If you want to see how the OpenSim platform works in practice – and who doesn’t want a glipse of the next generation of the Internet? – you might be tempted to come to the OSGrid, the largest public OpenSim deployment that’s out there right now.
Sure, OSGrid is great – that’s where I am – but that’s because I love to hang out with the developers and watch the technology being created. It’s history being made, and exciting, even if I can’t understand most of what they’re talking about.
If you want to see a nice, stable OpenSim project, go to the Folk Cafe at Grid4us. (Directions here.) It’s owned and run by Marcus Maué, who’s based in Germany, and who plans to launch a company offering OpenSim development for businesses.
Maué’s grid is currently composed of ten regions that he runs, plus two more regions run by others, who are connected to his region, meaning that you could walk across. If you wanted to walk, that is – there’s a taxi service on the grid.
It’s a beautiful place, with boats floating out on the water, and a quaint German village to wander through.
But the centerpiece of this grid is Edy Rau’s Folk Cafe. Musicians can come and perform live, on stage, in front of their fans.
The Cafe was originally located in Linden Labs’ Second Life, but moved over to Maué’s Grid4us when the prices at the former location got too steep.
So what are the prices like?
Maué was able to provide me his price list, and rules of thumb for people running the servers that power the land.
A total of five tenants now lease land on Grid4us, at a third of what a similar parcel of land would cost in Second Life.
There are also no additional costs to upload media. In Second Life, by comparison, if you uploaded a picture of some nice fabric to coat a chair you designed, the upload costs you money.
The smallest plot of land that Maué rents out is one quarter of a region, or about four square acres. The cost is 9 Euros, or about $12 per month. By comparison, in Second Life, a similar plot of land will cost around $40 per month.
For five entire regions – a total of 80 acres — the price is 200 Euros (US$260) a month plus a one-time 99 Euro ($130) setup fee.
Here’s his price list, based on annual subscriptions (and here’s the Google translation — he’s currently working on English pages).
The prim (“primitive”) numbers are how much stuff you’re able to put on your land. The basic budget Second Life region holds 3,750 prims. A
Maué says he will rent land on his grid to anyone not running a sex business or a similar operation.
This helps keep the environment clean and safe for visitors, and is one of the benefits of running your own grid – you decide what goes up on it.
Maué booted up the server on November 30 of last year – and it took about five hours to create the grid, he says.
Edy Rau moved in his cafe in December. Kim Schroeder, a designer, came on board to build the virtual German village. And the grid has acquired 117 registered users (as of April 14).
RUNNING THE GRID
To run the entire grid, Maué uses a server that costs him 99 Euros (US$130) a month to rent, a quad core machine with 16 gigabytes of operational memory – that where the brain power comes from to create the three-dimensional world, and to make sure that the birds fly across the sky, the trees sway in the wind, and the waves break against the shore.
As a rough rule of thumb, he says, it takes just over 1 gigabyte of operational memory to power one simulated region in a grid, or 16 acres.
Regions that are heavily built up, or that have a lot of animations and other functions on them, may require more power. Empty regions – such as oceans – require less. For example, if the grid was just water, Maué says, he would be able to have up to 50 sim regions on the same computer setup as he’s using now.
Since Maué is the god of this particular universe, he gets to decide how much memory to allocate to each region. As I mentioned above, virtual stuff is measured in units called primitives, which are the basic building blocks of matter over here. These are the cubes, spheres and other basic shapes that are assembled to make all the structures and objects in this virtual world.
Maué can adjust these counts up or down, with an average of 5,000 in each region, creating a richer experience for the users.
Maué’s connection pipe from his server to the Internet is 100 megabit. As a general rule of thumb, he says, you need to budget 1 megabit per visitor. So his grid can host a theoretical maximum of 100 people at any one time.
This is plenty for the kind of small, intimate audiences that the Folk Cafe seeks to attract.
Edy Rau tells me that around 30 people will come for an event at the cafe, which is down from peaks of around 70 in Second Life, as people are still finding their way over.
