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Nick Baker: XBox 360 Architecture

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What is the XBox 360, exactly? How do you go about designing and building a game console that meets the high standards of today's gamers and handles the computational pressures of today's highly realistic games (think real time physics computation, incredibly rich graphics, etc)? Did you know the XBox 360 team saw into the multi-core future before most anybody else?

Well, who better to talk to about all of this (and more) than Nick Baker. Nick is a hardware engineer and Director who leads the team that thought up the XBox 360 hardware architecture. It's an impressive piece of machinery. In fact, Nick recently won the Outstanding Technical Leadership award for the effort. Here, Nick takes us through the design history and some of the implementation details of the XBox 360. What were some of the design trade-offs? How different is the XBox 360 that you can buy today from what you, Nick and his team were initially thinking?

It's a very interesting story.

We get pretty geeky here, so be prepared to learn a thing or two about game console hardware architecture, the future of XBox 360 as it relates to multi-core, game programming language evolution in the multi-core, and more.

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  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle
    Excellent interview, Charles and Nick. I enjoyed it a lot Smiley Is there more stuff on the Xbox coming up?
  • Now we know who to blame.
    Sorry to say this, but with the three red lights of death plaguing gamers everywhere (myself included), I can't say that I 'admire' the design of the Xbox 360.

    Surely the 360 is quite visually pleasing but the reliability of the machine is just horrendous. I would have preferred if Microsoft designed a very large and loud game console just like the original Xbox....so long as it can survive the rigors of daily use.

    Don't get me wrong...I love the Xbox 360 and its games and I'm still a fan of the machine. But to live in fear that my 2nd machine can just die on me anytime (i had to buy another 360 again because my first was beyond repair and out of warranty)...that just sucks. There's no eloquent way of saying it. In my mind is the thought that I just spent over 800 dollars to play console games; the first 400 when I dutifully supported the machine at launch and the second 400 when I had to buy the damned thing again because my size of my game library just compels me to do it. I almost bought a PS3...MS is just lucky that at this time they just have better games, so....unfortunately, we gamers don't really have a choice (what? Wii? Are you kidding me? I'm not four years old anymore, thank you very much....)

    And I know I'm not the first one to have my console die on me---there are thousands out there with the same problem. What I want to know is, is MS even bothering to DO SOMETHING about this issue or are they just ignoring it completely, knowing full well that letting 3RL happen is more profitable for them?

    The game press [whether you like them or not] has also covered this issue extensively. It's not going away anytime soon. Someone has to answer for this problem one day. If and when the PS3 gets games worth having, then maybe that's the only time that MS is going to act on 3RL.

    I just wish that MS would acknowledge that the problem is real, and start talking with gamers on how they're planning to get rid of it once and for all.
  • I totally agree that the RROD and noise problem need to be owned up to and addressed by Microsoft. I'm on my 2nd '360 now having pre-ordered the system back when it launched. I'm lucky enough to have a PS3 as well and there's no doubt that the '360 is my favorite machine by far save for the fact that it is insanely noisy. I'm really hoping the 65mn machines run quieter and cooler. The problem with the noise is that it constantly pulls you out of the experience. I couldn't imagine leaving my '360 on in order to run Folder @ Home in my living room. All my '360 owning friends agree that the '360 is the console you turn on to cover up the noise of construction crews digging up the street. Please Microsoft - fix it in this generation - don't leave it till the next. I'll buy a 3rd machine if you can produce a version that is at least as quiet as the PS3. With the PS3 I have to walk over and get a visual confirmation that I did remember to turn it off before leaving my appartment - that's the manufacturing quality bar you need to shoot for.
  • I am disappointed that you didn't ask many architecture questions. Not all of us know the architecture details anyway. How many registers, what about cache sizes and memory chips. How do the cores communicate? What protocol? How do you face latencies due to communication? How are multiple threads programs? All by hand or what? Do you use a different bus technology than the pc? Are you considering moving back to Intel now that the Core Duos have come out?
    Even more advanced hardware questions. You had the man the architect in front of you and you left him walk away without the hardware questions. Have him describe the Power PC design, talk about the way that it handles out-of-order execution, what about pipe-line depths? He talks that it has three cores, how come you have 6 threads?
    Then move on to software support of parallelism. You didn't ask almost anything. What about the compiler? How do it work on a Power PC architecture differently from the Intel one? Does it optimize for multiple threads? How is the OS componentized to run in that a parallel architecture? Does it work on one core or does the OS utilize all cores?
    Then go on to ask about the other hardware int eh machine. It is wired up in a special manner? Do you take advantage of GPGPU, meaning graphics cards for general purpose computations in the 360?
    Then talk about the future. What are you main concerns with the current design? Please have Nic answer the user problems voiced even in this thread. What about future improvements?
    I know that some of this information is available onlie, especial the architecture details, but this is why we have an interview, to ask these questions without having to look them up. What about cache policy, synchronyzation protocols, new OS apis, give examples, how different are 360 executables from PC ones? Etc, etc.
  • Christian Liensbergerlittleguru <3 Seattle
    I don't think they would answer these questions... There is too much competition, NDAs and people trying to crack the system somehow...
  • Good stuff. You should have gone on longer, you'd just warmed up.
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    mycroft wrote:
    Good stuff. You should have gone on longer, you'd just warmed up.


