Project Athena was a joint project of MIT, Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM to produce a campus-wide distributed computing environment for educational use. It was launched in 1983, and research and development ran until June 30, 1991, eight years after it began. As of 2013[update], Athena is still in production use at MIT. It works as software (currently a set of Ubuntu packages) that makes a machine a thin client, that will download educational applications from the MIT servers on demand.
Project Athena was important in the early history of desktop and distributed computing. It created the X Window System, Kerberos, and Zephyr Notification Service. It influenced the development of thin computing, LDAP, Active Directory, and instant messaging.
Accidental research 
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The project originated from a grant application written by Michael Dertouzos at MIT's lab for computer science. In it, he stated that if DEC and IBM would provide $50M of funding, then MIT faculty would make the effort to integrate the thousands of PCs, workstations, and minicomputers associated with the grant into its educational program. Surprisingly, Dertouzos did not consult with the MIT faculty before writing this grant application. When IBM and DEC agreed to the terms, many of the faculty (not only in the Laboratory for Computer Science, but elsewhere in the institute) were surprised to learn that they were part of this project. For his role in procuring such a gigantic grant, Dertouzos eventually was made head of Course 6, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department at MIT.
Overall history 
The initial goals of Project Athena were:
- To develop computer-based learning tools that are usable in multiple educational environments
- To establish a base of knowledge for future decisions about educational computing
- To create a computational environment supporting multiple hardware types
- To encourage the sharing of ideas, code, data, and experience across MIT
To implement these overall goals, the Technical Committee decided to build a distributed computing system. Students would have access to high performance (for the time) graphical workstations, capable of 1 million instructions per second and having 1 megabyte of RAM and a 1 megapixel display. Upon logging into a workstation, they would have immediate access to a universal set of files and programs via central services. The user interface would be consistent despite the use of different hardware vendors for different workstations. A small crew would need to be able to maintain hundreds of workstations, leading to the design of "stateless" or "thin client" workstations.
The project spawned many technologies that are widely used today, such as the X Window System and Kerberos. Among the other technologies developed for Project Athena were the Xaw widget set, Zephyr Notification Service (which was an early instant messaging service), and the Hesiod name and directory service.
When Project Athena ended in June 1991, the computing environment was renamed to the Athena system, and administration was transferred to the MIT Information Systems organization (MIT's IT department). Athena is still used by many in the MIT community through the computer clusters scattered around the campus. It is also now available for installation on personal computers, including laptops.
Educational computing environment 
Athena continues in use today, providing a ubiquitous computing platform for education at MIT; plans are to continue its use indefinitely.
Athena was designed to minimize the use of labor in its operation, in part through the use of (what is now called ) "thin client" architecture and standard desktop configurations. This not only reduces labor content in operations but also minimizes the amount of training for deployment, software upgrade, and trouble-shooting. These features continue to be of considerable benefit today.
In keeping with its original intent, access to the Athena system has been greatly enlarged in the last several years. Whereas in 1991 much of the access was in public "clusters" (computer labs) in academic buildings, access has been extended to dormitories, fraternities and sororities, and independent living groups. All dormitories have officially supported Athena clusters. In addition, most dormitories have "quick login" kiosks, which is a standup workstation with a timer to limit access to ten minutes. The dormitories have "one port per pillow" Internet access.
Originally, the Athena release used Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) as the base operating system for all hardware platforms. By the mid 1990s, public clusters consisted of the Solaris operating system on SPARC hardware from Sun Microsystems, and the IRIX operating system on MIPS hardware from Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI). SGI hardware was dropped in anticipation of the end of IRIX production in 2006. Linux-Athena was introduced in version 9, with the Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system running on cheaper x86 or x86-64 hardware. Athena 9 also replaced the internally developed "DASH" menu system and Motif Window Manager (mwm) with a more modern GNOME desktop. Athena 10 is based on Ubuntu Linux (derived from Debian) only. Support for Solaris is expected to be dropped almost entirely.
