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IS Replaces Workstations: System Software Upgrade Features Gnome Interface

By Dana Levine


MIT Information Systems purchased several new Athena workstations and made significant upgrades to the system software during this summer’s round of annual upgrades.

The most noticeable update involved the replacement of all Sun SPARC 5 and Silicon Graphics Indy workstations with Sun Blade 100 machines based on the UltraSPARC-IIe processor and Intel-based Dell GX150 Machines.

Suns include 3D graphics cards

The Sun machines, which contain the Expert 3D-Lite graphics card and 512 megabytes of memory, are the first machines in general-use clusters that allow users to do high-end graphics work.

“These machines have the best graphics card that has ever gone into the Athena general-use clusters... Whereas you previously had to go to specialized clusters to get fancy graphics, the whole slew of Athena Suns purchased this year have fancy graphics,” said William D. Cattey ’83, team leader for the Athena UNIX Platform Team.

The Intel machines, which contain 1.0 gigahertz processors along with 512 megabytes of memory, are the first Athena machines to include a CD-RW drive. In other aspects, though, these are similar to the GX110 machines purchased last year.

Old Machines Phased Out

Cattey said that machines are replaced every four years. The four year old Sun SPARC 5 workstations were replaced with the fastest machines that were cost effective, the Sun Blade 100. “The systems that we replaced them with were the latest and the greatest of the economy model,” Cattey said.

The SGI Indy systems had been around for five years, but IS kept them for an additional year because they will not be replaced by faster SGIs. Cattey said that SGI makes machines which are difficult to maintain at the scale of the Athena system.

“SGI is focused on making it easy for one person to take care of the one machine that they own - not something we could take care of and make it so that one person takes care of many machines at once,” he said.

Upgrades to UI, System Software

IS has also made several improvements to the Athena system software. Most importantly, the user interface received a significant overhaul, the first since the late 1980’s. “The Athena user interface was great when it came out, but it has stayed essentially the same for more than 10 years,” Cattey said.

GNOME, a popular user interface and set of development tools, was chosen as the new front end. “GNOME on Athena is basically about improving usability,” Cattey said.

The Dell workstations were upgraded from RedHat 6.2 to 7.1, and the Sun UltraSPARCS moved from the 32-bit Solaris 7 to the 64-bit Solaris 8. Other improvements include a file system update which improves the performance of Star Office under Linux, and “this year, we made the largest number of changes in an Athena release in a very long time, but the Athena platform is as reliable or more reliable than ever before,” Cattey said.