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A Computing Truce

In response to the recent letters about Athena and Windows:

Why can’t we all just get along? Windows NT (or 9x) is a good operating system for desktop computers. Information Systems even recommends it for use on desktop PCs, but it is not ideal for a large distributed computing environment such as the one we have at MIT. An important feature of a large computing environment is standardization. If you sit down an a SPARCstation 4 in the E51 Athena Cluster, you know that you can expect everything to be exactly the same as if you sat down at a SPARCstation 4 in the W20 cluster. Currently, this cannot be achieved with Windows NT. This may change with the advances made by the Pismere project and with the adoption of Windows 2000, but currently, this is not the case.

Sure, Athena does things a little differently. You might have to learn complex three- and four-letter words like “inc,” “comp,” and “repl” in order to send mail on Athena. So what? This is MIT. If you can master differential equations, surely adding a few short commands to your vocabulary shouldn’t tax your brain too much. There are even graphical mail clients on Athena, so you don’t need to learn to type commands -- you can just click buttons. No, they don’t have a little paperclip telling you what to do, but most people have learned to use them despite that shortcoming.

What people fail to realize is that in a large computing environment, you can’t simply throw new applications and services at the users the second they become available. Extensive testing is required to ensure that the applications for users, and that those people who provide support to the users know exactly what support to provide. It takes time to upgrade services (like e-mail) without denying service to the campus during the upgrade.

Athena is changing for the better. IMAP mail servers are already in place, and testing is underway to determine how best to provide IMAP services to the community. What does this mean for you? No more annoying Kerberos errors when you use Eudora to check your mail. People will probably even be able to use Outlook. New applications are being added to Athena all the time. The much-hyped GNOME environment is available for the most part, and StarOffice has been added recently. StarOffice is an application suite that provides most of the features provided by MS Office and even has a somewhat familiar user interface. It’s even available free for personal use on the Windows and Linux platforms. So yes, Virginia, you can type your paper on Windows, and then use the same application on Athena to edit it later.

I encourage people not to turn their backs on Athena and its related services -- they are being improved frequently. You can teach an old dog new tricks, it just takes time.

Jonathan Reed ’01