Athena history (1983 - present) from A to Z

 This page provides an informal look into the history of Project Athena and the academic computing environment at MIT. If you'd like to provide a word or add to a definition, please let us know.





AFS stands for Andrew File System. It is a distributed filesystem like NFS. In the summer of 1992, all user accounts on Athena were moved from NFS to AFS. Many NFS commands also work on AFS; however, there are many important differences between AFS and NFS. You may also notice new subdirectories in your home directory: OldFiles, Public, Private, and www.

In NFS and UFS, you can set permissions on a file-by-file basis. In AFS, file permissions are specified for each directory, and apply to the directory and to all the files that directory contains. They do not apply to the subdirectories of a directory, since the subdirectories have their own permissions; however, any newly created subdirectory will inherit the permissions of its parent directory. SIPB's AFS Doc


Athena (OLH definition)

In May 1983, MIT announced the establishment of a five-year program to explore new, innovative uses of computing in the MIT curriculum. The MIT faculty was concerned that too little was being done to integrate the new computational technology into the undergraduate educational experience. Project Athena, as the program was called, arose from this concern.

Project Athena's mandate was to explore diverse uses of com-puting and to build the base of knowledge needed for a longer term strategic decision about how computers fit into the MIT curriculum. In January of 1988, Project Athena was granted a three-year extension to the original five-year program, and on June 30, 1991, Project Athena came to an end. But the fruit of Project Athena -- the Athena system itself -- was adopted as MIT's academic computing infrastructure, with plans to extend it beyond the educational sphere, into the research and administrative activities of the Institute.

What, then, is Athena? It is a campus-wide networked computer systemserving the needs of MIT's academic community. Rather than having a single computing center, Athena has over 600 end-user workstations distributed around campus in both general-use and departmental "clusters" where students and faculty can go 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to do classwork, write papers, do personal work, and communicate with other computer users worldwide.

The Athena system is actually composed of a large number of machines (workstations, printers, and servers) that are net-worked together, and is far more powerful than other computing facilities you have probably used.

Athena provides a bridge between the two familiar extremes ofstand-alone personal computers and timesharing machines. Each user of an Athena workstation has a dedicated, powerful multi-tasking computer at his or her disposal. And each Athena workstation is connected to MITnet, the campus-wide computer network, so you can access a number of shared services that would normally be available only on a central facility. OLH











Academic Computing manages four electronic classrooms which are available for use by MIT courses. Each classroom has a number of individual workstations, one of which is connected to a projection facility.In addition to these rooms, there are a number of lecture halls that are equipped with an Athena workstation for the instructor connected to a projection system. There are no workstations at the students' seats.



As of 1999, there are 17 general-use Athena clusters on campus, as well as a number of private departmental clusters. The clusters are unstaffed and are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.






Digital Equipment Corporation




Dorms resnet



places a hierarchical menu bar at the top of the screen; some entries are informational; other launch Athena applications. Under normal circumstances dash is already running when you log in, and you should not have to start it yourself.



Discuss is a networked, electronic conferencing system, similar to the bulletin board programs found on many computer systems.

Discuss uses the metaphor of a conference with many on-going meetings. As you might expect, a "meeting" in Discuss is a discussion group with a specific focus (such as a particular course, interesting quotes, harassment, where to find free food, Athena development, or any other topic of interest to a particular set of people). In Discuss, the form the discussion takes is not verbal conversations but written messages, known as "transactions". Transactions are similar to email messages; in fact, in some cases you actually send transactions to the meeting via email, although usually you enter transactions using options of a Discuss interface.



Evaluation, Education,



EDICS, or Engineering Design Instructional Computer System, is an interactive multimedia program started in 1981by mechanical engineering Professors Woodie Flowers and Ernesto Blanco, and Seichi Tsutsumi, a film maker and former Industrial Liaison Program officer. The original program, which consisted of three chapters on bearings, rotors and cylinders, lets students with little background in engineering learn about procedures on a computer with text, graphics, animation, sound and diagrams. Students can easily move from one section to another, depending on how much time they require to master the information. Professor David Wilson is the principal investigator on the project.




EZ is a multi-media editor, and offers the following:

-very nearly WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) interface

-multiple fonts and special symbols (e.g., italic, bold, bulletted lists, etc.)

