Prof: Schools moving to OpenSim should pay for hosting

In November, I led a well-attended three-hour workshop, Second Life is Dead – Prepare for an OpenSim Future at the 17th International Conference on Online Learning in Orlando, Florida.

My basic point was that, right now, Second Life as a product for educators is actually dead unless something dramatically changes with the strategy of Linden Labs — which always remains unclear. With the increasing stability of OpenSim and the proliferation of grids, there is no real reason to pay a dime to Linden Labs for a virtual world experience.

But I also learned a few things as a result of the conference, including the fact that schools are just not ready or equipped to run OpenSim themselves. Fortunately, there are alternatives, in the form of third-party hosting providers.

CampChamp1 is one of several Champlain College regions on OSGrid and is part of the OSGrid Educational Collaborative.

The Second Life exodus

Schools and colleges have stopped renewing their Second Life projects. My last region, for example, will be gone in June.

School cannot — and should not have to — pay the prices that Linden Lab charges. Plus, educators can still use Second Life — if needed — without renting land themselves. As a result, regions are being dropped as the expiration dates arrive.

The transition can cause some distress but, in the end, moving to OpenSim better serves the goal of using virtual worlds for education.

In any case, Second Life was always dead as far as K-12 schools are concerned, because of age restrictions and other issues. Second Life is not the appropriate setting for these age groups. But it is in this area that the use of virtual worlds can have the most impact.

Some schools looked at Second Life as a marketing ploy for enrollments. It only remotely served as a “me too” environment, but, as even many companies have observed, it is not an appropriate marketing tool for enrollments or sales. And, regardless of what many may believe, Second Life does not have a good connotation as a product.

Even when schools do use their Second Life regions, they regions are only busy about 10 percent of the time — the rest of the time the workspaces are idle. It is usually not an entire school that is embracing the technology, but merely a few scattered individuals within the school.

Hosting OpenSim is hard

Sure, I have 37 years of IT technical experience. Hosting OpenSim falls on the light side of expertise required — for me, at least.

But after talking about the simple basics of IP addresses, ports, port forwarding, all attendees were lost.

If someone does not understand even the most basic concepts of networking, then hosting a grid on your own is probably not recommened.

So my advice now: Skip it, host somewhere else.

Schools — especially K-12 schools —  probably should not take on hosting on their own.

For the most part, technology departments do not allow educators to run their own servers with the necessary ports open to make it work. And it is not really something to expect an IT department to host, and, in any case, individuals educators probably do not have the time or expertise to perform all the technology management tasks surrounding any server environment.

Making virtual education work takes planning and good design

College kids find it cartoonish, but will still work effectively in a well-designed environment.  Before the specific learning experience, most would have never used Second Life or OpenSim.

Though many educators have created great learning environments, there is still the persistence of using it as a mechanism for presentations using Power Point and similar tools. This is ineffective use of the capabilities of using virtual worlds for education.

Meanwhile, creating effective learning environments in virtual environments is is labor intensive. The learning curve is steep for both the user and the educator.

That is also true when it comes to mesh. Too many are caught up with the idea of mesh, and do not understand that it takes a great deal of expertise to use tools like Maya to create quality 3D objects. Plus, not all current viewers can see or use mesh objects. Yes, mesh is  the foundation of most top-rated video games on the market, but the artists that create those games are highly skilled and talented.

Some educators said they were interested in being a part of my consortium — the OSGrid Educational Collaborative — but I am currently near capacity. I can take on three more, and that will be it for now.

Bottom line

Educators are interested in OpenSim, but most have never seen it, and many have no clue what it is.

Using 3D virtual environments and simulations will be the future in education. Will it be OpenSim? This is anyone’s guess.

John Rogate

John Rogate is the director of the Master’s in Managing Innovation & Information Technology program at Vermont’s Champlain College. He is currently running eight OpenSim grids, totaling more than 100 regions. Rogate started working in Second Life in 2007, when the Champlain College president got him funding to build a virtual campus. He became involved with OpenSim in October of 2008. He has a total of 27 years of industry-related technology experience.

