Weblogs: Gadgets and Stuff

Xbox Independance Day

Friday, July 04, 2003

The Xbox is basically a cheap intel-based platform equivalent to an office PC, but at a fraction of the cost and sold as a games console. The stock standard build contains a Celeron 733Mhz with 64Mb RAM, either an 8Gb or 10Gb harddrive, a DVD drive, 4 USB sockets and an ethernet connection; all bundled into a compact frame.

Cheap low-volume web server

For me that's almost the right specification for a small development web server. So Apache, PHP, mySQL, Perl along with an FTP server or a file share. All for about £119 (on Amazon.co.uk) - that's a cheap server.

I don't need a fully-fledged server set-up, just a lightweight, compact, cheap and quiet box that will sit there and serve up files and web applications over an ethernet connection. The Xbox is ideal hardware in this regard - if it can run Linux.

Anti-free software security

Microsoft on the other hand have tried to lock down the hardware in an effort to ensure you can only run their software, under the guise of piracy prevention. So if you ain't a Microsoft approved developer, you'll not be able to produce programs working on the Xbox. And since these programs require authentication keys, only by using the Microsoft supplied SDK can this be done. Unfortunately the licensing restrictions of this SDK prevents its use in creating open source programs (a hefty royalty fee is the cruncher - Microsoft's profit motif).

So to run Linux on an Xbox is not possible without making it completely unusable and undistributable. But the Xbox is just an Intel-based architecture, and there's no technical reason for it not to work.

Financial encouragement

With the $200,000 encouragement of an anonymous donor (revealed to be Michael Robertson from Lindows) the first hurdle cleared was running Linux on a modified Xbox (with a mod-chip or hardward kludge). The second stage was to run Linux on an unmodded Xbox - and today that is possible. The story itself is rather contraversial.

A couple of bright Austrian guys figured out how to circumvent Microsoft's security mechanism by exploiting an integer underflow in a font file. And since font files are one of the file types not authenticated by the Xbox before use, it allowed an unsigned piece of code to run. The exploit has the nasty side-effect of allowing pirated games to be used on the platform - something Microsoft seemed interested in preventing.

Anti-piracy group seek compromise

The hackers didn't release this exploit into the public - had they done so they would have certainly won the $100,000 reward. They instead contacted Microsoft directly, via Microsoft approved gaming companies, Microsoft distributors and online international news agencies, with an interesting proposal:

They would turn over all information and research they had amassed on circumventing the Xbox security in exchanged for a signed Linux bootloader. I'm impressed by this line of thought. It indicates the hackers are concientous about opening the doors to piracy this hack would allow, and looked to find a compromise that would suit both Microsoft and the Linux community. They obviously didn't have to approach Microsoft, and they were under no obligation to do so. I applaud their ethical approach to the piracy dilemma.

Microsoft inaction

Microsoft's reaction was interesting - absolutely nothing concrete. Just a series of fob-offs and last-minute cancellations of meetings. After a month of fruitless waiting, the hackers decided to publish the hack - since it probably seemed obvious that Microsoft weren't going to respond.

Exploit released

The exploit was published on two mailing lists: on the netsys Full-Disclosure mailing list, and on VulnWatch. The group behind the hack, known as Free-X have released a statement documenting their futile attempts to talk to Microsoft.

So far Microsoft's reaction has been to threaten legal action.

Considering the Xbox price have halved since its launch last year, at £119 it is a good buy as a cheap Linux box. I'm toying with the idea of getting one now. Happy Independance Day, Xbox.

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