If you have been reading Egg Freckles for more than a few weeks you know my writing has been lagging these last couple of months. I used to produce a solid two articles a week. Now I am lucky to be publishing at half that rate. My decline is not due to a lack of ideas. I still have a long list of topics I want to cover on Egg Freckles. No, my drop in production is the result of starting a new job. I now work at MIT.
At MIT I lead a small desktop support team for the finance department. It might not sound like a fascinating position, but I enjoy the challenge of rebuilding a failing help desk from the ground up, and overhauling its diminished reputation. I only had two weeks to learn about MIT, its culture, and its technologies before I replaced my predecessors, and took on my new role.1
MIT is different from any other company I have worked at before, including Apple. The people are different, the culture is different, and the technologies are different. In a a word MIT is open.
MIT is open to people from all over the world. It encourages diversity far more than any company I have ever worked at before. My department is staffed by people from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Eastern Europe. MIT goes out of its way to invite people from different parts of the world, with different experiences, to join the MIT community. I am not saying that Apple or other companies fail to encourage diversity. The difference is that MIT strives for that diversity over many other attributes. They want their employees to bring something unique back to MIT..
MIT’s culture is open. Instead of looking for the best ideas, MIT is looking for all ideas. I have never worked at a company as open to suggestions. As an MIT employee it is your responsibility to suggest new ways of doing things, and no idea is a bad idea if you have thought it through. MIT has a very different culture from other companies where management knows best. In the short time I have worked here several of my ideas have been accepted, and all of them have been heard. It is one thing for a company to say it is open to new ideas, it is another thing for a company to listen. MIT is listening.
I started writing this article because I was interested in many of MIT’s choices in technology. In the past I have worked for Apple, which is unsurprisingly Mac based, and Boston Children’s Hospital, which is mostly PC. MIT is both, and everything in between. At MIT there are some departments that are all Mac (you can’t have anything else), and other departments like finance which are mostly PC. But for the most part MIT let’s you choose which platform you want to use, or bring in from home. There are no assumptions being made over what technology is best for you, and IS&T is ready to try and accommodate you.
Many of the underlying technologies at MIT reflect choice, and are open to everyone no matter which platform they choose. Here are a few of the technologies MIT employs for all of its users that differ from the choices made by typical companies.
Open Address Space
MIT operates on the 220.127.116.11/8 block network space giving it a total of 16,777,216 possible IPv4 addresses. There is no NAT. Most of these addresses are assigned statically, and are open to the public internet. Only a few protocols such as ICMP, file sharing, and remote desktop are reserved for use over VPN. This setup offers straightforward simplicity, and the ability to turn almost any machine into a public facing web server. Security threats are an obvious concern, and it is not uncommon for outsiders to be probing the MIT network looking for holes.2
Kerberos is a computer network authentication protocol which works on the basis of “tickets” to allow nodes communicating over a non-secure network to prove their identity to one another in a secure manner. Designed at MIT in the late 80’s, Kerberos is aimed primarily at a client–server model, and it provides mutual authentication—both the user and the server verify each other’s identity.
Working at MIT means you get used to requesting tickets for access to various shares and services. Tickets eliminate the need to be constantly entering your password, and SSH ensures you can access many MIT services securely without the need for VPN. Although many companies like Microsoft and Apple now include Kerberos as part of their operating systems, it is interesting to be immersed in an environment which is completely dependent on this alternative form of authentication.
Project Athena was a joint project of MIT, Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM to produce a campus-wide distributed computing environment for educational use. It was launched in 1983, and research and development ran until June 30, 1991, eight years after it began. As of 2012, Athena is still in production use at MIT. It works as software (currently a set of Ubuntu packages) that makes a machine a thin client, that will download educational applications from the MIT servers on demand.
Project Athena was important in the early history of desktop and distributed computing. It created the X Window System, Kerberos, and Zephyr, an early instant messaging protocol.
With the abundance of personal computers Athena might not be as relevant as it once was, but it is still an important part of coursework at MIT. Athena offers thousands of students access to specialized engineering applications through the use of Athena clusters scattered throughout campus. The combination of Athena, and the AFS (the Andrew File System) means users have access to the same files, applications, and preferences no matter which Athena workstation they sign into.3
Not all of the technologies at use at MIT were invented here, but most of the ones that were are available to the public for free.
The MIT License is a free software license originating at the MIT. It is a permissive free software license, meaning that it permits reuse within proprietary software provided all copies of the licensed software include a copy of the MIT License terms.
Unlike the GPLv3, the MIT license is compatible with proprietary software from companies like Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, and Red Hat. This allows many technologies that were invented at MIT to be improved and commercialized into the products we use today.
But not all of the technologies used at MIT were invented here. For the ones that weren’t MIT pursues aggressive licensing deals to make those products available for all Students, Faculty, and Staff. This means that no one has to go without the tools they need to succeed.4
My favorite part of being an IT worker at MIT is the freely available knowledge. Hermes the MIT knowledge-base is open to everyone, even the public internet, and makes configuring most software and devices to work with the rest of MIT a snap. Don’t believe me? Try a Google search for anything tech related with MIT in the query. Even though you may not be on a 10 Gbit/s Internet2 connection like MIT you are sure to find something fast.
Working at MIT has been a blast, but I am only one month in. As things settle down I will try to post more often, confident that MIT will accept whatever technology I am using. Even a Newton.5
Oh yeah, I got married my third week on the job. ↩
I can’t tell you how many times our printers have published unwanted printouts in the form of port requests from China. ↩
Which is more than can be said for Mac OS X’s Mobile Home Sync or Windows Roaming Profiles. ↩
Software like Windows, Office, MATLAB, and Mac OS X are available free of charge from the MIT website for Students, Faculty, and Staff of MIT. ↩
MIT currently provides access to an open wireless network that even a Newton can join. ↩