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Interview: Intel ISEF Awards $105k for Xbox Project
>> About a month ago, the news of the recipients of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair became public...
From Science Service:
Phoenix, Arizona USA -- Science Service, in partnership with the Intel Foundation, this evening announced awards at the 2005 Intel ISEF Special Awards Ceremony Presented by Ricoh. Student winners are ninth through twelfth graders who earned the right to compete by winning top prize at a local, regional, state or national science fair. Special Awards are presented by scientific, professional and educational organizations and include scholarships, summer internships, book and equipment grants and scientific field trips.
Over 70 organizations had the opportunity to reward the most talented young scientists in the world. The top prize at the Special Award Ceremony, the Ricoh sustainable Development Award was awarded to Tyler Glen Lyon and Daniel Rees Winegar of West Jordan, Utah for their project "The Peltier Effect: Eliminating the Use of Freon in Automobile Air-conditioning Systems".
The International Science and Engineering Fair is sponsored by Intel and has been administered by Science Service since its inception in 1950. Science Service is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the understanding and appreciation of science around the globe through publications and educational programs.
For projects in the categories of Computer Science, Engineering, Medicine and Health and Physics.
Tuition Scholarship of $105,000
CS053 Reverse Engineering the Microsoft Xbox to Enable Linux-based Clusters: Analyzing the Efficiency of Processing Distribution Over an Xbox Cluster Bennet Grill, 17, Rio Rancho High School, Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Xbox-Scene.com had an opportunity recently to speak to Bennet, regarding his Award…
HSD: Tell us a little about yourself.. as I’m sure people would love to know who earned $105k for school, and how he did it.
BENNET: Well, I’m 17, a Junior (well, just finished grade 11) currently at Rio Rancho High School, in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. I purchased my first Xbox (one of many) in December of 2002 due to some aggressive persuasion from my friends who loved the box. Most of my circle of friends were formerly PS2 fanboys, but they’ve long since been converted over to the box.
At the time, I’d have considered myself a casual gamer, with only a passing interest. I of course grabbed the popular titles.. Halo, Tony Hawk 3, Midnight Club II, GTA.. etc. My collection is large by any stand, and I doubt I have more than 8 or 10 titles altogether.
HSD: As a casual gamer, and with only a passing interest, what made you take the next step?
BENNET: My Interest in Gaming on the Xbox had peaked a while ago, so I shifted gears into what was then starting to get my attention: Modding the Xbox. My first stab at modding my Xbox, I became a victim of the Softmod Exploits. I screwed up my box with an “installer” and blew away some of my C drive. To get it fixed, I had it sent away and done by a professional. Later, for my project, I needed 3 others xbox’s, so I decided to get my hands dirty and mod the Xbox properly. I had some soldering experience, that I picked up from a family friend. I decided Xecuter(info) 2.3 Lite was the way to go and haven’t looked back since.
HSD: So.. you used 4 of your own Xbox Consoles for a school project?
BENNET: Not exactly. The first was mine.. a second was a broken donation I fixed, and the rest were on loan from friends. I agreed to mod their consoles and they allowed me to do my witchcraft on them. (smiley)
HSD: Given that you can’t just walk into ISEF and put your project up on display.. when did this process start?
BENNET: Last fall, I did the bulk of the work in October and November of 2004. It was for our School based Science Fair at Rio Rancho High, supported by Intel. The Fair is mandatory for all students taking honors math or sciences courses. I loved my Xbox.. and with my interest in modding and running homebrew, I figured the Xbox would figure highly in anything I’d come up with.
HSD: Ok.. you had consoles available to you.. a looming deadline for a project for the High School Fair, and an interest in modding. Where did you go from there?
BENNET: I had a basic passing knowledge of PC networking, and of all thing PC in general. What I wanted to do, was Cluster the Xbox’s on hand into a Distributed Computing Node, and have them tackle some tasks in some manner. I researched Linux, and decided Shallax’s Gentoox was the way to go. To tell you the truth, I didn't know a thing about Linux before I started the project- lots of the research was just teaching myself how to use Linux.
I got a lot of help from the Xbox-Scene Forums (which I discovered in summer of 2003), and from others with Gentoox experience. Shallax’s Gentoox works like a charm. I did have some e-mail back and forth with Daniel Robbins, the founder of Gentoo and former chief software architect.
He was very friendly, and just happened to live in New Mexico
HSD: 4 Xbox Consoles, Gentoox, some modchips… what did you do with all of this hardware and software?