    Nick's a very busy guy. Further, there's only so much technical detail we can go into...

    I thought this interview was a good conversation about the past, present and future of XBox hardware architecture design and implementation.
  • anon wrote:
    I agree with Guru. Would love to see some more videos on Xbox. Would be nice to also have a few interviews with 1st party developers (like scoble's interview with Bungie)?


    Bungie who? I want a Channel 9 at Epic interview Smiley
  •  

    i only have wii, compare with xbox360, which better?

  • migmig Punctuality is the virtue of the bored. - Evelyn Waugh

     


    D4nielChristian wrote:

    

    i only have wii, compare with xbox360, which better?




    Here is Paul Thurrott's take on your question: 
    http://www.winsupersite.com/showcase/xbox360_ps3_wii.asp

  • Because each core supports two hardware threads, in Intel speak "Hyper Threading". Multiple hardware threads per core are a good way of offsetting memory latency. Expect to see "hyper threading" like support come back in a big way as the number of cores per socket increases, driving up the effective FSB latency.
  • codancodan I didn't do it.

     


    aeoeddy wrote:

    Have him describe the Power PC design, talk about the way that it handles out-of-order execution, what about pipe-line depths? He talks that it has three cores, how come you have 6 threads?




    He said it was kind of like hyperthreading. I could be mistaken, but I believe the PowerPC design does not allow for out-of-order execution. I remember some developers talking about the transition being challenging because it didn't.

    edit: dot_tom beat me to the answer.

  • scytherage wrote:
    Now we know who to blame.
    Sorry to say this, but with the three red lights of death plaguing gamers everywhere (myself included), I can't say that I 'admire' the design of the Xbox 360.

    Surely the 360 is quite visually pleasing but the reliability of the machine is just horrendous. I would have preferred if Microsoft designed a very large and loud game console just like the original Xbox....so long as it can survive the rigors of daily use.

    Don't get me wrong...I love the Xbox 360 and its games and I'm still a fan of the machine. But to live in fear that my 2nd machine can just die on me anytime (i had to buy another 360 again because my first was beyond repair and out of warranty)...that just sucks. There's no eloquent way of saying it. In my mind is the thought that I just spent over 800 dollars to play console games; the first 400 when I dutifully supported the machine at launch and the second 400 when I had to buy the damned thing again because my size of my game library just compels me to do it. I almost bought a PS3...MS is just lucky that at this time they just have better games, so....unfortunately, we gamers don't really have a choice (what? Wii? Are you kidding me? I'm not four years old anymore, thank you very much....)

    And I know I'm not the first one to have my console die on me---there are thousands out there with the same problem. What I want to know is, is MS even bothering to DO SOMETHING about this issue or are they just ignoring it completely, knowing full well that letting 3RL happen is more profitable for them?

