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Learning to Embrace Athena

Tao Yue

The Athena cluster is a great place to observe MIT students. Until 1997, in fact, there was an Athena cluster in building 11, where the Student Services Center is currently located. As students noted, the big windows provided an opportunity for visitors to observe MIT students in their natural habitat. Hence that cluster was affectionately known as the Fishbowl.

Of course, Athena carries a bit of a learning curve. Most MIT students have used Windows before coming here, but not everyone has used UNIX. When one goes to an Athena cluster and observes, it is possible to discern three classes of users:

1. The novice user. Knows a few basic UNIX commands. Uses Athena mostly for mail, zephyring, and web browsing. Has never heard of a dotfile.

2. The skillful user. Knows many UNIX commands. May even accidentally type cat or ls at a DOS prompt. Knows what dotfiles are, has modified a few.

3. The guru. Can recite a dozen command-line parameters for every common UNIX command. Hacks the Linux kernel with regularity. Writes DVD decoders in their free time. Often found in the SIPB office.

But there's another type of user, a person who you see very seldomly in the cluster. That's what I call the Matlab user. This type of user finds Athena arcane and difficult to use and avoids it for almost all computer activities. Only when a problem set requires Matlab might this type of user visit a cluster. Sometimes months pass between Athena logins. I know a current student who hasn't logged onto Athena since December 18, 2000.

I urge you not to become this class of user. Athena is unique. It was the first large-scale application of distributed computing in the history of education. When Project Athena began in the early 1980s, DEC and IBM found the project so noteworthy that they donated all the computer systems for the project.

Project Athena brought UNIX into the personal computer age. The X Window System, now used as the graphical environment for almost all UNIX systems, was developed for Project Athena. Until Motif gave a three-dimensional look to X, most X Windows programs used the 2-D Athena widgets.

Athena also pioneered the use of computers for communication. At a time when practically nobody had heard of the Internet, Athena provided e-mail and newsgroups to all MIT students. It also developed Zephyr, the first true instant messenging service. Zephyr did for instant messenging what the @ sign did for e-mail. Modern instant messenging clients may offer more features, but their innards are still very much descended from Zephyr.

Athena has also become an integral part of MIT life, as is evidenced by its name. While other universities have computer clusters, we have Athena clusters. Other college students can only chat with each other on AIM or ICQ, and are cut off when AOL’s server in Virginia dies. We chat via Zephyr, and network outages are virtually unknown.

MIT students are very different, in personality, interests, and abilities. But by the time we graduate, we’ll all have some things in common. We’ll be proficient in multivariable calculus, familiar with electromagnetics, and able to swim 100 yards. But because MIT doesn’t require any degree of Athena proficiency, there still exists such a thing as a Matlab user.

It has often been remarked that MIT students lack spirit. We’ll never turn up in droves like Stanford does for its football games (I guess the closest we come is the Harvard-Yale game). MIT alums donate less to MIT than alums of many Ivy-caliber colleges.

But we have the little things that makes us say ILTFP (when we're not feeling IHTFP). Athena is a part of the entire MIT experience. Like the Orange Tours, the yelling at LSC movies, the racy lyrics at Bad Taste, or IAP, we have enough in common. Let's try to add another thing.

And for those non Course VI majors, there’s a side benefit to learning Athena. How many students can put on their resumes, “skilled at UNIX?” Hopefully you will be able to.