Inside Second Life's Data Centers

As Second Life strains to keep up with recent popularity, InformationWeek looks at the real-world technology foundations of the make-believe world and developer Linden Lab's plans to stay on top of growth.

As a stopgap measure to manage growth, Linden Lab said in mid-February that it might limit logins on the weekends. Linden Lab said it might lock out some free accounts during periods of peak traffic, limiting access to the network to premium accounts -- who pay $9.95 per month -- and free accounts that have bought or sold Linden Dollars through Linden Lab. The announcement proved controversial, with some residents saying it was a sign that Second Life is collapsing.

Another measure to manage growth is to move some of Second Life to the Web. To experience most of Second Life, users need to download and install a specialized client. But Second Life already allows users to manage parts of their Second Life experience from the Web. Users can create accounts, check whether their Second Life friends are online, and buy and sell land and Linden Dollars using a Web browser. Linden Lab is considering how it should expand the Web capabilities to reduce the burden on Second Life servers. This will involve creating open APIs to allow third-party developers to write their own applications.

Technology problems aren't the only problems created by the influx of users. New users need to learn how to get around in Second Life, where to go, what to do, and how to get along with their fellow users. The Second Life user community itself has always been a big part of that effort. After an initial orientation, users are thrust into the world, and more experienced users step in as volunteers to help the newcomers out. There are even formal programs in place to provide volunteer mentors and classes for new Second Life users.

Second Life often sees influxes of international residents. For example, one recent weekend saw a major influx of users from France, driven by a presentation on a popular news program there. Before that, Second Life saw an influx of users from Australia.

Co-branded Second Life areas can help ease the transition, Miller said. Only one of those exists now, a site for fans of the TV show The L Word, run by Showtime and built by Second Life marketing company Electric Sheep. Fans of the show can download the client from the The L Word Web site. When The L-Word fans log in for the first time, they materialize in an orientation area specially built for fans of the show, not the general-purpose orientation area where most residents first experience Second Life.

When fans of the show leave the orientation area, the first place they go is to the L-Word's _The L Word area in the world, although they are free to move throughout Second Life.

Linden Lab plans more co-branded deals in the future, Miller says, although he declined to provide specifics.

Search capabilities are also straining under the load of traffic. Responses to search can be several hours out of date. Linden Lab is looking to solve that problem by moving searches to separate partitions and databases.

As another means of improving performance, Linden Lab is looking to provide tools to users to allow users to see how much system resources they're using. Some of the attachments that users create to decorate their avatars can make intensive use of system resources, and Linden Lab hopes that, if users become more aware of the resources they're using, they'll use them more wisely.