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Athena Upgrades To SPARCs, DECs

By Michael A. Saginaw
Associate News Editor

Old computers never die; they just become the butt of jokes by MIT students. That is the fate in store for the IBM PC-RTs that comprise 20 percent of the Athena computer workstations.

During the remainder of the summer and the fall, Information Systems (IS) will replace the outdated computers from 1989 with Sun SPARCclassics, IBM RISC System/6000 Power-Station 220s, and Personal DECstation 5000 Model 25s, which are all about 10 times faster. The IBM and DEC computers are already familiar sights in Athena clusters, but the Sun machines are new. The upgrade is part of the standard IS program to replace computers after they have been in service for four years, according to Gregory A. Jackson, director of Academic Computing.

All three computers have 24 megabytes of Ram and at least 400 megabyte hard drives. They all use augmented brands of the UNIX operating system. The IBM machines use an operating system known as AIX and the Sun computers use Solaris. Both will continue to be adequate operating systems in the near future. But the DEC machines use Ultrix, which is "definitely on its way out," Jackson said. For that reason, MIT has bought very few new DEC 5000s this year and will not buy many in the future.

DEC VAXstation 3100s will also be removed from public clusters by Independent Activities Period. The VAX 3100s in Hayden Library are especially high on the list to be replaced, according to Jackson.

Way beyond capacity

IS closely monitors how many unique users log on to Athena every day. "That number has been rising steadily over time. This spring it went over 6,000 several times," Jackson said.

Although many computers are idle before 9 a.m., by two thirds of the way in to each academic term, every computer is in nearly continual use from 11 a.m. until about 1 a.m., according to Jackson. "The system is way beyond its capacity," he said.

But this is not because IS does not have the financial means to buy new computers. "The scarcest resource we have is space. If we could cram more computers into W20, we would," Jackson explained.

He added that students spend a lot of time using the computers for communication activities, such as mail and zephr-grams. These activities do not require the power of an Athena workstation. They can be done from personal computers in students' rooms, and two-thirds of MIT students have their own computers, according to Jackson. But the dialup connections, which use conventional modems, work slowly.

It would be much faster to put ethernet drops in all dormitory rooms and in each fraternity, and connect the ethernet cables to the same servers that the Athena computers use. Officially, IS will have these ethernet drops ready by September 1994, but they will probably have them ready well before that, according to Jackson. Each ethernet drop will have an address whose prefix will include the name of the dormitory or fraternity it is in, so that IS maintenance workers will be able to locate troublesome computers easily.

Students will also have the option of buying a workstation from the MIT Computer Connection and hooking it up to the ethernet cable in their room. Then they will have the full power of Athena in their room. This option would cost $6,000 plus a service and maintenance charge of about $350 per month.

With ethernet installed, the Athena clusters would be less crowded and could be used for computationally intensive work and graphics. This is just one vision of the future of Athena clusters at MIT, according to Jackson.