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(Disclaimer: I work for MIT Information Services & Technology blah blah blah I am a student blah blah these are only my words and do not represent the opinion(s) of my employer.)
Way back in the day in 1983, MIT started something it called Project Athena, which had the goal of investigating how computers could be used to enhance education at MIT. This project became the origin of such pieces of software as the X Window System and Kerberos, as well as a campus-wide network of workstations all running similar software. In 1991, Project Athena ended, but the Athena system continued on, taken over by MIT Information Systems.
It's 2008, and Athena still exists at MIT--walk into a computing cluster, and chances are all the machines will be running Athena software. (Unless that particular cluster has been taken over be Athena's evil sibling, often referenced as "WinAthena", which often seems to be maintained by no one, and whose existence is sometimes denied by those who maintain and support Real Athena. Not many machines have suffered this agonizing fate, luckily.)
Unfortunately, as the years have progressed recently, fewer and fewer resources have been put into the development of Athena. In many ways it is no longer on the cutting edge of things as it has been in the past, though it is certainly still useful. Some students these days, however, even think of Athena as only "their MIT email" or maybe use it occasionally to print something in a cluster on the way to class. I've seen people grow frustrated and storm out of a cluster due to things like instructions for using a flash drive that involve more steps than just plugging it in. While on the one hand it's easy to laugh at people for a lack of patience or being open to a computing system that is not either Windows or Mac and perhaps a bit more complicated on the surface, on the other hand, some of these things really should just work by now, and on other UNIX-based systems they do--but Athena has lagged behind.
When you log into an Athena workstation for the first time, you are confronted with what looks like this:
That's GNOME 2.8, and it looks kind of like the GNOME 2.8 default but uglier. When you look under the hood, there are pieces of the system that obviously originated in a time where nothing better existed and so something new had to be created--the "xlogin" login system doesn't support PAM, and the login path involves a hairy maze of scripts that perform various tasks. Under the hood, the base OS is currently RHEL 4 or Solaris 10. I still can't remember what the right options are to feed RPM whenever I need some information that I think I should be able to get from it. These things were once necessary but today just look crufty.
Some people have tossed around the idea that everyone has a laptop these days and thus clusters are uselessly expensive, but it's been met with a lot of resistance. I'm all for progress, but I use clusters all the time! They're one thing that makes it an easy choice for me to have a really portable laptop, because when I really need computing power or screen space on campus away from my room, there is always a cluster nearby. They're also nice isolated places that can be associated with "work mode", which is good for productivity. Beyond all this, Athena provides a common platform that all technical classes can depend on, from providing standard and specialized academic software to standing as a baseline of "make sure your code works on this before handing it in because that is how it will be graded".
At any rate, things are finally happening on this front. Athena can't stay RHEL 4 forever--while AFS allows non-system software to be easily updated for all machines without requiring any OS release, hardware moves on and compatibility is lost, and the rest of the world is coming up with new awesome things that Athena machines are missing out on. A student group that I am vaguely involved with, SIPB, took the early initiative with this and created DebAthena, which takes stock Debian and Ubuntu and allows it to closely resemble an Athena environment. We even run a campus Linux dialup using the packages. (I won't claim to have done much work on DebAthena myself because, well, I didn't.) Amazingly, the Athena release team has decided to work with the SIPB on the next release of Athena.
So, what I really just wasted over 600 words prepping for is to say that Athena 10 will be based on Ubuntu. This is only relatively new news, but I am lame about finishing blog posts. There are a variety of reasons why Ubuntu was chosen over Debian. Some of them are lame and some of them are not. Even so, I am excited about this prospect--and it should be possible to peripherally support Debian in such a way that was not possible with Athena 9.4.
I really like Athena. Even coming to MIT with a background in Linux there has been a steep learning curve, though, and I think that things could be better. Lots of people here have their first encounter with a 'nix system in the form of Athena, and we should strive to make that experience as good as possible. I'm kind of skeptical on the expected release date of this upcoming summer, but as long as it happens soon it will be a big step forward.
In some ways it's kind of sad that I'm excited about a big part of a research institution catching up with others--but inertia is a strong force, and dealing with thousands of workstations is no trivial task. I kind of long for the exciting days of creating new big pieces of free software like X. I bet I imagine those days as being better than they actually were.