    The game press [whether you like them or not] has also covered this issue extensively. It's not going away anytime soon. Someone has to answer for this problem one day. If and when the PS3 gets games worth having, then maybe that's the only time that MS is going to act on 3RL.

    I just wish that MS would acknowledge that the problem is real, and start talking with gamers on how they're planning to get rid of it once and for all.


    Considering that the failing Xbox 360 problems are in the MINORITY, and MOST Xbox 360's are NOT loud, what is there to address? Perplexed

    You people crack me up with your FUD spread.
  • I've had 6 dead 360s thus far.  That's not FUD, because I refuse to own a PS3 or Wii... and I love the 360 when it works.  The problem is that I've had 4 systems red ring on me, 1 killed by the Fall update, and 1 refurb that arrived with a bad GPU out of the box.  And the last time I sent one in for warranty repair, Microsoft lost the thing and took over two months to finally send me one that worked, during which time I bought a Core system... which died 5 weeks later.

    So while I know the people who find it hard to believe that the red rings are a real and widespread problem, I can honestly say that I have had 4 systems since launch red ring on me... in a 74 degree year round home theater, regularly cleaned, with the system on a hard flat surface in an area with open ventilation and its own dedicated circuit.  If someone like me, who has worked on computers and electronic gear since I was 12, can't keep one of these things going for more than 4 months, how can the average consumer be expected to?

    Microsoft knows the problem - the chips disconnect from the board because the motherboard warps slightly from heat.  The modding community has shown them the problem by people fixing their own out-of-warranty systems with a simple replacement of the heatsink mounting to better hold the chips in place.  Microsoft's attempted fix with the Elite, which is basically an additional amount of epoxy, may or may not alleviate the problem.  But it is a very real problem, and something that Microsoft is going to have to deal with, whether some people believe it is a rare problem or not.  In my experience, there are few people on my friends list still using a launch console.  This early in the 360's life, that's unacceptable.
  • tewisslertewissler Me... Rom...  Good...

    Charles-

    Good interview, not extremely nitty gritty - but great none the less.

    I didn't hear this in the interview, maybe I missed it - but is Nick on the team for the next version or iteration of the XBOX (assuming that they have a team for this by now).

    If so, perhaps a great follow up interview would be to find out what kind of tech they are looking into for the next version.
    I know it would probably be a 1000 foot overview not wanting to give to much away - but I am sure it would be very interesting none the less.

    Again, assuming there will be another XBOX, I am curious if there will be a move back to Intel/AMD or if they will be sticking with the PowerPC.

    Tony Wissler

  • [Editied away by Charles... Please refrain from personal attacks and mindlessness here. Thanks.]
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    tewissler wrote:
    

    Charles-

    Good interview, not extremely nitty gritty - but great none the less.

    I didn't hear this in the interview, maybe I missed it - but is Nick on the team for the next version or iteration of the XBOX (assuming that they have a team for this by now).

    If so, perhaps a great follow up interview would be to find out what kind of tech they are looking into for the next version.
    I know it would probably be a 1000 foot overview not wanting to give to much away - but I am sure it would be very interesting none the less.

    Again, assuming there will be another XBOX, I am curious if there will be a move back to Intel/AMD or if they will be sticking with the PowerPC.

    Tony Wissler



    I'd imagine there will be another XBox (for consoles to evolve, there need to be new incarnations developed - I'd imagine XBox will keep evolving)... Not sure what the team is willing to discuss. When they can talk, I will be sure to get some details on new architecture, if possible.
  • Excuse me Charles, but saying my post was personal attacks and mindlessness is uncalled for.   I'm on my 3rd Xbox 360 and when MS isn't busy deleting posts about broken consoles you will find 1000's of them across the internet on every video game related message board in the world.