-direct manipulation of non-text media types (table, eq, and raster)

-built-in previewer (for viewing the printed layout of each page)


EZ forms the basis of the current version of NEOS






Funding, faculty, fuzzballs






Courseware called GROWLTIGER gave students in Civil Engineering the tools to translate design and material attributes into computer-simulated bridges and other structures, and then to see how the simulated structures reacted to various loads and stresses. Before long this software was used in a few other departments as well .



Heterogeneity, hypertext,



This database is maintained by Athena Operations staff and contains information about user and filesystem names and ids, groups and various local services as well as resources associated with specific machines.



IBM, ILGs, I.S.,



The Insider (formerly known as The Athena Insider) is a quarterly publication of Academic Computingat MIT. Its purpose is to alert and inform faculty as to how Athena can be utilized in their classroom teaching. The Insider is available online and in hard copy.


Joe Wyatt awards






Kerberos is a network authentication system for use on physically insecure networks, based on the key distribution model presented by Needham and Schroeder.[3] It allows entities communicating over networks to prove their identity to each other while preventing eavsdropping or replay attacks. It also provides for data stream integrity (detection of modification) and secrecy (preventing unauthorized reading) using cryptography systems such as DES.

Kerberos works by providing principals (users or services) with tickets that they can use to identify themselves to other principals and secret cryptographic keys for secure communication with other principals.[1] A ticket is a sequence of a few hundred bytes. These ticket can then be embedded in virtually any other network protocol, thereby allowing the processes implementing that protocol to be sure about the identity of the principals involved.




We license a number of commercial packages for use on Athena, as wellas several applications that were developed here at MIT. Most of our softwareruns on all Athena UNIX platforms, but this is not always the case.

Some of our major third party software applications are:

AutoCAD (Computer Aided Design)

FrameMaker (Document Preparation)

Waterloo Maple (Symbolic Math)

Matlab (Math Analysis)

SAS (Statistics)

Tecplot (Plotting)

Xess (Spreadsheet)



Language learning

In the Athena Language Learning Project, founded by Dr. Murray and foreign-language faculty members Claire Kramsch and Douglas Morgenstern, the motive was to explore how multimedia technology could be used to make learning a foreign language more true to life.

By creating documentaries or narrative stories that are filmed on location, using native speakers, the language student is given a context that is closer to what would be experienced in the country itself. On a computer, these narratives can be linked to a variety of supporting resources and each student can exert a great deal of control over the learning process. Structuring the story so that the student can influence the outcome or follow divergent paths adds even more motivation to become involved.

Out of the Language Learning Project came interactive videos for French and Spanish. A la rencontre de Philippe is the story of a young journalist desperately seeking an apartment in Paris, while Dans le quartier St. Gervais explores the history and culture of one of the oldest Parisian neighborhoods; Gilberte Furstenberg, senior lecturer in French, was project director for both. A mystery story propels No recuerdo, an interactive narrative and documentary for learning Spanish. Created by Douglas Morgenstern, senior lecturer in Spanish, it is set in Bogota, Columbia.

Related projects

Over time, the language learning projects have been ported to or developed completely on microcomputers.

These include The Star Festival (Japanese); Berliner sehen German); and Paradoja (Spanish).


Microcomputers, multimedia



The AthenaMuse Software Consortium has been an industry-sponsored research and development consortium in operation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for over five years. The goal of the consortium has been to produce a powerful, flexible, and open authoring environment for creating distributed, multimedia computing applications. The AthenaMuse multimedia authoring software has been the main product of the consortium's efforts.

The consortium has been operated under the auspices of the MIT Center for Computing Initiatives (CECI). It built directly on the extensive research in multimedia computing done by Project Athena's Visual Computing Group (VCG). The staff of the Consortium has consisted of former members of the VCG, participants from the sponsoring companies and new MIT CECI staff members.

The consortium identified and used currently available products and pre-competitive research technologies to deliver multimedia software. By using existing standards when possible and establishing new, de facto standards when necessary, the Consortium developed fully-functional reference implementations sufficiently robust to be widely used and evaluated by MIT and consortium members. Organizations that joined the consortium received commercial, royalty-free rights to the software and have been encouraged to productize the reference implementations.



interactive "matrix lab" for data analysis tasks involving matrices, graphics and numerical computation. Includes specialized-subject "toolbox" extensions for many topics, including Control, Robust Control, Signal Processing and others








NEOS is a turnin, pickup, and grading application that was developed as part of Project Athena. The graphical interface version is used extensively by the Writing Program, while the command line version is used by EECS courses for submission of programming assignments.





online system allowing users to be connected to Athena Consultants. A user enters a question that may be answered in real-time or queued if no consultants are currently available. olc_answers is a browsing system for olc "frequently asked questions"





On-Line TA (OLTA) is a system by which students in a course may consult electronically with their TAs while logged in and working on an assignment.



