MIT’s Athena clusters, which have not seen a significant upgrade since their creation in the 1980s, will soon be receiving a long-awaited upgrade. Although construction in several buildings will lead to the temporary closure of some clusters and three will be permanently closed, there are plans to renovate the Student Center cluster, and eventually, other public computing spaces.
In an interview with The Tech, Jonathan D. Reed ’02, MIT Information Services and Technology’s (IS&T) Special Liaison to the Students, described the upcoming changes. As Building 2 is being renovated, the clusters in 2-225 and 2-032 closed. 2-032 will reopen at the completion of construction (though slightly smaller, to make room for an elevator), but 2-225 will close permanently as the space becomes part of the Math Department.
IS&T is also investigating the possibility of renovating the nearby 4-167 cluster, making improvements to lighting and ventilation and adding a glass window to the corridor. If approved, the renovations would begin January 2014 and last five to six months. Building 37 is also undergoing renovation, and the clusters in 37-318 and 37-332 closed permanently, and the rooms will join Course 16.
The Student Center cluster (W20-575) will be receiving new tables and chairs over IAP. Reed estimates the furniture upgrade to cost between $100 Kand $120K. In place of the anchor pads that locked technology (quite valuable when it opened) to the tables, a cable will connect the computers to the desks, giving students more flexibility in arranging their workspaces. The Student Center, along with a few other locations, will also feature a pilot project of mobile device charging stations.
The changes are intended to make the clusters more pleasant places to work, but some students are pleased with the current condition. “I like it being a little uncomfortable — if it’s too comfortable, it makes it easier for me to fall asleep,” said Justine Jang ’17. Others, like Yonglin “Jason” Wu ’15 agreed, describing the large windows lining the cluster in 56-129 as “distracting.” Jang also suggested cubicles for more privacy, “so people don’t look at your screen.”
The Athena system debuted on campus in 1983, and the clusters a few years later. Though usage has dropped off as more students bring their own laptops, the clusters are still essential to many. While many students rely on the clusters when their laptops are broken, some of these students, like Jang, use the clusters also because the environment is “conducive to working, because everyone else is working.”
According to Reed, however, there is still work to be done to improve the cluster experience. “Rows of workstations are not the future of academic computing,” Reed said.
Though limited by funding, IS&T does have long-terms dreams for the clusters, especially the one in the Student Center. Taking inspiration from the Barker Reading Room and the CAC Reading Rooms in the Student Center, IS&T hopes to outfit the Student Center cluster with tables for collaboration under the skylight, three-lobed tables with dividers for individual work (similar to Barker’s), group study rooms in the back, and even a seminar classroom that graduate TAs or student groups could reserve, as well as removing partitions in the room.
Still, “It’s easy to maintain clusters in the same layout,” Reed said, adding that completely overhauling the layout would be “one of our big challenges.”
Reed indicated, however, that a number of steps remain before such a renovation. “We have submitted a request to the Committee on Resource and Space Planning (CRSP) for approval to begin a study of the space, which is the first step. If they approve it, we can begin working with Facilities to come up with a plan and budget. All this happens before we can even begin to identify sources of funding.”
The next few years will see drastic changes to the clusters. Still, Reed pointed out, “We can only do so much. The administration needs to hear from students.”