Hackers make Xbox into a Windows PC

The Xbox has been made to run Microsoft's own operating system, turning it into an ordinary desktop workstation, courtesy of some Linux trickery. The accomplishment is a comment on the insecurity of secure hardware

A group of Linux enthusiasts have managed to gain such control over the innards of Microsoft's Xbox video game console that they can now boot Windows 2000 on the machine. This accomplishment, announced last week, effectively turns Microsoft's heavily-subsidised console into an inexpensive desktop workstation.

The Xbox Linux Project, as the group of volunteers calls itself, is attempting to circumvent the security built into the gaming console to allow it to be used as a normal PC. In the process, it is demonstrating the limitations of today's secure hardware -- a version of which Microsoft, Intel and others are planning to eventually build into ordinary PCs.

The programmers said that they used Mandrake Linux 9.0 as a host operating system and ran Windows 2000 within a virtual PC environment within Linux. The project first managed to get various flavours of Linux running on the Xbox weeks ago.

Germany-based Michael Steil, who acts as project leader, said the programmers decided to boot Windows 2000 as a way of making sure that an Xbox running Linux was fully PC-compatible.

"On a PC, it's easy to run Windows 2000 inside Linux using PC virtualisation software, and so it is on an Xbox (as well)," he said.

The box supports full networking capabilities and can use any standard USB peripherals, such as a keyboard and mouse. The performance appears to have improved somewhat since SuSE Linux was first booted on the machine: at that time, the game TuxRacer could only display 1 frame per second, but the project said that Windows running within Linux is now fast enough to play MPEG-4 movies in full-screen mode.

It is possible to run Linux directly on the Xbox because Linux's licence terms allow users to modify the underlying programming code, or source code. Linux is based on an open-source licence, which allows modification and redistribution of the software, as long as the modifications are returned to the community. Users aren't allowed to modify Windows 2000's source code.

The Xbox is built on standard PC hardware, including an Intel processor and USB and Ethernet connectors, but there are slight modifications that must be tracked down before that hardware can be exploited, Steil said: "The Xbox is 99 percent PC-compatible.. but it takes quite some time to find that 1 percent."

Steil said that besides showing that secure hardware can be defeated, the project also aims to give users access to a cheap introductory PC. The project ultimately aims to produce a CD-ROM that will load the Linux operating system onto an unmodified Xbox.

The developers want "to simplify the start into the world of computers and into the world of Linux, for people who only have a gaming console," Steil said.

Microsoft's "Palladium" project will create a specially secured area on a PC for storing files that need extra security, such as copy-protected media.

Microsoft recently introduced an Xbox with a slightly different hardware configuration, which is not compatible with the hacks currently used by the Xbox Linux Project. The project claims its activities are legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

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