Educational software 
The original concept of Project Athena was that there would be course-specific software developed to use in conjunction with teaching. Today, computers are most frequently used for "horizontal" applications such as e-mail, word processing, communications, and graphics.
The big impact of Athena on education has been the integration of third party applications into courses. MATLAB and Maple (especially the former) are integrated into large numbers of science and engineering classes. Faculty expect that their students have access to and know how to use these applications for projects and homework assignments, and some have used the MATLAB platform to rebuild the courseware that they had originally built using the X Window System.
More specialized third-party software are used on Athena for more discipline-specific work. Rendering software for architecture and computer graphics classes, molecular modeling software for chemistry, chemical engineering, and material science courses, and professional software used by chemical engineers in industry, are important components of a number of MIT classes in various departments.
Contributing to the development of distributed systems 
Athena was not a research project, and the development of new models of computing was not a primary objective of the project. Indeed quite the opposite was true. MIT wanted a high-quality computing environment for education. The only apparent way to obtain one was to build it internally, using existing components where available, and augmenting those components with software to create the desired distributed system. However, the fact that this was a leading edge development in an area of intense interest to the computing industry worked strongly to the favor of MIT by attracting large amounts of funding from industrial sources.
Long experience has shown that advanced development directed at solving important problems tends to be much more successful than advanced development promoting technology that must look for a problem to solve. Athena is an excellent example of advanced development undertaken to meet a need that was both immediate and important. The need to solve a "real" problem kept Athena on track to focus on important issues and solve them, and to avoid getting side-tracked into academically interesting but relatively unimportant problems. Consequently, Athena made very significant contributions to the technology of distributed computing, but as a side-effect to solving an educational problem.
The leading edge system architecture and design features pioneered by Athena, using current terminology, include:
- Client–server model of distributed computing using three-tier[clarification needed] architecture
- Thin client (stateless) desktops
- System-wide security system (Kerberos encrypted authentication and authorization)
- Naming service (Hesiod)
- X Window System, widely used within the Unix community
- X tool kit for easy construction of human interfaces
- Instant messaging (Zephyr real time notification service)
- System-wide use of a directory system
- Integrated system-wide maintenance system (Moira Service Management System)
- On-Line Help system (OLH)
- Public bulletin board system (Discuss)
Many of the design concepts developed in the "on-line consultant" now appear in popular help desk software packages.
Because the functional and system management benefits provided by the Athena system were not available in any other system, its use extended beyond the MIT campus. In keeping with the established policy of MIT, the software was made available at no cost to all interested parties. Digital Equipment Corp. "productized" the software as DECAthena to make it more portable, and offered it along with support services to the market. A number of academic and industrial organizations installed the Athena software, probably numbering 40-60 in all.
The architecture of the system also found use beyond MIT. The architecture of the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) software from the Open Software Foundation was based on concepts pioneered by Athena. Subsequently, the Windows NT network operating system from Microsoft incorporates Kerberos and several other basic architecture design features first implemented by Athena.
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Use outside MIT 
Pixar Animation Studios, the computer graphics and animation company (then the Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project, now owned by Walt Disney Pictures), used most of the first fifty Project Athena systems before they went into general use rendering The Adventures of André and Wally B.
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- What are the hardware requirements for installing Debathena?
- Debathena (Athena 10), Athena 10 history
See also 
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- Winfield, Treese G. (February 1988). "Berkeley UNIX on 1000 Workstations: Athena Changes to 4.3 BSD". USENIX Association. Retrieved 2010-03-26.
- "Project Athena: Supporting distributed computing at MIT". IBM Systems Journal 31 (3). 1992.
- Champine, George A. (1991). MIT project Athena: a model for distributed campus computing. Maynard, Mass: Digital Press. ISBN 1-55558-072-6.
- "Athena: MIT's Once and Future Distributed Computing Project". Information Technology Quarterly. Fall 1990.
- Garfinkel, Simson L. (1989). "A second win for Athena (5 part series)". Technology Review Magazine.