  • Thanks for the article! There is a current “crisis” among educational uses for virtual worlds. Everybody recognises the intrinsic value of using them — academic research in virtual worlds is growing insanely — but it’s very true that there are just two legitimate choices, which use the same viewer: the insanely expensive Second Life Grid, with high stability and a huge user base — but insanely high costs for the average educational project — and OpenSim, which is, at best, alpha software requiring a lot of IT expertise to provide a minimalistic environment where a handful of people can collaborate together without crashing all the time. Moving to third-party OS grids using IT experts fine-tuning servers, software, and networks to run OpenSim adequately for an educational project is a natural solution, but, on the other hand, it still requires paying a fee. A much, much lower fee than what Linden Lab charges, but nevertheless it’s a recurring cost…

    • i agree it takes good tech expertise, like Snoopy and Gwyneth mention, but i would say that once the initial server is setup, it needs very little maintenance

      our server was launched on August 3rd, 2010 with a dev branch of 0.7.1 and the only work it needs is running Windows Update every two months, then restarting the server, and relaunching the command consoles

      i am not techie and i am able to keep it humming along with just doing that. the key is an incredibly solid server setup with good hardware. James Stallings II, from SimHost.com, did the setup. i have never needed to put in a support ticket and only have had one region lock up due to our  scripter who loves to push the envelope (i have no idea what she does, but anything i ask for, she is able to script!)

      anyway, yes – a real expense but also an incredible bargain, imo, if done properly =)

      • “i agree it takes good tech expertise, like Snoopy and Gwyneth mention,
        but i would say that once the initial server is setup, it needs very
        little maintenance”

        Certainly the case, once set up it needs very little of anything other than periodic updates, restarting, and then whatever the machine needs for it’s normal maintenance with os updates, virus/firewall updates as is usual.
        I have my 8 regions running on a Dell workstation T3400 dual core 8gb, once set up all I do is restart the regions usually once a day or two and thats about it, its on 24/7 and replaced the 2 Dell Optiplex GX520’s I used from April to Oct that were on 24/7.

        You don’t even have to mess with the mySQL itself once you create a db and add a user to it since all of the region’s contents and settings are saved to an OAR file, and loading the OAR file in terminal automatically sets up and populates the database with all the tables and contents it requires.

        • nice job WesternPrairie! that’s quite the ideal setup on your own box, but then, you are a Library Scientist – a group of people i have utmost respect for and are typically on the forefront of true information technology!

          • TY Ener. Library “scientist” is a bit over what I do, but libraries of all kinds do perform needed valuable services to many.
            What took 10 minutes to set up OS on Mac snow leopard took about 6 HOURS to set up on a pc laptop- mainly due to the mono being the wrong version and/possibly incomplete or corrupted.

            So as we find out, the ease or difficulty of installing OS not only varies by platform, but by the individual computer’s own setup, and operating system.
            Thankfully though the majority of installations go fine, with just some very common hanging ups on the port/forwarding/loopback/firewall issues.

            I feel once that portion can be well addressed with clear tutorials and instructions all placed or linked to in one location- the vast majority of people will be able to simply and easily set their machines up with a a minimumal amount of difficulty.

            As it stands now, googling will bring up many tutorials and instructions on blogs and whatnot, but many of the links are months or years old and cover very outdated software or versions.

            The wiki is a good resource, and should be kept current at all times,because googling for installation errors and reading about how to fix a problem in version 0.6.4 is not going to help much to fix a problem in 1.7.3, and in many cases the information is so outdated it’s WRONG.
            Unfortunately it seems the older stuff comes up first in the index and that’s what many would hit first and maybe not notice the information was posted in 2008 or 2005 or something.

            So this is a weak area that needs a lot of help, preferably a coordinated effort working together.

