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Project Athena was created in the ’80s to give students computer access. Nowadays, most students have their own computers — though many still use the clusters. On Monday afternoon in room 12-182, students are using the terminals to do problem sets, print out papers, and check e-mail on the go.
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Conceived in an era when most students didn’t have access to their own computers, are MIT’s Athena computing clusters still relevant today?

A “study team of students, faculty, and staff” will try to answer that question as MIT looks to carry out sweeping budget cuts in the next fiscal year, according to a letter from Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings ’78 to all students.

Details about the group, such as who will serve on it and the scope of the cuts it might recommend, have not yet been decided, Hastings said in an e-mail last night.

Project Athena was founded in the 1980s as an experiment in educational computing. It gave students unprecedented access to computer programs that they couldn’t expect to run at home and to a network that let them communicate with others around the world and access their files from anywhere on campus.

Today, most students have laptops or personal computers. They can usually send e-mail from home or on the go, and they can often run course-specific software on their own computers. MIT encourages the practice, distributing Windows and Matlab for free to students.

“[W]e need to figure out what is the right computing model for students for the year 2010 rather than the late 1980’s when Athena was conceived,” Hastings said in an e-mail.

But even though they have access to other computers, students continue to use Athena machines in clusters, in their dorms and living groups, and in “Quickstations” scattered across campus, to collaborate in groups, work alone in relative quiet, or just log in quickly and keep in touch with the world.

Trimming Athena for modern users

Those considering cuts to Project Athena will have a lot to figure out: Should they suggest getting rid of entire clusters? (See a list at http://ist.mit.edu/services/athena/clusters). Or should they just get rid of some of the computers in each cluster? Should they get rid of some of the software licenses used by Athena machines?

The group will have information including student and faculty input about how Athena helps learning at MIT and how students use the clusters. It will also have access to detailed data showing cluster usage over time daily since 1992, available at https://wikis.mit.edu/confluence/display/athena/Statistical+Data.

New data will show the group how people use Athena today. Beginning in fall 2009, public Athena cluster machines now log information about how long users are logged in, what additional software they install, and the full path of any programs run during the session. (The data are stored with strict attention to user privacy: only the IS&T Server Operations team can access them, and no personally identifiable information is sent.)

These detailed metrics could help show whether users are most likely to drop into clusters for quick five-minute Web browsing sessions, or to spend hours in front of Matlab, or something else entirely.

Perhaps, administrators say, some clusters should go.

“Some we’ll want to keep. Some are community sites, valuable sites,” said W. Eric L. Grimson PhD ’80, who along with Hastings led the group that said MIT should consider the cuts. But, he added, “a lot of clusters are very lightly used.” The possibility of closing clusters “frees up space for other things: student lounges, more space for teaching,” he said in an interview.

The clusters’ annual costs include $900,000 for hardware and operations and $400,000 for software, Grimson said.

Electricity, heating, and cooling for the clusters costs $130,000, Hastings said. The physical space the clusters occupy carries an additional cost, Hastings wrote, although his e-mail did not specify how much.

Last night, a few dozen students were scattered around the Student Center Athena cluster. Bent over books, reading e-mail, staring at a problem set, studying in a corner, or talking side-by-side at whiteboards with their laptops out, they filled the room with soft voices and the clatter of keyboards, as laser printers whirred in the background.

Luis A. Torres ’10 was working on a nuclear fuel cycle problem set, using Matlab on Athena. He said he likes working in the Student Center cluster because the background noise and the environment help him be productive.

The Reading Room can get too quiet, he said. And “the proximity to the printer is nice, too,” he said.

Lindsay S. Johnson ’11 said she mostly uses Athena clusters for printing, although sometimes she’s used Matlab for class projects. When print queues get heavily loaded, she sometimes likes to use the uncrowded cluster in the basement of Building 66, she said.

That lightly-used cluster may disappear soon. But the free printing might disappear too.

Cutting costs by charging for printouts

The possible cluster cuts are part of bigger sets of cuts: MIT hopes to eliminate $60–$70 million from General Institute Budget spending by the end of the 2011 academic year, President Susan J. Hockfield wrote in a September letter to the MIT community. Athena cluster cuts are among the ideas proposed by the budget-cutting Institute-Wide Planning Task Force, whose final report is expected within about three weeks. (It was originally expected by the end of October.)

The cuts are meant to cushion MIT from an anticipated drop in payout from the endowment, which pays for about a quarter of General Institute Budget spending.

The same group considering Athena cuts will also consider cutting printing services, perhaps by making printing cost money or perhaps by eliminating little-used printers. Currently, students may print an unlimited number of black and white or (at one cluster) color pages for free.

$300,000 per year is spent on printing, Hastings wrote.

Charging for printers might reduce the sizes of the piles of unclaimed printouts that rest next to Athena printers during busy periods.

This fall, Boston University centralized its high-speed printers into only a few buildings and began charging students 12 cents per page, the university’s press publication BU Today reported in August. Undergraduates get 100 pages for free; graduate students get 500 pages, and law students get 1000 free pages. Many students reacted with disappointment, saying that the free printing was not enough to let them print out all their required course readings, delivered electronically by instructors.

In announcing a similar 12 cent per page policy for its campus, the Boston University School of Public Health recommends that students consider printing for 3 or 6 cents per page at a nearby FedEx Kinko’s instead.