It is possible to run a virtual world on a desktop or laptop machine, as long as there is at 1 gigabyte of operating memory. That if the region you’re running is attached to someone else’s grid. It takes 2 gigabytes if the machine will be running the grid infrastructure as well, he says. It’s the grid that takes care of things like what people look like when they come into a simulated region, and what belongings they are able to carry around with them.
But Maué advises against running a simulation on a personal computer – and he won’t let them connect to his grid.
“I have a copy of my grid on my laptop, too,” he says. So he understands the temptation.
But in Germany, he says, the maximum upload rate for the Internet pipes to people’s homes is 2 megabits. That means that the region will not be able to hold several people at once.
In addition, machines at home are frequently turned off – making a region unavailable to visitors at those times. It can be a shock, if you’re happily walking across a world — or having a business meeting in a cafe in that world – to have it suddenly disappear from under your feet.
As a result, anybody wishing to connect their machine to his grid has to have a real server, with 100 megabit connecting pipes, and round-the-clock availability.
ISLANDS IN THE SKY
Just as the World Wide Web is composed of many websites linked to each other by hyperlinks, with each website having multiple pages, so the virtual universe is made up of many grids, each grid with many regions.
Today, many people rent space within existing grids – in effect, having a single page on someone else’s website.
This works for individuals and small companies. Larger companies, like IBM, host their own grids.
So why did Maué decide to go with his own grid? To ensure the best possible user experience, he says.
“I looked around OpenSim for over a year,” he says. “I visited many grids, and the OSGrid was the biggest. But in OSGrid, everybody can connect.”
This includes regions on laptops, he says – regions which are only up and running some of the time, and can’t handle traffic.
And, on a personal note, many of the regions are run by developers using them as testing platforms for the latest tweaks on the software – tweaks which don’t always work right away. So you’d be walking across a region, enjoying the view and suddenly – whoa! – you’re catapulted up into space and then are logged out.
So Maué decided to run his grid as a standalone universe.
But without people walking in from neighboring regions, how do folks find it?
“At first, I told my friends,” Maué said. “They told their friends, and so on. I don’t start big with advertising.”
Other people find out about it through the hypergrid network – the StarGates used to travel between the dimensions. In fact, this is how I found the cafe – by wandering through every StarGate that I came across to see what was on the other side.
Other people come to the grid through the website, which gives detailed instructions for how to log in into the world.
THE BLEEDING EDGE
Maué’s grid is one of the first stable grid deployments out there that isn’t run by a giant technology or games company and takes advantage of a platform that only recently became stable enough for real business use.
And it still suffers from a few problems.
For example, the Hippo browser that is the preferred viewer of choice for OpenSim worlds isn’t yet 100 percent functional – the speech function still isn’t enabled, for example. Neither is the payment system. Both are in development, but, meanwhile, Maué has found ways to work around these lacks.
“In the beginning, we had no currency at all and that was very bad,” he said. “But we have a payment system now.”
This payment system – the Virtual Wallet, developed by Arnout Sequent – piggy backs on the Second Life Linden Dollars. Users must have a Second Life account, and put money into the wallet with ATMs located in Second Life. Then they can use the money in OpenSim to pay vendors – and to tip musicians in the Folk Cafe.
Maué himself isn’t a big fan of online voice conversations, he says. So how do the singers and musicians perform live at the Cafe?
With streaming technology, Maué says.
The performer has to download streaming software onto their computer – a free tool from Shoutcast. Then the performance is broadcast to the people in the cafe, live.
The streaming doesn’t allow the audience to talk out loud to the performer, though. If they have questions, they have to ask them by typing messages.
The system for playing a stream is the same as in Second Life, and is built into the OpenSim platform, Maué says.
Would it work for business presentations?
Absolutely, he says.
I might try that out in a meeting on my sim, until voice gets enabled. Until then, I’ll be listening to the folk music at the Folk Cafe.