Second Life's population problems

David Carr has written an article about Second Life: Is Business Ready For Virtual Worlds?" David is not the first person to write about doing business in Second Life, but he has managed to dig up some interesting information relating to Second Life's true population and technical infrastructure. If this information is accurate, it casts serious doubt on the potential for Second Life to be an effective medium for conducting mainstream, enterprise business activities such as meetings, mass product demonstrations, and large-scale virtual conferences -- at least in the short term.

David's article contains two pieces of information that are relevant to this discussion. First, Second Life's true population (as opposed to the number of registered "residents") is relatively tiny. Second, its infrastructure is unable to handle large numbers of users. Here's the information he obtained about Second Life's population:

The peak number of concurrent users hit 33,000 in mid-February, compared with 5,000 at the end of 2005. In a recent blog posting titled "Fearless Predictions," chief technology officer Cory Ondrejka projected that concurrency will top 150,000 by the end of 2007.

Later in the story, David says that there were there were 57,702 premium account holders, who subscribe to Second Life in order to own land and take part in other commercial activities. Linden Lab, the company which operates Second Life, has in the past promoted the use of "residents" and "Recently Logged In" users as a measure of population, which resulted in some mainstream press outlets helping to hype the service, but also prompted some sharp criticism from outside observers.

I think the concurrent users/paid subscribers figures are more accurate measures of true population. And while 30,000 or 50,000 people is nothing to sniff at, in the grand scheme of things it's a drop in the bucket. Let's put SL's true population in perspective. According to a study released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last year, there are about 84 million Americans with home broadband connections. In addition, Americans seem to be quite savvy about the concept of virtual places -- another Pew report notes that more than five million Americans are taking virtual tours in cyberspace on a typical day. In other words, the number of paid subscribers to Second Life -- people from all over the world who likely spend lots of time in this virtual environment -- is less than one tenth of one percent of the number of Americans who enter virtual worlds on any given day.

The other point that David raised in his article relates to Second Life's infrastructure. Not only is it unable to handle traffic spikes or large numbers of concurrent users, but also further outages or disruptions are practically inevitable, given Linden's expectations about Second Life population growth. Here's what's running Second Life:

The Second Life system runs on 1,800 Debian Linux servers dedicated to simulating activities in the virtual world, with multiple copies of the simulation software on each server. As of mid-February, there were 6,400 simulators software devices that track activity in production, with each of them representing 16 acres of land. Linden has another 200 servers for supporting systems, including MySQL databases, Web servers and test simulators. These numbers come from vice president of technology Joe Miller, who notes that Linden is currently adding three racks of servers per week, with 41 servers per rack, in an effort to get ahead of a backlog in orders for new land ...

... There is still one centralized database for tracking user accounts and account balances, and for executing the transactions to transfer Lindens from one account to another. That remains one of the major chokepoints in the system, according to [Linden senior developer Andrew] Meadows. The database team wants to break it up into smaller components, so that the workload can be spread across more servers, but they're still figuring out the best way to accomplish that, he says.

More than 120 new servers added every week? MySQL databases helping serve up graphics data, real-time, to tens of thousands of users at once? A single point of failure for Second Life's mission-critical payment transaction system? Does this sound like a solid IT infrastructure, one meant for mainstream corporate use and something that scale to hundreds of thousands of concurrent users?

Of course it doesn't. What it looks like to me is a cool idea that galvanized a relatively small group of power users, PR companies, and the mainstream business press, but is now dealing with the reality of technology limitations, and the expense required to expand this virtual world.

There are other problems too -- allegations of financial scams and other risque activities, a frustrating UI -- but Second Life's technical troubles will continue to plague visitors to the virtual world in the coming year.

That's not to say Second Life is doomed. I am a firm believer in the potential for virtual activities to help distance education, and 3D technologies to transform the way mass media is produced and consumed. Certainly, the fact that millions of people every day are taking virtual tours suggests a great opportunity for Linden Lab/Second Life to capture part of that market and a significant number of users. Five or ten years out, Second Life may be able to capitalize on these trends. But in the short term, Second Life will continue to experience growing pains, and struggle with building its community.

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