It’s a huge effort. Right now the Second Life grid is a proprietary set-up in a hosting facility that we have customised for the purposes of what we’re doing – which made sense a decade and half ago. But these days, with the services from Google and Amazon and Microsoft with cloud infrastructures, it makes a lot of sense to shift our technologies to be on top of those cloud infrastructures instead of having our own.
Ebbe Altberg, VWPBE, March 15th, 2018.
That the Lab is working on moving Second Life to the cloud is becoming more and more widely known. First mentioned by Landon Linden (aka, Landon McDowell, the Lab’s Chief Product Officer) during his SL14B Meet the Lindens session, it was “officially” announced in August 2017 via a blog post.
Landon Linden, June 2017, talking about the Lab’s hope to move Second Life services to the cloud.
It’s a long-term project, which will extend well into 2019 (at least), building on a relationship with Amazon dating back to 2008, and which today both Blocksworld and Sansar (see: “Project Sansar”: an Amazon ECS case study), from which the Lab hope to gain a range of benefits, including – in time – perhaps the opportunity to offer a broader range of products at more comfortable (for users) price points.
There are some significant technology challenges the Lab faces with the move. However, progress is being made. Some non-user visible services are already running in the cloud, and more recently, the Lab has started preliminary testing with cloud-based simulators – although they are fair from ready for users to access, as Oz Linden outlined at the March 16th TPV Developer meeting:
We have actually run experimental regions on cloud servers, and it worked. There were some functional limitations that we have to do a lot of work to solve before we could begin to do regions that ordinary users can get to … It’s something we’re pursuing as aggressively as we can [but] I’m not even sure we have a sufficiently comprehensive view of the problems … some of them will only become apparent as we actually put things into production.
Oz Linden, TPVD meeting, March 16th, 2018 – full audio below.
Oz Linden, March 16th, 2018, talking about progress to date, and how things are likely to progress.
For the Lab, the benefits of the move to the cloud include things like a reduction in their capital expenditure – no need to maintain their own dedicated hardware (or continuously update / replace it) within a dedicated operating environment. It also means they can more dynamically scale consumption according to needs – this could be beneficial for a number of the back-end systems within Second Life.
It turns it into less capital expenditure to have to buy all the equipment and doing all the maintenance on that. You kind-of pay for what you use; with Second Life [right now], once we’ve bought a piece of hardware, we have to sit on it whether it’s being utilised or not, whereas you can kind-of dynamically scale your consumption as necessary when you use something like AWS … which we believe will reduce costs for use and then ultimately, we hope to pass that on to customers.
Ebbe Altberg, VWBPE, March 15th 2018.
Once the transition has been completed and the Lab has had time to evaluate things, the move might allow them to offer a more varied land product – something again touched upon in Ebbe Altberg’s 2018 VWBPE address, and allow them to more extensively “re-balance” the revenue model – something that is also an ongoing project at the Lab.
We’re really thinking hard about the economic model of Second Life. We share a belief inside the Lab that land is quite expensive. so we’re constantly looking at ways to lower land prices and find other ways to find revenues. So I think you will see us try to shift from what I would say [are] high real estate taxes to more consumption taxes or fees to create an environment where it’s easy for people to create and own experiences, and we [the Lab] participate more in all the transactions that take place.
Ebbe Altberg, VWBPE, March 15th, 2018.
Given that land tier provides the lion’s share of the Lab’s revenue, this re-balancing is far from easy to say nothing of the potential for user outcry at any fee increases). Ergo, having better means to lower fees such as through reduced operating costs and a broader spread of more “affordable” products could – depending on the time frames involved – go a long way towards helping the Lab achieving that re-balancing goal.
So what might the move to the cloud mean for users? That’s hard to quantify at the moment, simply because the project has so far to go.However, some hints at what might happen have been offered.
For one thing – and on the subject of different land products – it might allow the Lab to offer two broad categories of region / server type; I’ll call them “always on” and “on demand”.
- “Always on” would be simulators running 24/7 as with SL at present. These would be ideal for handling Mainland, large open spaces like Blake Sea and the larger, contiguous private estates. Such regions might have a similar type of fixed-fee tier cost associated with them as we have today (although not necessarily the same price points).
- “On demand” would be simulators that are only active (and charged for) when in active use. When devoid of avatars, they are saved to disk and spun down. These types of region could be ideal for special events, or for private business / residential regions which don’t have any surrounding regions, and would only be charged for when avatars are present; once the last avatar leaves, following an appropriate pause, the region is saved, and the instance spun-down.
Such an approach has been alluded to by Ebbe Altberg:
Some experiences might want to have continuous persistence over time, and maybe that’s one type of pricing model, for an “always on” type of scenario. Maybe other will be fine with, “hey, I’m only using this for a few hours in a class a few times a week” or something. and if that can spin-up in a few seconds, and then I just need to basically pay for the time that I’m utilising it. Those could be potential options for us to explore.
Ebbe Altberg, VWBPE, March 15th, 2018.
Land offerings could be broadened in other ways. Again, as Ebbe Altberg indicated at VWBPE 2018, there might be high-performance, high-capacity, “upper tier” servers available for those needing them for specific uses (e.g. events need high concurrency levels or similar), sitting alongside more moderate, lower-cost servers for things like residential use.
More intriguingly, cloud hosting might even allow the Lab to more readily geo-locate simulators / regions with their physical world audience. Such regions wouldn’t necessarily have to be grouped together in-world, they are simply located a lot close to the user base that most frequently uses them, potentially improving performance for that audience.
Today we are located in the US, which means that people from Australia or Asia or Europe have to travel quite a ways, which is hundreds of extra milliseconds of latency. So if you want to have a very dedicated community in Australia or somewhere, we could maybe start to distribute our server infrastructure to be closer to where the actual customers of those regions are, which would make things more performant.
Ebbe Altberg, VWBPE, 15th, March 2018.
There will be more to come on SL and the cloud and the Lab provide further updates as the work progresses, and I’ll hopefully report on them as they are made public. In the meantime, and for those who haven’t waded all the way through the VWBPE 2018 video with Ebbe Altberg (and Brett Linden), or who don’t want to read either my transcript of that event or the bullet-point summary, here’s the audio of Ebbe’s comments on SL and the cloud: