September 14, 2009
Scientists Use Xbox To Solve Scientific Problems
Researchers have found a way to use the silicon chips found in the Xbox 360 console to solve scientific problems.
According to academics at the University of Warwick, they are the first to utilize the processors as an inexpensive way of conducting "parallel processing", which is where a number of processors are run one after another to allow a system to quickly compute data.
Traditionally, researchers would have to book time on a specified "cluster" system or put together a network of PCs.
Rather than going about it the usual way, the Warwick team used the power of a single Xbox 360 Graphical Processing Unit (GPU). They found that it had the ability to perform parallel processing functions at a fraction of the cost of traditional systems.
Researcher on the team, Dr. Simon Scarle, built the system to assist in modeling the way electrical signals in the heart travel around damaged cardiac cells.
Dr. Scarle had worked as a software engineer at Microsoft's Rare studio before, which made him experienced in tapping into the power of GPU technology.
Dr. Scarle told BBC News that the code that controls the chip was modified in order to perform tasks other than graphical calculations.
"You don't quite get the full whammy of a cluster, but its close," he said.
"Instead of pumping out stunning graphics, it's reworked; in the case of my research, rather than calculating the position of a structure and texture it's now working out the different chemical levels in a cell."
This is not the first time to have a cross-over between game consoles and real world computing.
Roadrunner, the fastest supercomputer in the world, uses the same processor technology as that found in Sony's PlayStation 3.
But this is believed to be first time an Xbox has been used to perform parallel processing, even if only on a single chip.
Connecting multiple Xbox consoles together using the techniques would be difficult, but possible as well, according to Dr. Scarle.
"It could be done, but you would have to go over the internet - through something like Xbox live - rather than a standard method."
"However, without development tools, it wouldn't be easy.
Xbox live gives gamers the ability to play against each other over the internet.
"Sony have been into this [parallel processing] for some time, releasing development kits, and Folding@home comes as standard," he added.
Folding@home is a project that uses the spare processing power of PCs, Macs, Linux systems and PlayStation 3's to assist in understanding the root cause of diseases.
There are over 4.3 petaflop of computing power in the network, which is amounts to more than 4,300 trillion calculations per second. Roadrunner can only operate at barely over one petaflop.
The University of Warwick research findings are published in the journal Computational Biology and Chemistry.
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