June 6, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

'Second Life': Don't worry, we can scale

Last March, Cory Ondrejka, the chief technology officer at "Second Life" publisher Linden Lab, bet a symbolic quarter that his virtual world would within two years have more users than the wildly popular online game "World of Warcraft."

The bet was certainly ambitious. After all, "WoW," as fans call it, currently has more than 6.5 million users. "Second Life" has 240,000 registered users. But whether Linden Lab's virtual world can catch "WoW" isn't the most pressing question about the virtual world's future for some people familiar with its computer network.

"The underlying architecture of the Internet and of 'Second Life' is perfectly scalable."
--Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale

Their concern is more about technology: Can the computer network of "Second Life," using an unusual configuration that dedicates each server to a sliver of virtual real estate, scale with growing demand?

"Second Life" currently runs on 2,579 servers that use the dual-core Opteron chip produced by AMD. Each server is responsible for an individual "sim," or 16 acres of virtual "Second Life" land. At peak usage that means that each server is handling about three users.

"Most (massively multiplayer online games) have hundreds to thousands of players per server machine," said Michael Sellers, who runs Online Alchemy, a provider of artificial-intelligence tools for online games. "Is there a way they can achieve (significant) elements of scale? I haven't seen that."

There's little question that "Second Life" manages far fewer users per server than other virtual worlds. Sony Online Entertainment's "EverQuest II," which has more than 250,000 users, runs on about 1,100 dual-CPU, x86 (x86 is the processor architecture used by most AMD and Intel chips) servers spread across 37 clusters of 20 to 40 servers. Each of those handles around 116 users at peak usage, according to figures provided by SOE.

Big bucks needed?
These wildly different figures have some observers scratching their heads and wondering if Linden Lab is going to have to spend big to keep the "Second Life" network growing.

"My understanding of (Linden Lab's) back-end requirements are that they're absurd and unsustainable," said Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, publisher of the online game "Puzzle Pirates." "They have (about) as many peak simultaneous players as we do, and we're doing it on four CPUs."

But Linden Lab executives have a message for worrywarts: Relax.

Got views on Vista?

"It works just like Google, where each (server) is a single, cheap (server) that basically operates and is automatically deployed by our systems and simulates the systems," said Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale.

Rosedale argued that his company's architecture mirrors that of the Internet itself, which he characterized as millions of servers running in a decentralized system.

Linden Lab is constantly adding new servers as its user base grows and as users demand new "land." And since "sims" generate a minimum of $200 in monthly land-use fees, Rosedale contended that the large number of servers pay for themselves.

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Second Life, virtual worlds, computer network, online game, World of Warcraft


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Let's see, carry the two...
If peak load on 2,579 servers is (a whopping!) three users, that puts 7,737 people on at any given time. Given that every hour of the day is "peak" to someone, giving Second Life the benefit of the doubt by multiplying that number by 24 (a gross overestimate) lands them at 185,688 active user accounts. To reach 6.5 million users in two years, they would need to recruit 263,096 people per month or about 8,650 people per day. That doesn't even account for the inevitable growth of World of Warcraft.

Big dreams, no doubt, but it ain't happening.
Posted by Christopher Hall (1205 comments )
Reply Link Flag
According to their current scheme, they'd need 2,166,667 servers to handle the hoped-for 6.5-million users. And if they're adding 8,650 people day, as your calculation suggests, they also need to be adding 2,883 new servers every day.

Now, I'm no network administrator/IT guy, but wouldn't the costs of implementing and maintaining over 2.1 million servers be prohibitively high?

Sure, the hardware is scaleable... but what about the support and administration costs?
Posted by handdrawn (8 comments )
Link Flag

This is were all Second Life applications are headed we have recently reactiongrid.com is supposedly about to take on this new level of server that can grow as fast as a click of a mouse. Very cool and exciting and indeed is now very possible.
Posted by wolframalpha (2 comments )
Link Flag
Perfect problem for server virtualization to solve
The problem with the architecture described is that it's a very inefficient way to allocate resources. Virtual acreage correspond poorly with real workloads in terms of computation. If there are few people in an area, then the server dedicated to it ends up idling. Virtualization software from VMWare can greatly improve the efficiency here by shifting virtual servers around a cluster of computers as demand dictates.
Posted by Chung Leong (111 comments )
Reply Link Flag
possibly a good problem for virtualization at least
I might recommend Xen rather than VMWare assuming they are already using a unix/linux cluster.

The thing to consider may be effective horsepower rather than virtual server mobility. An OS running on raw hardware is always going to run faster than an OS running inside a virtual box running on an OS running on raw hardware.

Is the loss in prossessing power from layering going to balance against the ability to move a "peaking" virtual machine from one hardware environment to another.

