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Athena System Release 8.0 Moves DECs Out Of Clusters

Gabor Csanyi
With the new Athena Release 8.0, Sun and Indy workstations are replacing older machines in Athena clusters across MIT.

By Dan McGuire
Associate News Editor

The new Athena System Release 8.0 is in the process of bringing about a number of changes in Athena clusters throughout campus.

Probably the most visible change is that Athena will no longer run on DECstation 5000s or IBM RS/6000s.

Those platforms are being phased out by Information Systems and have been replaced in Athena clusters by Silicon Graphics Indy workstations and Sun Sparcstation 4s.

"One of the reasons that we're taking the DECs out is that none of the third parties that make software are porting to the DEC anymore," said William D. Cattey, leader of I/S Deliver Athena Team.

The DEC is "a dead platform," Cattey said. Framemaker, for example, from Frame Technologies is no longer being maintained for DECs, he said.

"There are already compatibility problems with the DECs," said Naomi B. Schmidt, manager of educational planning and support for I/S. There is "a lot of software that won't run on [the DECs]. You couldn't run Netscape on them," she said.

"With the RS/6000s, there's a similar circumstance, the RS/6000 hardware has been made obsolete" by newer versions that all run the operating system AIX version 4.

New purchases prompt upgrade

Various clusters have been shut down in recent weeks as the DECs and IBMs are replaced by the Sun Sparc 4s and new Indy stations.

"This year we bought extra machines," Cattey said. I/S was trying very hard "to keep the system that students saw as homogenous as possible," he said.

The new machines forced the issue of software upgrades because Sparc 4s only run Solaris 2.4. All older Athena Sparcs had been running Solaris 2.3, so a new version of the Athena system needed to be created to accommodate the upgraded operating system.

"The Sparc 4 has the same performance as the Sparc 5," said Michael D. Barker, leader of the Support Athena Team. "Basically it's the same hardware."

"The Sparc 4 doesn't allow as much expansion, but we don't usually expand what's in the cluster anyway," he said.

"For Sun, it made sense to provide for a lower-end entry model," Barker said. For I/S it meant a less expensive model, he said.

Emacs constitutes biggest change

Most Release 8.0 will offer few visible changes for casual users. "The two versions aren't that different," Schmidt said. "Users logging in will see the same dash," the pull-down menu bar at the top of the screen.

One change in the new revision that many students will notice, however, is the use of Emacs version 19.30 instead of the older 18.59 that had been used on the majority of machines.

The big difference in the new revision is the fact that Emacs now has a menu bar. Emacs 19 "actually works with X windows," Barker said. "Emacs 18 hadn't been fully integrated with X windows."

The new Emacs will be able to use the standard X windows cut-and-paste system. "It puts us much closer to what is out there instead of lagging far behind," Barker said.

New users can access many of Emacs' functions by choosing them from a menu. The new version may cause some user customization to fail, so Emacs 18 will probably stay around for a while.

"It'll be around for probably another year, but we strongly advise that people start learning to use" Emacs 19, Baker said.

Athena mail will support MIME

Support for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension, an obscure but available feature, has been incorporated into the Athena mail handler.

MIME allows e-mail messages to incorporate other types of media like graphics and sound.

"Almost everything runs MIME, and we need to start moving toward that" with the Athena mail handler, Barker said.

The capability was not built into Athena Release 7.7. In 8.0, however, it is present, though not turned on by default, because MIME can cause cause difficulties if set up incorrectly, Barker said.

"MIME likes to look for helper applications," Barker said. The set of applications that comes with the Athena mail handler is fairly minimal, and users setting up MIME may therefore have problems, he said.

"If people want to take the safety off and shoot themselves in the foot," they now have that option, he said.