BENNET: This project could be best defined as a computer engineering experiment. Officially, I tested the efficiency of an Xbox functioning as a node in a Linux Cluster. What the actual experiment did was test compile times of a single Xbox, and then a cluster of four Xboxes. I actually wrote no code for this project, but it still ended up in the Computer Science category. :-)
Anyways, I ran tests compiling the kernel with a single Xbox and then a cluster of four, I compared the times. I came up with a formula which basically translated the "time" the compiler spit out into processing speed in Mhz. Each additional Xbox in a cluster contributed about 80% of its processing power, or around 586Mhz. I used a ratio of the actual processing speed over the ideal processing speed, which would mean no network overhead, etc. Ideally, in a perfect physics classroom world, without air resistance or friction, four Xboxes would function four times as fast as one Xbox. But due to the nature of distributed processing and the network overhead, the actual performance was a bit lower.
This project tested how efficient an Xbox was in a cluster, i.e. if it was worth forming a cluster with your desktop in order to reduce compilation times. I knew that a cluster (with Xboxes) was possible, but I hadn't seen any results of tests on how well the Xbox performed. I picked compilation because that process require a relatively low amount of RAM, and seeing that the Xbox had 64MB, it seemed fitting.
The actual results showed that the Xbox actually had an efficiency of around 80%, a bit lower than I had expected, but still very usable. I did a bunch of statistical analysis on my results, T-Tests, Interval Tests, with a 99% rate of confidence to make sure my results were reliable. To keep the project legal, I used the Cromwell(info) bios, instead of a hacked M$ one.
HSD: So, in the final analysis of your research, was the xbox cluster worth the effort? And was it cost effective as a distributed computing solution?
BENNET: The judges asked the exact same thing regarding cost effectiveness. With the popularity of the Xbox worldwide, it would be well worth it for a programmer who already has an Xbox in his living room to form a cluster with his desktop to increace compiling efficeincy. But, now that the Xbox is only $149, it still seems like a viable option for a cheap hardware addition to a cluster. The dual-use of the Xbox was a key point, if it's lying in the living room, you might as well hook it up and use it for work too.
I wouldn’t necessary pass on a full powered PC and use an xbox cluster, but if you got the Consoles handy, they will make a make a significant contribution, so if you already have one, you might as well use it. I wasn't suggesting that everyone go out and buy 4 to use as a cluster :-) but more to suggest the usefulness of an Xbox as a node in a Linux cluster AND at the same time being a gaming console.
HSD: With the Project done, and analysis complete, how well did you do at each level?
BENNET: I received 1st place in my category at my School Fair, and also a "Best of Show" award- total awards: $350. With that money in hand, I then had my project submitted to the Regional Fair. There, I also took first place in my category, with prizes and corporate awards totaling another $250.
I then ran into some snags. I went on to the State Science Fair, with the same project. There, I met some resistance, as all the judges were a lot older than at previous fairs. Worse, the judge for my category did not even know what an Xbox was. I walked away from that fair with Honorable Mention, there, totaling $0.
However, I didn’t need a good showing at State, but it would have been nice. My showing at Regionals was good enough to earn me a spot in the ISEF.
At the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, I didn’t win top prize in my category, however, I did win a full ride scholarship to Drexel University totaling $105,000.
HSD: well.. You started as a casual gamer, modded a few boxes, produced a working linux cluster with Gentoox and got yourself a number of Fair awards totaling over $105k. Where do you see yourself in the near future and what are your plans?
BENNET: As for now I'm not totally commited to Drexel; I'd like to keep my options open for a while. I'm also looking at Duke, University of Virginia, and Vanderbilt. I still have around 6 months to make a decision (application deadlines.) As for an intended major, I would like to get a degree in Electrical Engineering while fulfilling all the premed requirements. I would like to go to medical school and become a radiologist, but thats pretty far off. This all could change, of course, but it's the temporary master plan :-).
HSD: Last Question… what do you do to relieve stress or boredom?
BENNET: I run track, used to play soccer. I play the piano as well as guitar. Sometimes I hop onto KAI or XBConnect(info). My tag is Bgrill27 on those and LIVE.. but I’m currently banned from LIVE.
HSD: Congratulations on the awards. It’s always great to see people pushing modding into the mainstream. Even better when the results equal a full ride at a major University. Hope to see you on LIVE again soon. Anything you wanted to say as a final comment?
BENNET: To all the devs- thank you- everyone, all the XBMC, dashboard, and homebrew guys- you're great! I personally use XBMC as my main dash. I use my Xbox mainly as a media center in my room. The emulators are great, especially all of xport's stuff. I’d also like to thank the guys behind the IR remote did an awesome job- its so nice to turn the box on with the remote. As a final note.. I would encourage all users, a friendly attitude on the forums, treat others with respect. Thanks to Xbox-Scene.com! -fin
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