Why pay for OpenSim?

With OpenSim hosting prices dropping fast and features and stability improving, it surprises to me that people still ask why anyone should pay for OpenSim.

Yes, OpenSim is free. You can go to OpenSimulator.org and download the software and run your own world, at zero cost.

But, like much open source software, OpenSim is “free as in puppy, not free as in beer.”

Here’s what it takes to run OpenSim on your own:

  • You need to be able to set up a mySQL database
  • If you’re having other people visit your sim — and you connect to the Internet through a router — you need to know how to set up port forwarding
  • If you expect visitors, you’ll need to make sure the computer running OpenSim is up all the time, and be ready to step in and restart it if needed
  • You will need to make regular backups — especially if other people are depending on you to keep their stuff safe
  • You will need to upgrade the software, and migrate your databases, when new releases of OpenSim come out
  • If you are running OpenSim on Linux, you will need to know your way around mono, which lets Windows programs runs on Linux

None of these things are particularly difficult in and of themselves. I was able to do it (with a little work, and a lot of trial and error). Some info on how to do it is here, along with discussion groups and chat channels were you can get help if you get stuck: OpenSim 102: Running your own sims.

When does it make sense for you to run OpenSim on your own?

  • If you’re the kind of person who runs their own webserver, instead of using a hosting company for your website
  • If you enjoy being hands on with technology
  • If you have spare hardware you can dedicate to OpenSim
  • If you have enough bandwidth to support visitors when you want them

And this is when you absolutely have to run OpenSim on your own:

  • If you’re a school or company and need maximum security, and have to have OpenSim running behind your firewall
  • If you need to have access to your OpenSim region when you’re not connected to the Internet

A brand-new region in 2009.

So why pay for hosting?

It took me hours to set up my first OpenSim region at home — and a couple of days to connect it to OSGrid.

It was worth it because I got to learn, first-hand, how OpenSim worked. After all, I write about OpenSim regularly. I should at least know how to use it.

But professionally hosted regions start at under $10 a month. It might be worth it for you to avoid having to learn that lesson.

A $10 region might not give you the top performance, but it will definitely be better than what you can get running OpenSim on a home computer. Plus — they take care of the backups and upgrades.

It’s a great deal

Many hosting providers are competing on price. Sure, they buy or rent servers in bulk, and use grid management tools to automate grid management functions that you’d have to do by hand, such as automatically restarting regions if they go down, or making daily offsite backups.

But they still have to pay for their hardware, and their bandwidth, and enough staff to cover support calls.

It’s likely that some hosting providers are offering basic budget regions below cost, in order to get you comfortable with their services, so that you use them when you’re ready to upgrade to premium, high-use regions, or need custom development work.

In any case, nobody is getting rich — yet — offering OpenSim hosting.

As the market grows, these early vendors may be able to leverage their first mover advantage, brand-name recognition and hard-won experience and become the next GoDaddy or Dreamhost. So there might be a big payoff — eventually.

Until then, the big winners are their customers.

(Full list of OpenSim hosting providers here.)

They know what they’re doing

Many of the folks running OpenSim hosting companies are also OpenSim core developers — or, at least, contribute patches and bug fixes back to the community.

As a result, they know the OpenSim software in and out. They know how to tune it, how to make it work right. They know how to migrate databases during an upgrade — and they know when its time to upgrade, and when they should wait for the bugs to be caught and sorted out.

Remember when companies had webmasters running their websites, when Web server software was still new, and how sites went down all the time? And that’s just websites — simple static HTML pages.

OpenSim grid management takes that web managed, and ratchets it up by a couple of orders of magnitude of complexity. A grid has to be able to serve up the 3D objects of each individual region, coordinate avatar movements across regions, handle chats and instant messages, groups, and voice conversations, and all the stuff that users keep in their inventories. Since a single grid typically spans several servers, all of this has to be coordinated across multiple machines.

That’s a lot of moving parts, any of which may be affected by a glitch at any time.

And it doesn’t help that OpenSim is evolving quickly, with new patches, upgrades and releases coming out on a regular basis. Any new change in OpenSim has the potential of breaking a function that worked previously — or require a change in management procedures or grid management software.