  • Schools should also check out Sim-on-a-Stick — 
    http://simonastick.com/  — it’s an easy way to run OpenSim on a single computer. Each student can have their own world to play in and build in, or a teacher can use it to create learning simulations and give copies to students — or use them for presentations.

    Meanwhile, the OpenSim hosting arena is just exploding these days, with more companies coming along all the time, competing on price, on features, on capacity, on stability — you name it!

    A great starting place is Kitely. It’s free right now — billing will begin a little later on this year — But a basic region costs just 10 cents (10 cents!) with an additional 20 cents per user per hour. That means that a school can basically have as many regions as it wants, and pay only for the time the students spend in class. And older students can pick up their own usage costs — by default, the 20 cents per hour is paid by visitors, not by the region owners.

    Last month, I would have hesitated to recommend Kitely to educators because of the lack of voice. But they now have Vivox — the same voice system as in Second Life — so most educators will not see any difference at all between the two platforms. Kitely also makes it easy to upload and download entire regions.

    That means educators can get free, Creative Commons-licensed regions from Linda Kellie — http://www.lindakellie.com/myoars.htm — or OpenSim Creations — http://opensim-creations.com/category/regions/oars/. They can also easily share their builds with other educators.

    OSGrid is a nice place for colleges because you can place your region close to the OSGrid Educational Collaborative and take advantage of their resources. There are also plenty of freebie stores, events, competitions, etc… But OSGrid stays on the cutting edge of OpenSim — that means occasional bugs, and frequent upgrades. Professional hosting is a must. Fortunately, most third-party hosting providers offer regions on OSGrid — Nova, Dreamland, Oliveira, MA Hosting, SimHost, TalentRaspel and more. Nova, Dreamland and TalentRaspel have all announced support for Vivox voice, but I’m sure other hosting providers will follow suit soon. Full list of hosting providers is here: http://www.hypergridbusiness.com/opensim-hosting-providers/

    Nova currently offers the cheapest hosting, with a free introductory region for a whole year, and graduated pricing for schools needing better performance or higher capacity — starting at $5.95 and going up all the way to $149.95 for up to 100 simultaneous visitors.

    Dreamland and SimHost and TalentRaspel have good reputations for service and quality and reasonable pricing.

    My personal recommendation, however, especially for K-12 schools, is to get a mini-grid from your hosting provider — 4 or 9 or 16 or more regions laid out in a big square, no border crossings, as a separate little mini-grid. You can turn hypergrid on to teleport to OSGrid to get stuff or network with other educators, or to take the kids on field trips. Then you can turn hypergrid off when class is in session, to make sure that strangers don’t drop in. Most third-party hosting providers will set this up for you, often with a bulk region discount. If you know in advance the maximum number of students who will be on your entire grid at once, you can get just the right size of server to support it, keeping you from spending too much or too little.

    In general, expect to pay $20 a region or less for regions that support a handful of avatars, up to $50 for moderate use-regions with a couple of dozen avatars, and up to $90 or so if you want 40 avatars or more.  Remember to ask that your grid be hosted in a data center geographically close to your school and students, and to check whether support is available during your working hours, and in your language.

    A couple of years ago, ReactionGrid would have been my first recommendation, but they’ve had a recent history of problems with support and upgrades — their main grid is still running on a two-year-old version of OpenSim that is no longer compatible with other grids, less stable, and much less functional. As a result, I don’t currently recommend their OpenSim hosting services. Instead, try JokaydiaGrid, which caters to educators with both a common grid and private mini-grids, reasonable prices, handles its own support, and runs the latest version of OpenSim.

  • I can definitively stress, that educational institutions should not underestimate the knowledge required to run OpenSim reliably and to ensure high service quality. It is not just because of the know-how required about server technology and networking, it is also the fine tuning of servers, that ensures that OpenSim runs very good and not just more or less acceptable.

    At the end the service quality is a decisive factor, if users will accept the virtual world e-learning environment. Instabilities and crashes are not acceptable and the end users does not accept excuses like “OpenSim is still alpha software” or “we still learn how to run it properly”. It simply has to work.

