Feb. 5, 1990: MIT’s Project Athena advances distributed computing

A collaborative project born to advance computing infrastructure at MIT led to important developments in distributed computing.

“Petitioning the gods of distributed computing” published in Computerworld Volume 24, Issue 6 on February 5, 1990

Project Athena was a joint project of MIT, IBM, and Digital Equipment Corporation, to develop a distributed computing environment. Broadly, a “distributed computing system” is one with multiple separate components that are networked together to run as a single system. Project Athena ran between 1983 and 1991, resulting in several innovations in distributing computing protocols, authentication, notifications, and instant messaging. In 1990, an article in Computerworld magazine discussed the then-ongoing Project Athena, of which a modern version is still used at MIT today.

At the outset, Project Athena aimed to develop computer-based learning tools for MIT students and create a computational environment supporting multiple types of hardware. Over the years the project ran, many technologies emerged, such as Kerberos, a network authentication protocol, and the X Window System, software that manages the appearance of the computer display screen. It also gave rise to the client-server model of distributed computing, which underlies email and the internet.

Although it was still under development in 1990, Project Athena was already notable in the computer industry. Consisting of a network of 1,031 machines, it was perhaps the “largest centrally-managed single-site installation of workstations in the world.” Several other large universities were working with MIT to install Athena on their own campuses, to solve their distributed computing needs.

–By Kathleen Esfahany