OpenSim vendors stay on top of all that. That’s pretty much all they do. So they get good at it pretty quick.

Two years ago, when OpenSim hosting companies were just springing up, you could argue that the vendors didn’t have that much more experience than a talented, technically-adept user did.

That’s no longer true. OpenSim hosting companies are now running hundreds of regions, and dozens — or more — private grids. They’ve been through several upgrade cycles, backup failures, asset losses, and other disasters. They’ve learned from those experiences.

They also learn from one another. A popular management feature offered by one provider will soon be duplicated by others. A disaster that befalls one vendor will spur the others to double-check their own processes to make sure it won’t happen to them.

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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

9 Responses

  1. Gaga —

    I totally agree. OpenSim is coming to resemble Apache more and more each day.

  2. gagagracious@aol.com' Gaga Gracious says:

    Maria, you could also add the simple fact Opensim is open source and has hundreds of supporters including big name companies and educators adding their expertise. Opensim is everything that SecondLife is not when we talk of making it our world, our imagination. From the ground up it has been built by the people who will use it and it will take on different forms like Aurora sim. it is not built for profit although many will profit one way or another by what they contribute. That’s how the 2d web was built. It wasn’t built by AOL no more than the 3d web will be built by Linden Labs. The 3d web will be built by free thinkers unhindered by the blinkered boardroom mandarins of monopolistic interest.

    lol, just saying.

  3. iliveisl@yahoo.com' iliveisl says:

    very nice post Maria (you continually inspire confidence – thank you) =)

  4. lmpierce@alcancemas.com' LMPierce says:

    It's fantastic that OpenSim is free to download and use, as are the various viewers. For learning, training and exploration of the technology, this has been an incredible watershed. My 30,000+ sim in OpenSim would cost $600 a month in Second Life and that would have effectively prevented my own growth as a sim creator. Now I'm ready for the $300 premium version of OpenSim and a $100 premium OpenSim viewer (for Mac), complete with bulletproof core features (no more, "Sorry, no support for sound on the Mac" or "Sorry, our viewer is only optimized for Second Life"), realtime customer support (online chat works well), and a developer attitude that strongly includes appreciation of the demands of its customer base, just as we appreciate what they are doing for us (which we should show by putting our money where our wants are). Anyone who can afford a powerful enough computer to enjoy OpenSim or SecondLife in the first place can afford to pay a fair market price for the applications that go with them. Imagine going to Dell and expecting a free computer because we ("free thinkers, artists, creatives, educators) need the tools and have so little support in society for our work. Yet why do some expect products that are non-physical to be free, just because they are wanted?

    The 2D Internet is what it is today because of commercial interests. If not for that, it would still be a text forum for government and academic institutions. Let's create a sustainable future for virtual world technologies. I look forward to companies that charge a reasonable price for software products built through their hard work, because I'll have reason to believe they'll be around in the future to support my investment of time in their technology. Updates will come faster (Sure Unix is free, but evolves ever so slowly. And, it plays a very different role than a user application). User requests will not be arbitrated against time costs without compensation. Many developers who create the "free" open source products have "day" jobs. This affects the development pace of open source software. At Imprudence, for example, they indicate explicitly that Mac viewer development was delayed because their main Mac programmer had to return to RL job time demands. Can you imagine if Photoshop CS 6.0 were to be delayed yet another year because their core programmer had too many obligations to fulfill in his "day job"?

    The OpenSim hosts charge and that's good. Free Web hosting usually has lots of ads to go with the "free" website – I certainly wouldn't want ads floating in my sims. Now it's time for OpenSimulator to create a premium service and offer a premium product. They work hard and we should be contributing to that with a medium of exchange, not just our appreciation. The Internet has created a culture of entitlement that is immature and counter-productive. Likewise, viewer development has been a mess, especially on the Mac side. Perhaps if a viewer cost $50 or $100, Mac users would be creating a necessary incentive for the development of a solid Mac viewer for OpenSim. Linden Lab can do it for Second Life because they have enough profit to support a relatively small user base. They even support Linux. And, the viewer is still free! By paying a reasonable fee for a viewer, we might get a great viewer without the backend high tiers. But as long as we think everything intangible should be free, we'll get a skewed market that underserves any segment that is not a pet project.