    That is why the OpenSim hosting provider you choose should have a long track record of offering high quality hosting, also for corporations and educational institutions. Professionalism is important.

    I also recommend to check, if the hosting provider uses visualization technologies (virtual private servers or cloud computing). These are not well suited for real world applications like virtual worlds, because of the different requirement of such applications compared to the kind of applications the visualization was designed for (shared resources, duration times of load bursts, paging/swapping and process scheduling, etc.). This matters when you use your OpenSim region intensively (many objects and/or many visitors).

    As soon as additional functionality is required, like voice, maybe in-world play money, groups, profiles, search, etc. the complexity increases even more, because additional modules and server side services have to be installed, sometimes compiled, configured and afterwards started and monitored.

    Dreamland Metaverse offers 3 different kinds of voice solutions: Vivox, Mumble and Freeswitch. Vivox just got added to your service offering. We were the first offering Freeswitch and Mumble voice.

    The highest complexity is reached when you want to run your own grid. In that case choose a hosting provider that already runs grids and ask for references.

    It is the best when you choose a hosting provider offering fully managed OpenSim regions and grids and not just servers with preinstalled OpenSim. An easy to use control panel is important and that you do not have to care about the underlying technology.

    The service management systems used should ensure 100% availability without requiring manual interventions from your side (typical restarts). A responsive, helpful and competent customer support should also be available, to provide you help when needed.

    You should simply be able to focus on using your virtual world.

    Second Life offers this, but unfortunately most OpenSim hosting providers are very technology oriented, often not experienced in delivering professional services to corporations and educational institutions. And most are anyway focused on private customers.

    OSGrid is a great place to get in touch with other people and the community aspect is also important for people to accept a virtual world. On the other hand OSGrid currently does not provide any age verification or other means of restricting access dependent on the age of users.

    Beside that OSGrid always uses the latest OpenSim versions, because it is the OpenSim testing grid. As consequence there are sometimes even forced OpenSim updates to a bit less stable versions, which cannot be avoided in such cases. That can be a problem for educational institutions.

    That is why educational institutions should consider using a standalone OpenSim region or a private full OpenSim grid instead, which provide more privacy, better control who and what contents is in the virtual world (based on your own TOS), and you have full control when OpenSim updates are done.

    Dreamland Metaverse for example allows you to choose a conservative updating strategy, in which case just very well tested versions, which have proven to be very reliable over a longer time, are used. Or you can choose the standard updating strategy, where you always get the latest stable, tested OpenSim version.

    Dreamland Metaverse is the oldest OpenSim hosting provider. Since 2008 we have learned how to run OpenSim the best way. Soon after we have started we already got first bigger corporations as customers. In the meantime we run some grids and many standalone OpenSim and OSGrid regions for educational institutions. So we know what professional customers need.

    We also co-operate with partners that offer solutions and consulting services for educational institutions and corporations. Often we can bring people together to do successful virtual world projects together.

    With the in-depth OpenSim, server, network and service management know-how we have (also as member of the OpenSim core development team), we can run OpenSim efficiently and smoothly for your customers. Regularly we did fix OpenSim bugs for our customers, that were affecting their projects.

    Snoopy Pfeffer
    Founder & CEO of Dreamland Metaverse
    http://www.dreamlandmetaverse.com/

  • I agree with most of what Maria says with the proviso that educators seek concrete assurances that regions will cope with anticipated class sizes under appropriate conditions of use (scripts etc). It is easy to be impressed by performance of a lightly loaded sim only to come seriously unstuck later if you intend synchronous use.

