Project Athena

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Athena, a graphical control element library

Project Athena was a joint project of MIT, Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM to produce a campus-wide distributed computing environment for educational use.[1] It was launched in 1983, and research and development ran until June 30, 1991. As of 2023, Athena is still in production use at MIT. It works as software (currently a set of Debian packages)[2] 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.[1] It influenced the development of thin computing, LDAP, Active Directory, and instant messaging.


Leaders of the $50 million, five-year project at MIT included Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory for Computer Science; Jerry Wilson, dean of the School of Engineering; and Joel Moses, head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department. DEC agreed to contribute more than 300 terminals, 1600 microcomputers, 63 minicomputers, and five employees. IBM agreed to contribute 500 microcomputers, 500 workstations, software, five employees, and grant funding.[3][4]


In 1979 Dertouzos proposed to university president Jerome Wiesner that the university network mainframe computers for student use. At that time MIT used computers throughout its research, but undergraduates did not use computers except in Course VI (computer science) classes. With no interest from the rest of the university, the School of Engineering in 1982 approached DEC for equipment for itself. President Paul E. Gray and the MIT Corporation wanted the project to benefit the rest of the university, and IBM agreed to donate equipment to MIT except to the engineering school.[5]

Project Athena began in May 1983. Its initial goals were to:[6]

  • Develop computer-based learning tools that are usable in multiple educational environments
  • Establish a base of knowledge for future decisions about educational computing
  • Create a computational environment supporting multiple hardware types
  • Encourage the sharing of ideas, code, data, and experience across MIT

The project intended to extend computer power into fields of study outside computer science and engineering, such as foreign languages, economics, and political science. To implement these goals, MIT decided to build a Unix-based distributed computing system. Unlike those at Carnegie Mellon University, which also received the IBM and DEC grants, students did not have to own their own computer; MIT built computer labs for their users, although the goal was to put networked computers into each dormitory. Students were required to learn FORTRAN and Lisp,[4] and would have access to sophisticated graphical workstations, capable of 1 million instructions per second and with 1 megabyte of RAM and a 1 megapixel display.[6][7]

Although IBM and DEC computers were hardware-incompatible, Athena's designers intended that software would run similarly on both. MIT did not want to be dependent on one vendor at the end of Athena. Sixty-three DEC VAX-11/750 servers were the first timesharing clusters. "Phase II" began in September 1987, with hundreds of IBM RT PC workstations replacing the VAXes, which became fileservers for the workstations. The DEC-IBM division between departments no longer existed. Upon logging into a workstation, students would have immediate access to a universal set of files and programs via central services. Because the workstation used a thin client model, the user interface would be consistent despite the use of different hardware vendors for different workstations. A small staff could maintain hundreds of clients.[5][8]

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 Zephyr Notification Service and the Hesiod name and directory service.[1]

As of November 1988 MIT had 722 workstations in 33 private and public clusters on and off campus, including student living groups and fraternities. A survey found that 92% of undergraduates had used the Athena workstations at least once, and 25% used them every day.[5][9] The project received an extension of three years in January 1988. Developers who had focused on creating the operating system and courseware for various educational subjects now worked to improve Athena's stability and make it more user friendly. When Project Athena ended in June 1991, MIT's IT department took it over and extended it into the university's research and administrative divisions.[8]

In 1993, the IBM RT PC workstations were retired, being replaced by Sun SPARCclassic, IBM RS/6000 POWERstation 220, and Personal DECstation 5000 Model 25 systems.[10] As of April 1999 the MIT campus had more than 1300 Athena workstations, and more than 6000 Athena users logged into the system daily.[8] Athena is still used by many in the MIT community through the computer labs scattered around the campus. It is also now available for installation on personal computers, including laptops.

