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

Critics say the virtual world is running on a computer network that could have problems growing with demand.

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.

"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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