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.

Maria Korolov