    The current developers have shown us what's possible. Let's consider that "profit" is not a dirty word. Second Life is an amazingly imaginative place and the virtual world community owes Linden Lab a nod of gratitude. Much of society at large has at least heard of Second Life, and that is a good seed to have planted. I would like to see developers compensated for their work. Donations aren't enough. Accolades are great, but there is always "rent" to be paid by us all, which is where making money becomes the stuff of adulthood.

    In the meantime, some really deep pocket institutions like IBM are working on design methodology patents and they are in a position to make some of the quiet free-spirited developments become irrelevant and legally unsustainable, although IBM has contributed to OpenSim development as well. Ultimately, we will need virtual world companies to be strong enough to protect the technology we love on our terms. They will need more than our love, they will need some of our dollars.

    I understand that OpenSim developers and viewer developers don't charge in part because they don't want to scare off their young marketplace. I understand the desire to give of one's self to an intellectual endeavor. However, virtual worlds are not just concepts and ideas, they are interactive products with significant costs. I look forward to the day when the developers of these products (no just the hosts) ask us to support them in their work with payments. I'm ready. And I believe it will be better for everyone involved.

  5. broschats@hotmail.com' MicroModulator says:

    I will give you $1.00 to unplug your keyboard. LM Just a thought. It only took me a second to come up with it.

  6. Micro —

    If you have the technical skills to run OpenSim on your own, and the network bandwidth to support the visitors you need, then there is absolutely no need to pay for it. But with hosting prices starting at under $10 a month — and even less, with Kitely, for low-use regions — there are really few downsides. If you don't like one vendor, switching is easy (just grab your OAR, and go somewhere else).

    I personally think they're following the Apache model. The main product is completely free — you can download it and run a website on your own. But professional Web hosting starts now at — what? — $5 a month? — and they give you tons of storage (some offer unlimited storage) and tons of bandwidth — more than you could ever have at home.

    With Intel contributing their Distributed Scene Graph code, allowing thousands of avatars on a single region — that requires heavy hardware and network connection, or a cloud hosting platform like Amazon EC2. That gets hard to do on your own.

    LM: Intel is continuing to contribute key pieces of code — like the DSG. Several OpenSim core developers make a living from OpenSim-related consulting and hosting, including Justin and Melanie. Other hosting companies are also contributing code, including Dreamland Metaverse and Kitely. And there are academics contributing code as well (including the amazing Crista Lopes, inventor of the hypergrid, and a professor at UC Irvine). In fact, the academic community seems quite enthusiastic about OpenSim (as they were about the World Wide Web at the beginning, helping drive adoption).

    I think one of the reason that OpenSim is successful in this regard is that it's license allows people to build commercial, proprietary products on top of it (as IBM has done). This inspires people to contribute code because, as the core code gets better, their OpenSim-based businesses get better, too.

    You can't do that with Imprudence and other SL-derived open source viewers because that code is all GPL licensed — you can't distribute a closed, proprietary, commercial product built on top of it. So it's hard for these viewer developers to find paying work to take advantage of their expertise, except in building other open-source viewers, custom coded for particular grids. (And the market for that is really really tiny.)

    The companies making money off of OpenSim viewers have all built alternative, proprietary versions — like 3Di.

    — Maria

  7. lmpierce@alcancemas.com' Lawrence Pierce says:

    The marketplace and the user community will ultimately determine the fate of virtual world technology. Systems in the world that charge a fair and reasonable price for services promote good economics, especially good micro-economies and are the most sustainable systems of all. This statement is a reflection of what we see all over the world. My perspective is that as users we would enhance the virtual world paradigm by showing more support, not just through use, but through financial mechanisms that ensure sustainable growth.

    I have five keyboards and will gladly stop writing on this blog, for free; I suggest all readers of this blog contribute $5 to Feed Our Writers rather than pay me. The link is on the Hypergrid Business homepage.

  8. www.ricna.net@gmail.com' Ricardo Nascimento says:

    Your post’s is great. Thank you:)