Wiring M.I.T. for Computers

By David E. Sanger
The New York Times

Cambridge, Mass. -- February 14, 1984 -- On the edge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus here, in a red-brick warehouse marked only as Building E-40, the world's two largest computer companies are collaborating on a project that the university hopes will form a blueprint for the desktop computer systems of the next two decades.

The two great rivals of the computer industry, the International Business Machines Corporation and the Digital Equipment Corporation, have committed $50 million and two teams of computer specialists to M.I.T.'s Project Athena, named for the Greek goddess of wisdom.

The companies say they are merely making grants of equipment and services to M.I.T. and, thus, the project is not a joint venture in any antitrust sense.

Still, M.I.T. is the only place in the world where the two companies are working together. By turning the entire campus into a laboratory, both the companies and M.I.T. researchers hope to gather information about how a diverse group of desktop computer users puts the smallest and most advanced computer products to work.

'This Is Truly Different'

''This is truly different from anything we have tried before,'' said Paul E. Gray, M.I.T.'s president, in an interview in his office. ''We have many technical problems to solve, but our real interest, and I think their interest, is in learning how computer systems of this sort get used.''

In fact, the project has two distinct, if interrelated, goals. The first is to design a computer system and related software that is as flexible and as powerful as many, far larger and more expensive mainframe systems. M.I.T. is hoping that the resulting programs can then be used in courses as diverse as civil engineering and political science.

The second goal is to solve a problem that M.I.T. officials call ''coherence'': designing a network in which small computers of every type - even machines of radically different design - can exchange information freely at tremendous speeds.

''It's more than just making computers compatible,'' said Steven R. Lerman, a professor of civil engineering who is the project's director. ''It means making the differences between computers invisible to the user.''

As Easy as Using the Phone

Ultimately, Professor Lerman and others hope that a user of the M.I.T. system will be able to use a computer the way he or she would use a public telephone. Without special instructions, he would know what keys to hit to perform a host of functions.

Despite the commercial possibilities of Project Athena, the participants say they are not using M.I.T. as a vehicle for creating new products.

''We have no economic interest in the outcome, and I am not being measured by the new applications I bring back,'' said Richard Parmelee, a 17- year veteran of I.B.M.'s Cambridge Scientific Center near M.I.T., who is heading the I.B.M. team.

Edward E. Balkovich, an engineer leading Digital's team agrees. But, he adds: ''If I do my job right, there will be no surprises for D.E.C. on how these systems are being used.''

No Proprietary Information

Nonetheless, M.I.T. officials appear to have been particularly careful in working out the details of the agreement. Responding to concerns on several campuses about agreements under which universities conduct secret research for companies, M.I.T. officials stipulated that Project Athena participants be free to publish their findings. Most patents and copyrights emerging from the project will belong to the university.

Ultimately, the architecture of M.I.T.'s network is likely to be of greatest interest to universities and corporations.

The M.I.T. system attempts to combine the best features of large ''timesharing'' systems - which have dominated university laboratories and corporate computer rooms for decades - and of small, desktop microcomputers.

In a typical time-sharing system, users sit at terminals and tap into a central machine. But such systems have severe limitations: They are limited in size, they become very slow when demand on the central computer is heavy.

System's Fiber-Optic 'Spine'

Microcomputers have fewer problems, but have more limited capacity. Under the M.I.T. system, desktop computers would be clustered in ''local area networks,'' with each network tied to a fiber-optic ''spine'' that would be used to connect the whole university.

Local area networks already exist on a small scale, but none has attempted to link as many as 3,000 machines, as M.I.T. plans, or made such extensive use of fiber-optic cable to speed transmission.

The Digital and I.B.M. employees assigned to the project appear to work together easily, sharing a row of cramped offices on the third floor of the project's headquarters.

M.I.T. has deliberately nurtured an atmosphere in Building E-40 that is emphatically un-corporate. Jeans and corduroys are commonplace, and a button taped to one door proclaims the joys of ''Sex, Drugs and UNIX,'' the latter a Bell Laboratories computer-operating system that has been adopted as the project's standard.

Still, the relationship between I.B.M. and Digital, at least on the corporate level, is cautious. ''The way I view it, we are working with the institute; it is their project and they choose the directions,'' Mr. Parmelee said.

Neither company is using any unannounced products in the project, and the employees say they exchange no confidential or proprietary information. But M.I.T. officials indicate that several systems not yet on the market, from a new 32-bit work station expected from Digital, to a new local area network architecture designed by I.B.M., will be integrated into the system.

In fact, Professor Lerman and others on the M.I.T. faculty have already had extensive briefings from both companies about their future plans. Mr. Grey, who negotiated with the two companies to get the project started last year, admits that, ''if I was one of those folks, I would worry about getting a little schizophrenic. Keeping that information compartmentalized, knowing what you can say to who, can't be easy.''

GRAPHIC: photo of Prof. Steven Lerman with Doug Wilson and Edward Balkovich (page D3); diagram illustrating working of M.I.T. computer network


Copyright 1984 The New York Times Company