    To prove my point I'll direct you towards NEO-GAF which has a thread titled "MY Xbox 360 died and I lived to tell the story"  that thread alone has almost 4,000 replies.  It's a problem and if calling the lead designer out for those problems is mindlessness and is inappropriate because you work for MS then so be it.  I don't work for MS and I have had my console visit the Texas repair center and it's not fun.  If the lead designer can't be held accountable would you please direct me to who is so I can bring my concerns to that person.
  • Shamrock, no one at Microsoft can own up to the problems causing the red rings of death, primarily for business reasons.  If they admit the problem exists, not only are they legally on the hook to repair every system manufactured to date for free regardless of warranty coverage, they would also be required by law to refund repair/replacement costs to every 360 owner who has returned one out of warranty lest they get sued the way Sony was for the faulty drives in the PS2.

    If, however, they quietly phase out the problem over time, they reduce their liability and don't create a huge PR stir against their product.  You can certainly understand why they don't want to do that.

    I think we all know where the issue lies:  Microsoft used the Ball Grid Array method of attaching the CPU and GPU to the mainboard.  Doing so greatly reduces production costs and increases manufacturing output (i.e. units per hour), but once the mainboard warps even slightly from built-up heat, those tenuous connections can break.  This points to one of two problems:  Either the BGA mounting was improperly done (i.e. not baked long enough for the solder to flow well, causing cold solder joints), or the cooling design of the system is inadequate to prevent disconnection of the chips caused by heat-related issues. 

    We know this because of the methods people are using to repair red-ringed systems, specifically systems with the 0102 error code.  You've heard of the "towel trick".  This likely works because it heats the internal components enough to re-flow the solder in the BGA joints, effectively reconnecting the CPU and GPU to the mainboard.  You've also seen the heatgun trick, where the CPU and GPU mounts are heated up to re-flow the solder in the same manner.  The X-bracket replacement trick that is becoming common now does something similar - you replace the tension-mounted bracket with screws and nylon washers, allow the system to heat up enough to re-flow the solder, then tighten the heatsinks down while still hot to re-seat the chip pins into the solder.  The added benefit of this method is that the resulting pressure of the heatsink on the CPU/GPU should prevent future disconnection from the mainboard.  It also allows you to use better thermal transfer material on the heatsinks, reducing the chance of future heat-related disconnections.

    The added epoxy on the Elite's chips (as noted by Lllama.com) is likely Microsoft's slapdash way of alleviating these issues.  Whether it will prove to be reliable over time remains to be seen, but it is at least an indication that someone there knows where the problem lies.  Let's hope they correct their manufacturing problems soon.  I'm hoping that some measures are being taken with their refurbs and repairs, and I'm interested to see how long my eighth 360 since launch lasts once it arrives next week.
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    Shamrock,

    There is nothing wrong with telling us that we suck and why, specifically. It's how you go about it that matters in this forum. Please do continue providing feedback. Just do it in a respectful manner. Please.

    C
  • Interesting vid! 

    Shamrock:  It's absolutely ridiculous to blame someone responsible for the conceptual design of the console, for hardware issues.   Clearly the issue lies with the manufacturing process, and someone somewhere decided to save costs and go about the way they did.  I highly doubt that Nick Baker was responsible for that.

    One problem here is that there are people who are rightfully mad when they read up on why and how the issue exists.  But at the same time, a lot of people are venting and simply looking like crazies. 

    "Considering that the failing Xbox 360 problems are in the MINORITY, and MOST Xbox 360's are NOT loud, what is there to address?

    You people crack me up with your FUD spread."

    It is quite clear that this is an issue that affects every single 360 built.  I suppose you could put a percentage on how many have failed, but a more interesting percentage is:  How many of the 360s out there are prone to these issues?  The answer is:  100%.  100% of 360 consoles are prone to these issues, it can happen to any of them.  There is nothing differentiating one that has broke, and one that hasn't. 

    Now, I'm discounting the attempted change on the Elite.  Thus far we don't have stories of people on their 6th Elite and such...so we'll see how that holds up, but it is very apparent that it was a half hearted attempt at a fix.  You would think that MS would have wanted to end this issue once and for all and go with a solid, permanent fix.