I've not yet had a good look at virtualization but I'd also be curious to see if a virtual server can be shared among multiple physical boxes like a raid drive spans multiple physical hard drives. There may be benifit to being able to dump a bunch of cheap boxes behind a virtual server if the workload is constant enough to justify it.
Posted by jabbotts (492 comments )
Link Flag
Puzzle Pirates?
"My understanding of (Linden Lab's) back-end requirements are that they're absurd and unsustainable," said Daniel James, CEO of Three Rings, publisher of the online game "Puzzle Pirates." "They have (about) as many peak simultaneous players as we do, and we're doing it on four CPUs."

*blink* He's comparing a 2D chat program with boardgames to a graphical 3D MMO platform with user-created content? Anyone else see this comparison as absurd?

As for the three users per server, that's just screwy math. Whoever came up with that number just took peak users and devided them by the numer of servers. That is an Average Distributed Load, *NOT* Maximum capacity. Each sim can handle 40 users, and most of the 'servers' can handle 4 sims. So that's actually 160 users per server, making SL's theoretical maximum load about 412,000 concurrent users.

Dunno about you, but that sure looks like a *TON* of scalability to me.
Posted by Draco-1 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I've attempted to register a few times over the alst few days but they do not seem to be accepting "basic accounts" at this point.
Posted by thomasl824 (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
There might be some issues because they are revamping the sign-up process to streamline it. Don't worry, they aren't doing away with the Free Basic Accounts.
Posted by Draco-1 (4 comments )
Link Flag
Flawed math
Ok, so i hear two things.

1) Each server handles "16 acres" of land
2) Based on number of servers vs. number of users, each server handles 3 users during peak.

It sounds like that in order for each server to only have a load of 3 users, based on Second Life's "scaling" method, users would have to be evenly spread across the entire game world, only 3 users per 16 acres of land. Most other mmo's have servers handle per connection, so even distribution is guaranteed.

Was there something not included in the reporting of second life's network, or is their network architecture flawed in that a popular area in the world filled with users in one spot could drain one server's resources dry while THOUSANDS of other servers sit idle?
Posted by xandersturn (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The math is not flawed exactly, more like the statistic was used in a misleading manner. Peak mean the most users on simultaneously in a given period of time. Peak does *NOT* mean the maximum possible. A bus can hold 40 people, but in a small town, it's peak might be 10 people. It doens't mean the bus can't handle another 30 people, just that only at most 10 have ever ridden at the same time.

See my post titled "Puzzle Pirates?". SL can handle 160 users per server theoretically.
Posted by Draco-1 (4 comments )
Link Flag
A classic case of parallelism
The architecture seems like a case for parallelism rather than WEB's request/response model. Each client request should be pre-processed and split into multiple requests and store in a queue. Later one of the server/server process can pick up each queued item and process them. The results should be stored in the client queue and merged to form the complete response.

The downside is the client will not get the response immediately, however it will get the last response.
Posted by pdude (65 comments )
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Brave New World
Did he write "Matrix" or did it write him?
It may not be long now, folks.
Next step, virtual world economics, a free-market economy where the money in the virtual world can be banked in the real world; it's already a one- way street, we just need to allow the players to build businesses, sell products and services, MAKE MONEY!!
Right now Second Life has a "monopoly" (pun intended) on it's virtual world. What about a virtual world that works like the real world? Only in "virtual" you can start at any age(there are no ages). Then you can maybe start a business, bank money, buy virtual supplies (are we ready for virtual "E-bay?"), set up a virtual web site/store front, and make money!
Wait a minute! We can do that now!
Would we be "better" at it in "virtual"? Would we be more entrepreneurial? Would it cost less in Virtual? Would the chancews of success be better.
Who is the God in a virtual world? Can we organize a Virtual religion, pray to our Virtual God? Get a marriage license, have a relationship. in Virtual?
I await the outcome. I suggest that Second Life find an opportunity to design a New World.
I've got some ideas.

Posted by bdennis410 (175 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Web site errors
I just tried to post a long, pithy, and well reasoned, humourous comment on the "Don't worry, we can scale" story, and guess what?
Again, you generated a "404 error-page not found". Your web site continues to develop and create problems.
Worst, your return to the page you started from erases your Comment. If you didn't "make a copy" before you sent it, you're SOL!!
I'm making a copy of this one, just in case.
Posted by bdennis410 (175 comments )
Reply Link Flag
More BS
Ok I am throwing up now! Your not even close with WW...............OMG when is this nightmare of a PR going to stop!
Posted by play7 (926 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I dont find this very suprising at all considering lost connections all the time, if they'd stick to what they would need for servers rather than an unmanagable amount of numbers, it wouldnt kick people off with poor connections around the world.

Google doesn't tend to kick me off it's search engine just because my adsl speed isn't up to their liking.

They're kinda becoming the monopoly on virtual worlds, kicking other worlds in the gut when they dont like what's up.
Posted by reikoarashi (1 comment )
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