Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 12:13 UK

Xbox speeds up research results

Xbox research screen
Part of Dr Scarle's research was done on an Xbox 360

Researchers have harnessed the powerful silicon chips used in the Xbox 360 console to solve scientific conundrums.

Academics at the University of Warwick believe they are the first to use the processors as a cheap way to conduct "parallel processing".

Parallel computing is where a number of processors are run in tandem, allowing a system to rapidly crunch data.

Researchers traditionally have to book time on a dedicated "cluster" system or splash out setting up a network of PCs.

Instead, the Warwick team harnessed a single Xbox 360 Graphical Processing Unit (GPU). The chip was able to perform parallel processing functions at a fraction of the cost a traditional systems.

Dr Simon Scarle, a researcher on the team, built the system to help him model how electrical signals in the heart moved around damaged cardiac cells.

Dr Scarle, who previously worked as a software engineer at Microsoft's Rare studio, had first hand experience of tapping into the power of GPU technology.

Speaking to BBC News, Dr Scarle said that the the code controlling the chip was modified, so instead of working out graphical calculations, it could perform other ones instead.

"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."

Real world computing

There has been cross-pollination between game consoles and real world computing in the past.

Roadrunner, officially the worlds fastest supercomputer, uses the same processor technology as that found in Sony's PlayStation 3.

However, it is thought that this is the first time an Xbox has been used to perform parallel processing, albeit on a single chip.

RoadRunner supercomputer
Roadrunner is used in nuclear weapons research

Dr Scarle said that linking more than one Xbox together using the techniques would not be impossible.

"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 allows gamers 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 harnesses the spare processing power of PCs, Macs, Linux systems and PlayStation 3's to help understand the cause of diseases.

The network has more than 4.3 petaflop of computing power - the equivalent of more than 4,300 trillion calculations per second. Roadrunner, by comparison can operate at just over one petaflop.

The results of the University of Warwick research are published in the journal Computational Biology and Chemistry.

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