task force had been headed by Professor of Electrical Engineering Gerald L. Wilson '61, former dean of engineering.
"In the next several months we're going to be gearing up to develop our formal initiatives," Wrighton said. "It's in these months that the advanced research activities of Athena will draw to a close."
The research initiatives are not clearly defined at this point, Wrighton said. "It's really a defining of what institutional resources can be brought to bear."
Murman and Bruce also developed a plan for future academic computing services. The plan will be discussed by the faculty at its Feb. 20 meeting.
In a letter to the MIT community, Wrighton and President Charles M. Vest outlined the four objectives of the plan. The first was the merger of Athena service delivery and IS. The plan will also establish an academic computing director who reports to the provost.
The plan would continue service for more than 800 Athena workstations. The final purpose of the plan is to "establish an organization from which to develop the next generation of innovative, academic information technologies."
When research plans have been developed, the Institute will solicit sponsorship from outside donors. "We certainly hope we can develop new partnerships with DEC and IBM and other interested parties," Murman said.
Institute a "world leader"
in computer science, education
Wrighton and Murman expressed pleasure at the success of the Athena project. "We've come all the way from pure research to a kind of development to applications. . . . We've exported our developments and other colleges around the nation are using our applications," said Wrighton.
An initial goal of the project was to develop "a new computing service infrastructure," Murman said. The project was successful in that regard, he said.
Last term, as many as 3,500 people each day accessed Athena. According to Vest and Wrighton's letter, 10 percent of all Institute subjects use Athena directly, while others use it for word processing, data analysis and communication.
Technology developed for Athena has been incorporated into computer systems at several colleges nationwide, according to Wrighton. "We've exported our developments, and other colleges around the nation are using our applications," he said.
The CAC90 report, however, states: "Other colleges and universities rarely view Project Athena as a source of curriculum materials or tools for their own use. The sophistication of the Project Athena workstation platform accounts for much of this disinterest."
Student participation played a "critical role" in Athena's success. "We've been very fortunate to have very talented students working with Athena," Wrighton said.
Wrighton remains unsure of the role students will play in the development of new research initiatives. They will be involved
in an informal fashion, he explained. "Just what role they'll play in the formal initiative development I don't know," he said.