Xbox gets Linux

The Xbox Linux project has announced its first complete Linux distribution for the Xbox gaming console.

Based on Mandrake 9, the 350MB Xbox distribution CD is now available free on the Xbox Linux Project Web site.

Project member Andy Green says a few minor but crucial changes to the Mandrake 9 kernel were necessary to ensure the distribution would operate on the Xbox console. These included configuring the kernel with code to handle the differences between an Xbox and a PC, as well as some initial scripting to give the Xbox a default IP address.

The distribution is compatible with the PC version of Mandrake 9, so users can add additional packages from the official Mandrake 9 installation CDs to their Xbox Mandrake Linux. The new Xbox version released contains Gnome and KDE, as well as software packages OpenOffice, XMMS and Mozilla.

Green says it took the team four months to develop the modified version.

"The first couple of months were spent in reverse engineering the existing Microsoft BIOS to gain enough information to understand the layout of the machine and its special ‘features' designed to ensure that only MS code can run on it," he said.

"After that we managed to get Linux booting from the flash, like LinuxBios."

Special hardware was then designed to dual-port memory between the Xbox and a PC to allow communications, Green said. Once the team was able to boot to a shell prompt, "hardcore Linux hackers" were able to put together a Mandrake 9 distribution which could fit entirely in the 1MB flash memory available in the Xbox console, he said.

While several distributions of Linux were tried, Mandrake proved the simplest to change to the unique requirements of the Xbox environment, project maintainer Michael Steil said.

"Debian for Xbox needs some additional configuration and installation [for example] it is not really a full distribution with KDE and Gnome [just like Mandrake]," he said.

"Concerning SuSE, we only offer patches for SuSE 8.0, so the user would have to buy a SuSE pack and apply our patches."

Green says the project team has already suggested Microsoft sign the group's XBE loader, a small native stub which spawns Linux. The group is also considering approaching Microsoft and suggesting it produce an Xbox fitted with a Linux signature which would allow anyone to use the distribution with or without a modchip.

A mod chip is a tiny board with approximately one or two integrated circuits on it that knocks out the cryptographic validation check and allows unsigned code to run on the box.

Currently, users wanting to set up the distribution on their Xbox console will need a modded Xbox and USB keyboard and mouse connected to the Xbox by an Xbox - USB adapter.

Unlike its competitor Sony, which has embraced open systems through its Linux community and released a Linux kit for the PlayStation 2 console, Microsoft has never approached any member of the Linux Project Team or shown interest in producing a Linux-compatible box, Green said.

"The box Microsoft sells you does not want you to contribute anything. The code on the Microsoft DVD is cryptographically signed. If you try to offer the box your own code, which has not been anointed by Microsoft, it will spit it back at you," he said.

Green said copyright problems still exist with the mod chips used in the Xbox, as they contain the original Microsoft BIOS with patches. To combat this, the Linux Project team is now working on developing a new BIOS designed to boot as an operating system only, instead of running the native games.

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Nadia Cameron

Nadia Cameron

PC World
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