In 1983 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation, embarked on an eight-year project designed to integrate computers into the university’s undergraduate curriculum. The project was called Project Athena.
Athena began operation with nearly 50 time-sharing minicomputers: Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX 11/750 systems running Berkeley 4.2 Unix. Each VAX had a few terminals; when a student or faculty member wanted to use a computer, he sat down at one of its terminals.
Within a few years, Athena began moving away from the 750s. The project received hundreds of high-performance workstations with big screens, fast (for the time) processors, small disks, and Ethernet interfaces. The project’s goal was to allow any user to sit down at any computer and enjoy full access to his files and to the network.
Of course there were problems. As soon as the workstations were deployed, the problems of network eavesdropping became painfully obvious; with the network accessible from all over campus, nothing prevented students (or outside intruders) from running network spy programs. It was nearly impossible to prevent the students from learning the superuser password of the workstations or simply rebooting them in single-user mode. To further complicate matters, many of the computers on the network were IBM PC/ATs running software that didn’t have even rudimentary computer security. Something had to be done to protect student files in ...