  • Well Charles I do apologize if my first post wasn't polite.  You have to understand the frustration behind having 2 consoles break down in less than 2 years. 

    I am Xbox Fan.  360 is my only console, and I have continuously subscribed to Live since day 1 (over 4 years I believe).  This generation has been the worst experience of my life (in regards to gaming).  What makes it worse is the perception that MS is covering their own behinds at our expense.  I'd ask you Charels, as a customer how should we interpret MS making a whole new console in the Elite and doing nothing to fix reliability except for slapping some glue on the CPU/GPU?  It shows me that that MS does not care about us or it's reputation.  They could of used the elite to make a more reliable system and instead they used the same parts with the same unreliable internal setup.  They didn't even wait a few months for the 65nm chips.

    The only thing saving MS right now is Live.  I'm fed up with them and as a customer I don't think I've ever been  so disappointed.  As soon as Sony get's it's act straight with online, I'll be gone.

    I can't recommend the 360 to anyone I know.  How sad is that?  My favorite console with my favorite games and I can't in good conscious tell a friend to go out and buy the system. 


     MS is more worried about avoiding losing a class action lawsuit and denying a problem rather fixing the problem.  My only hope is that they do the smart thing then.  When the 65nm chips come out, use that opportunity to shrink the motherboard so you have a excuse to remove the X clamp.  Replace the X clamp with something that will not allow the board to flex and pop the chips.  That way when your defending the many class action lawsuits you can say the X clamp wasnt' removed for reliability problems, but rather because the MOBO was shrunk and it no longer fit correctly.
  • As an interesting aside, my 8th 360 since launch arrived from Microsoft today.  Hooked it up, all was well... and then the screen went black and the 360 logo came up again (almost like it rebooted itself for no reason).  When it came back up, however, the power light in the middle of the ring was blinking constantly... and on the dashboard, you could see the tray indicator say "Opening" then "Closing" repeatedly, but the disc tray wouldn't open.  I unplugged it, plugged it back in, and it went through all that again.  Called Microsoft and after an hour long phone call...

    That's right, you guessed it:  The refurb that arrived today has to be sent back.  I have to wait YET AGAIN for the coffin to arrive, send it in, then wait for yet another refurb that may or may not work.  The last time I went through this, Microsoft promised me a new 360 instead of a refurb, lost my returned console for 2 months, then sent me another refurb anyway.

    So let's run the numbers.  So far, I've had:
    4 units with the red ring of death, secondary error code 0102.
    2 refurbs arrive dead out of the box (1 bad GPU, 1 disc tray/reboot).
    1 refurb killed by the Fall update as soon as I hooked it up.

    This makes the third time I've had to call Microsoft for a return the day that a refurb arrived.  If we include the Core system I still have (that I bought as a backup), that means the next refurb they send me will be my 9th 360 since launch.

    Let me say that again:  NINTH.

    If it weren't for my experience remaining calm from my years at a law firm, I would be livid.  As it is, I'm just glad my Core system still works so I can continue gaming with my friends while I await #9.
  • CharlesCharles Welcome Change
    TECHNOLOGY ALERT
    from The Wall Street Journal.

    July 5, 2007

    Microsoft said it will take a charge of as much as $1.15 billion to extend Xbox 360 warranty coverage to three years. The company said it has been required to make an "unacceptable number" of repairs to the game machines since they went on sale in November 2005. The extended warranty covers a specific problem that causes the machines to fail.

    For more information, see:
    http://online.wsj.com/technology?mod=djemalert
  • I love my Xbox 360. But the drawback is when a new version of a system comes for better xbox play especially online play What happens to our old xbox 360 games like rainbox 6 Vegas 2 and BF:Bad Company. Does this mean i we wont be able to play on the new xbox that had blue ray dvd drives.

    Some of loyal customer base dont have that kind of money to be using to constantly buying new version of the xbox 360 system. If your intention to alienate the that custmer base by phasing out good games for the new hd format. Microsoft sarting losing money to mac or the ps3.

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