    As far as I know, Kitely has yet to come up with a subscription model that is likely to suit educational institutions — I hope they do. While it is true that ReactionGrid were slow to move to 0.7.2, they announced the availability of upgrades on their blog back in November. Educators may have decided against changing versions mid-year but as far as I know jokaydiaGRID is still a ReactionGrid client and therefore shares its infrastructure. Its public Hypergrid directory doesn’t look to have changed to 1.5 format; ReactionGrid’s is currently unavailable. http://education.reactiongrid.com/Hypergrid-Addresses.ashx

    With educators increasingly dispersed across multiple grids, Fleep Tuque and myself have established an email list for this group at http://list.opensim-edu.org/ . The VWER http://www.vwer.org/ also meets most Thursdays in SL and the Immersive Education Initiative also promotes open source solutions and runs an Education Grid although this appears from the outside at least to be more of an affiliation than a grid or hypergrid per se.

  • fantastic article John! i especially appreciate your look at how OpenSim is outside the realm of educators to run. as you say, it’s not a big challenge to get it up and running compared to many other things, but very hard for the “regular” person (nothing like self-hosted WordPress which is truly designed to be deployed easily)

    we pay for hosting and for $160 a month have 16 regions. this is far less than SL and as an SL-equivalent, our 16 regions are like 4+ SL sims (i had 19 SL sims at one point)

    $160 a month is still a lot for a school but does come with great support and as reliable a world as SL

    Thanks John! =)

  • Anonymous

    I can see why the IT folks would prefer open grids – control, more hardware, increased job security. I can see why administrators would prefer open grids – control, lower costs, student security. However, more walled gardens are not preparing students for employment in the future. They need to learn how to collaborate with their counterparts around the world. Is Second Life the answer? Probably not. But it is closer than every school district putting up their own grid.

    • Tom — 

      What John Rogate is doing on OSGrid is anything but a walled garden — not only do his regions share a grid with 10,000 other regions, but they are also accessible via hypergrid teleports to anyone running a public grid and has hypergrid turned on.Private grids allow schools the option of being a walled garden when they need it — say, when class is in session — and being part of a larger community when they want as well, by flicking the hypergrid switch back on. 

      JokaydiaGrid, which is also popular with educators, has hypergrid enabled all the time — its residents can teleport back and forth to OSGrid and other girds at will.

      • Anonymous

        I had no idea. Do you know where I can get a list of OSGrids being used by educators? I’d like to visit them all.

        • I think you’re confusing OSGrid and OpenSim grids. OSGrid is a single grid, with 10,000+ regions on it: osgrid.org.

          There are also hundreds — possibly thousands — of private OpenSim grids out there, many hypergrid enabled, many used by educators.I believe that educators are currently putting together a list of education-focused destinations, but I haven’t seen it yet — though I’m looking forward to seeing it very much!

          But you should start with CampChamp1 on OSGrid and surrounding regions – they’ve got a local map up.

          You can also try JokaydiaGrid, which is heavily educator-focused. 

  • Even when schools do use their Second Life regions, they regions are
    only busy about 10 percent of the time – the rest of the time the
    workspaces are idle. It is usually not an entire school that is
    embracing the technology, but merely a few scattered individuals within
    the school.”

    Some of the SL universities have fantastic builds, the one for the University of Idaho was what inspired my 9000 prim administration building on one of my OSgrid regions,

    http://i.imgur.com/1gKsc.jpg

    but everytime Ive gone to any SL university regions, no one was there, yet there were vast spaces with hundreds of chairs, workspaces and all the rest- just sitting idle.
    The University of Texas had 50 regions! imagine the montly cost for tiers, that’s just not money well spent even at the then special edu rate of $150/full region or whatever it was exactly.

    “Too many are caught up with the idea of mesh, and do not understand that
    it takes a great deal of expertise to use tools like Maya to create
    quality 3D objects. Plus, not all current viewers can see or use mesh
    objects.”

