Xbox: Perfect for Server Farms?
April 12, 2001
However, that approach would miss the point. The killer port for the Xbox is not Linux. It's Apache.
People want to port Linux to the Xbox because it is a pretty powerful machine, sporting a 733 MHz Pentium III, and Microsoft will generously be selling it at a loss to keep the price -- around US$300 -- in line with other consoles. That price includes 64 megabytes of memory, a DVD drive, 100 Mbps Ethernet, and an 8-gigabyte hard disk.
Paying $300 for a Linux machine is nice, but there are some problems. In particular, there is no support for standard peripherals such as a keyboard, mouse, printer, or modem. The machine has USB ports, but they are described as "customized" USB ports, which presumably means, "different enough from regular USB ports that you can't plug in any PC USB devices."
Since Microsoft is adamant that the Xbox will remain a console only and not morph into a PC, it will likely try to actively discourage anyone from producing peripherals for the Xbox USB ports.
The Xbox operating system has a lot of the standard Windows 2000 services removed. Still, all a Web server needs to do is read and write the hard drive, and then send and receive on the network -- a function that the Xbox OS must support since networked games require it.
So imagine Apache ported to be an Xbox "game." The port shouldn't be that difficult, since Microsoft is shipping Xbox Development Kits and developers can use the same development tools they use for Windows applications. Unlike porting Linux, you wouldn't need to re-implement the entire operating system, just write an application that runs on top of it, like any other game developer.
This "Xpache" can store whatever configuration information it needs on the hard drive. You leave the DVD with Xpache on it inside your Xbox, sitting in your server closet. If something goes wrong, you just cycle the power remotely -- for example using an existing remote controlled power strip. Xpache is automatically reloaded off the DVD, and the server is up again.
While eight gigabytes is not a ton of storage (and the interface in the Xbox is IDE, not SCSI), it's enough for a small Web site. For servers with more data, Xpache could use a network storage device like the ones that Network Appliance sells.
In fact, while we are re-purposing Xboxes for data center use, why not also use them for network storage? Network Appliance's cheapest models cost something like $15,000 for 50 gigabytes of storage, or $300 per gigabyte. An Xbox gives you eight gigabytes for the same price! Again, you just leave the DVD with the Xppliance "game" sitting in the Xbox, and it is ready to go whenever it is turned on.
So you could use one Xbox as your Web server, coupled with as many others as needed for your data storage needs. You could even crack the case open and install a bigger hard drive. That would presumably void the warranty, but who cares -- at $300 bucks a pop, the things are practically disposable anyway.
Finally, who can discount the coolness factor? You are some big Web hosting company, trying to woo an important client. You bring them back to your facility, throw open the door, and show them -- a room full of rack-mounted Xboxes!! Tell me that wouldn't clinch any sale.
Adam Barr worked at Microsoft for over ten years before leaving in April of 2000. His book about his time there, "Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters," was recently published. He lives in Redmond, Washington. His previous column about the Xbox generated quite a bit of discussion including the side conversations that sprang up in the Talkback Forum about whether Linux would be ported to the Xbox.