One hundred computers that served as Athena workstations since 1987 are being put to work in Russia, thanks to a coordinated voluntary effort this past summer by a group of MIT Information Systems employees.
The workstations, IBM RT/PCs, are obsolete by MIT standards. But they are sorely needed in Russia, where they will be deployed by Moscow State University in its computer science department, medical center and the university's St. Petersburg satellite campus.
According to Peter Roden, senior project manager for Information Systems' Distributed Computing and Network Services division (DCNS), it all began when he was approached by Richard Stallman of the League for Programming Freedom.
"He had a contact at Moscow State University who was interested in our old RTs as they already had a number of them in their facilities," Mr. Roden said. "He asked if we might have any spare equipment to give away after this year's Athena equipment renewal."
Each year, Information Systems replaces one quarter of the Athena computing environment's hardware base to remain current with new technologies and to keep up with the enormous demand for Athena workstations. The replacement process that includes proposals and evaluations starts during the school year, but the actual removal of old computers and installation of new systems is done over the summer. This year, the RTs were slated for removal. They had served as Athena workstations since 1987, when they were given as part of International Business Machines' grant to what was then Project Athena.
After getting the go-ahead from IS's Academic Computing Management group, the first issue was to determine whether the US government would permit the export of the computers. Michael Greis, an IBM representative, researched the question and found out that it was legally permissible.
In spite of the demanding summer workload, a small team took the initiative to make this donation happen. The first technical task was to reformat all the RT hard disks so that they would comply with export regulations. Mr. Roden, Brian Melanson and Anne Salemme (all of DCNS) visited Richard Stallman and brought with them an RT. They had to make sure that the RTs in the donation would be compatible with the machines already configured and in operation at MSU. Then they worked with the professor from Russia on the logistics of the hand-off.
"The Russians hired packers and movers and loaded a cargo container parked at the Bldg W20 loading dock on Saturday, Aug. 7," Mr. Roden said. "Before then, the team had to assemble 100 systems in W20, reformat all the disks and prepare them for the packers. This was a slow, labor-intensive task in the middle of our massive summer deployment. But the team persisted and got the job done."
One of the key players in the effort, according to Mr. Roden, was Anne Salemme, a systems programmer for DCNS who served as team leader. "Her interest in wanting to see this donation happen kept everyone focused on working through the logistics," he said.
Other DCNS employees involved were supervisors Gerald D. Burke and Kimberly A. Carney, whose staffs handled the many tasks, as well as Ocie Elder, Brian Melanson, John Morey and Carlton L. Weeks, who volunteered their time and labor.
The payoff came in a message on September 24 from Professor Victor Ivannikov of Moscow State University's Computer Mathematics and Cybernetics facility., who described MSU as the largest and only independent university in Russia. He informed Mr. Roden the shipment of RTs had arrived in St. Petersburg en route to Moscow. While his English was a bit strained, Professor Ivannikov's gratitude was clear.
His letter reads: "The value of this donation cannot be counted. Because at the facility, students have only one hour per week training at computers. Only after three years, they have potentially a time at computers when they are distributed to research institutes and labs. And of course there are a lot of problems with teaching and training on professional programming. It's the main pain point. I think also that this donation has large moral value. It's a seldom example of professional solidarity between East and West. I am dreaming also that this action will become the initial stem of contacts between MIT and MSU."
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 10).