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Athena Reports Peak Usage Levels

By Gabriel J. Riopel
Staff Reporter

Athena usage has hit record levels this term, according to Gregory A. Jackson, director of academic computing. Compounded with software and hardware difficulties on certain brands of computers, Athena clusters are more crowded than ever.

"We surpassed last year's peak usage within the first few weeks of the term, reaching a usage level that's almost twice what it was about three years ago," Jackson said.

Although faster computers were installed at the end of summer, the total number of machines stayed the same. "Increased demand and level resources translate into constrained access," Jackson said.

Many students agree that it is difficult to find a free workstation in Athena clusters. Some people said they have often waited several minutes or longer for a machine to become available.

"It's been more crowded than last year, but it usually doesn't take too long to get on," said Michael K. Fang '96.

Lawrence S. Schwartz '94 was less optimistic. "I usually find [the clusters] completely full, especially during peak hours and especially at this cluster [on the fifth floor of the Student Center]," he said.

Because of these prolonged periods of high demand, the Andrew File System which manages Athena files has suffered in performance, Jackson said. Thus, AFS will be formally shut down once every week to improve system performance.

"We're trying to do preventive, rather than restorative, maintenance," Jackson said.

The 20-minute procedure is scheduled at 6 a.m. Sundays, one of Athena's lowest usage periods. People will be able to work with files they have accessed before the restart, but they will not be able to access additional files during the restart.

Software limited on computers

While the addition of computers such as Sun Sparc stations and Decstation 5000s in late summer have increased speed and quality of computing, much of the access problem remains unsolved.

Some commercial software packages are not available for all machines, resulting in higher demand for some machines. This is partly because the time and resources required to create new platforms often exceeds that which is available, Jackson said.

The operating system Unix also varies from machine to machine, so workstations do not offer the exact same services. Although this problem is relatively small, "It will get worse before it gets better," Jackson said.

Bugs like the "login disabled" message that frequently appear on Sun computers, also make it harder to find an Athena workstation. However, the message is supposed to last only seconds as the workstation does housekeeping duties, Jackson said.

Resnet will relieve dialup demand

Although dialup access offers only a fraction of the services a full-fledged Athena workstation, the dialup servers have also been "grossly overloaded," Jackson said. People can now login to an express dialup server, but the login time is usually limited to 15 minutes.

The network of undergraduate dormitories and living groups, Resnet, that will go into use this spring will relieve some of the problems with crowding at Athena clusters, Jackson said. Resnet will connect personal computers in dormitories to the rest of the Athena network.

"Resnet will help improve balance of supply and demand on Athena," Jackson said.

The majority of Resnet users will be able able to run basic network applications from computers in their dormitories. Information Systems will provide software for Macintosh and Windows owners to use electronic mail, Discuss, Zephyr, and other network services. This software will be much faster than comparable dialup programs and should relieve much of the strain on that system, Jackson said.

User priorities reemphasized

During this time of high demand, user priorities have been reemphasized to try to assure that people who need to use Athena can access it.

According to the Athena rules of use posted in all clusters, course-related work receives the highest priority. Personal productive work such as non-course-related text processing, electronic mail, and exploring Athena receives the next highest priority. Games and reading news groups and electronic bulletin boards are the lowest priority.

However, "Very few users have been found just playing games or reading peculiar [news] groups," Jackson said.