    Maya costs thousands of dollars to purchase, this is not software a casual virtual world hobbyist would ever be able to afford. Personally I have no plans to switch to a mesh capable viewer as mine is extremely stable and has been for the last year. When people show up with mesh av’s and things, most cant see more than a flat prim or other distorted shape. Like using flash and java on a web site often fails or leaves many out of the content if they dont have plugin or whatever- it’s usually best to keep things simple and standard.
    People get used to a viewer and resist changing it for frivolous reasons like viewing someone’s mesh av’s, especially since so many viewers have crashes and other glitches- once you find one that WORKS you tend to stick to it like glue, I do.
    When I see web sites that demand a special plug in be installed just to see the content, the window gets closed, lost customer, I suspect its the case with mesh and the viewers that dont rez mesh properly, if you build content half the viewers cant see, they go elsewhere.

  • “But after talking about the simple basics of IP addresses, ports, port forwarding, all attendees were lost.

    If someone does not understand even the most basic concepts of
    networking, then hosting a grid on your own is probably not recommened.”

    Their eyes glazed over… but really, the only way to learn this is by doing, and since the job of edu’s IS education, it’s a good place to do it.
    No one taught me html, in 1995 I learned how to build web pages by taking apart the source files of pages I liked and learning how it worked, even today I code web pages in a plain text editor.
    Last April I knew zippo about how to run a server or opensim, or how to install mySQL, or even one terminal/linux command, but the $600/mo SL tiers were a killer and i HAD to find a solution, and that was when I learned about opensim.

    Of course that meant having to learn a bunch of things all at once plus buying a machine suitable for this. I knew zippo about ports, forwarding, loopback or setting the machine’s ip, or terminal commands etc but I learned them fast.

    Make no mistake, it all has a pretty steep learning curve and  a lot of pitfalls- the biggest problem of all for everyone always seems to be the port/forwding/firewall/router/loopback issues where you get a region up and on the map, but cant get to it, then you spend some time trying to track down where you have it wrong.
    This is made worse by some router models simply not working right to do this, and may even require changing out the router itself to one that does and is more user friendly.

    Thankfully most errors are so common that as soon as someone says what they have, 10 people around them all tell them what is it.
    Thankfully the opensim package is usually mostly pre-configured for you, the OSgrid version is set to connect to it, and you usually only have to change a line or two at most and it’s up. Opensimulator’s version is preconfigured to run on a local standalone prety well out of the “box” as is, and Diva’s version/ sim on a stick is pretty well ready to just plug in and run with it.

    So it’s been my experience that THE stumbling block, the one that almost every newbie will run into- is the port/forwarding/loopback/router/firewall issue- somewhere in there they invariably will have something overlooked or not set right, so it would seem the best course of focus on how to get opensim up and running would be on the port/forwarding/loopback/router/firewall setups and  troubleshooting.
    Unfortunately there’s so many brands and types of routers, firewalls and os’s out there that it’s very hard to cover all of them in a tutorial, and invariably a tutorial on generic routers may not help someone whose router setup screen is totally different and they get lost in it and have no idea what to do.

  • Eileen O’Connor

    I am one of those educators using virtual worlds – starting in Second Life in 2007; it is my research and publication area & I am the “lone wolf” (OK, there are a few others with me) in a big SUNY (state university of NY) school that is using virtual environments. I see a huge potential in my area – which is getting professionals in science areas to become K12 teachers. Despite my personal black-and-blues with virtual, I still am undaunted about the value of virtual environments.
    I just got an account on my own with Dreamland and I very pleased to date. I am on my own learning curve – in the summer I get a few weeks for research. I am making my own island with lots of great help from Linda Kellie’s wonderful work. I am sooooooo thankful for the opportunities to keep working within the virtual worlds after Second Life became too expensive. And, I do not like much of the “adult content” that I still see every time I open the Second Life viewer – I want more control to protect the youth that will be in the worlds that I am creating.
    I await the growth in OpenSim and I am eager to learn more and more. I am using Imprudence and long for web-on-a-prim and voice to be implemented so I can use those features too. So many exciting things to learn.

    • Both web-on-a-prim and voice are implemented, albeit the former requires a version 2 or 3 viewer. I use Zen, for example. Ask Snoopy about voice.