OWL (On-Line With Librarians) is a system by which patrons may consult electronically with reference librarians from the various MIT Libraries to get answers to all sorts of questions.






The initial goal of this project is to create a scaleable manageable environment of public NT workstations and possibly servers that is an extension of our existing computing infrastructure. There are a number of features and tools in Athena that we will want to provided to users in this new environment, as well as third party software that vendors may or may not currently produce for NT. Additionally, there are extensive modifications and add-ons that will have to be made to Microsoft code and/or procedures in the areas of security and both file and system management. It is quite possible for the workload of this project to be shared with other institutions undertaking similar initiatives, and effort should be placed on establishing these relationship early in the project to reap the highest degree of benefit from joint efforts.



On June 25, 1993, Information Systems decomissioned the VAX 9000, The machine provided an experimental "compute server" service to Athena users from Fall 1992 until its shutdown.

Patriot was run as a timesharing machine with Athena services layered on top of Digital's VAX ULTRIX. An IS-developed program, submit, let users submit batch jobs to Patriot, and take advantage of its large disks and RAM, as well as basically unlimited program runtime.

We surveyed a random sample of the nearly 400 users of the Patriot service to determine how the system was used, and what kinds of similar services Athena users may need in the future. Though many of those surveyed thought the service was useful, we found that we weren't able to provide it in a reliable, cost-effective manner.




 Athena Quickstations are full Athena workstations which are intended to be used for only short periods of time (10 minutes or fewer). They are intended for quick tasks such as checking mail, accessing specific information or submitting print jobs.

As the 10 minute mark approaches, the workstation will send reminder messages. When the 10 minute mark has passed, the workstation will strongly urge you to log out. You will not be logged out automatically. The display will show a large clock displaying the time logged in (up to 10 minutes and beyond) at all times when someone is logged into a Quickstation. If you notice someone logged into a Quickstation on which the clock has passed the 10 minute mark, you may ask them to log out.



Requirements, research



Servers, surveys



SIPB (pronounced ``Sip-bee'') is the Student Information Processing Board, the volunteer student group concerned with computing at MIT. They administer several machines and an AFS cell, provide Usenet access to Athena, are available for telephone (253-7788) or in-person (W20-557) consulting at almost any time of day or night, have one-of-a-kind meetings Monday evenings at 7:30 pm, write documentation of all sorts, run a wide variety of servers, including a WWW server, hack, and generally have a good time. They also act as an advocate for student computer users and student computer access on campus.


simulation, Scribe




One major courseware project from Project Athena was a collection of simulation and analysis programs called TÓDOR. These programs permitted Aero/Astro students to simulate everything from flow across airfoils to orbital decay, using the computational power of Athena workstations to permit what-if "experiments" otherwise requiring wind-tunnel time or NASA involvement.

The project's principal investigator, Professor Earll Murman, went on to head Project Athena for some years, and then to become department Head - a dramatic counterexample to the myth that only peripheral faculty get involved with instructional computing, and only at risk to their careers. TÓDOR won a prestigious national EDUCOM Software Award. In addition, the question of how to use computers effectively figures more prominently in Aero/Astro's curriculum deliberations than it might have had TÓDOR not been so successful.



technical description


third-party software

see Licensing



Ubiquity, UNIX



Video, Visitor's Center, Visual Computing Group




Its amazing to look back at some of the early goals and compare them to today. The "3M" idea--workstataions with 1 megabyte, 1 megaflop & 1 megapixel--seems particularly quaint today!"

Dave Flanagan

Hardware Facilities



WWW, Widgets






Year-by-year timeline (1983 to present, including snapshots of Athena in 1983[plans and vision], 1986 [timeshare era], 1991 [workstations], 1998 [today]




Zephyr allows users to conduct one-on-one and group conversations and to receive notices, e.g., notification of incoming email. Zephyr makes use of an identifying sequence for users to specify with whom they want to converse, or what kinds of notices they want to receive.