Educational computing environment[edit]

Athena continues in use as of 2023, 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. As of April 1999 public clusters consisted of Sun SPARC and SGI Indy workstations.[8] 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.[11][12][13] Support for Solaris is expected to be dropped almost entirely.[14]

Educational software[edit]

A Unix-based X Window System desktop

"I felt that, we would know Athena was successful, if we were surprised by some of the applications, it turned out that our surprises were largely in the humanities" — Joel Moses[15]

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. Maple, and especially, MATLAB, 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[edit]

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.[citation needed] 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 architecture (see Multitier architecture)
  • Thin client (stateless) desktops
  • System-wide security system (Kerberos encrypted authentication and authorization)[1][16][17]
  • Naming service (Hesiod)[1]
  • X Window System, widely used within the Unix community[1]
  • X tool kit for easy construction of human interfaces
  • Instant messaging (Zephyr real time notification service)[1]
  • 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 Corporation, having implemented Athena at various beta-test sites,[18] "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. As of early 1992, 20 universities worldwide were using DECathena, with a reported 30 commercial organisations evaluating the product.[19]

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.[1]

Use outside MIT[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Steiner, Jennifer G.; Geer, Daniel E. Jr. (21 July 1988). "Network Services in the Athena Environment". Proceedings of the Winter 1988 Usenix Conference. CiteSeerX
  2. ^ "What are the hardware requirements for installing Debathena? - IS&T Contributions - Hermes".
  3. ^ Curran, Lawrence J. (August 1983). "DEC, IBM, and Athena". BYTE. p. 4. Retrieved 20 October 2013.
  4. ^ a b Brann, James (1984-03-20). "MIT Goes On The 5-Year Plan". PC Magazine. p. 269. Retrieved 24 October 2013.
  5. ^ a b c Garfinkel, Simson L. (November–December 1988). "A Second Wind for Athena" (PDF). Technology Review. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  6. ^ a b "Project Athena Success in Engineering Projects" (PDF). 1999. Retrieved 2020-08-01.
  7. ^ "athena.html".
  8. ^ a b c d Mihalik, Aaron D. (13 April 1999). "Project Athena / MIT's Computing Environment Has Grown from an Experiment to an Impressive, Ubiquitous Network". The Tech. p. 6. Archived from the original on 31 October 2013. Retrieved 29 October 2013.
  9. ^ Garfinkel, Simson L. (Feb–Mar 1989). "Students Log On to ATHENA" (PDF). Technology Review. pp. 7–10. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  10. ^ Saginaw, Michael A. (21 July 1993). "Athena Upgrades To SPARCs, DECs". The Tech. pp. 1, 9. Retrieved 22 March 2024.
  11. ^ "Athena 10".
  12. ^ "Debathena".
  13. ^ "Debathena history".
  14. ^ "Desktop Solaris Sunset".
  15. ^ "Looking back at Project Athena". MIT News. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 11 November 2018. Retrieved 18 November 2022.
  16. ^ Steiner, Jennifer G.; Neuman, Clifford; Schiller, Jeffrey I. (1988). "Kerberos: An Authentication Service for Open Network Systems" (PDF). Semantic Scholar. S2CID 222257682. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-05-07.
  17. ^ Zwicky, Elizabeth D.; Cooper, Simon; Brent, D. (26 Jun 2000). Building Internet Firewalls: Internet and Web Security. O'Reilly. ISBN 978-1-56592-871-8.
  18. ^ Horwitt, Elisabeth (23 July 1990). "DEC to bring Athena from MIT". Computerworld. p. 68. Retrieved 4 March 2024.
  19. ^ Osmundsen, Sheila (20 January 1992). "Savings Now, Standards Later". Digital News. pp. 7–8, 14. Retrieved 24 November 2021.
  20. ^ Amidi, Amid (16 May 2017). The Art of Pixar Short Films. Chronicle Books. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-4521-6521-9. Retrieved 18 November 2022.
  21. ^ The Computer Museum, Boston. "Computer Animation Theater 1984-1985" (PDF). Computer History Museum. Retrieved 18 November 2022.
  22. ^ "Iowa State University Time Line, 1925-1949".
  23. ^ "More About Eos, Engineering Computing". Archived from the original on 2016-06-04. Retrieved 2013-01-29.
  24. ^ "General UNIX Troubleshooting Information".
  25. ^ "ITSC Service Portal - UMD support center".


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