What I look for in an OpenSim host

The OpenSim hosting industry is still young, and, though it is developing quickly, still lacking in experience and maturity.

But it doesn’t mean that customers have to settle for substandard service.

I’ve tried out several vendors in the past, and will continue to do so for both public and private projects — here are the elements that I look for in an OpenSim hosting provider when it comes to running my company and personal regions.

Real-world presence

I fully support the right of individuals to be anonymous online and in virtual worlds. There are safety issues involved, privacy issues, and a host of other legitimate reasons for why folks might want to be anonymous or pseudonymous while online. Or even offline, for that matter.

For example, if I were to go to a bar tonight, get drunk, and start dancing topless on tables, I wouldn’t be posting those pictures on my LinkedIn profile.

Similarly, if I’m buying a beaded necklace from a hippy on the street, I wouldn’t ask that hippy for a photo ID.

But if my company is buying hosting from another company, I would need to know my business partner’s real-world contact information, real names of the folks I’ll be talking to if I have problems, a real mailing address if I decide to sue them for not honoring our contracts. In fact, to have a contract in the first place requires legal entities on both sides — either real people, or real business units.

Similarly, if I’m buying content for a company grid, I need to have a legitimate licensing agreement for the content. The agreement needs to clearly spell out where and when and how I can use the content, and indemnify me against any copyright infringement on the part of the vendor.

Some things I look for that show that this is a real company:

  • Address, phone, and fax
  • Photos, bios and email addresses of key staff
  • Customer testimonials or case studies of real people or companies
  • Press releases with full contact info of the company spokesperson
If the hosting company runs a grid, I also want to see a terms of service and its copyright protection policies — if a hosting company goes out of business because of copyright infringement lawsuits, that would affect all its customers, whether they’re renting regions on its public grid or using it for private, corporate mini-grids.
If the grid is based in the U.S., it should also have a designated agent on record with the U.S.¬†Copyright Office. It costs $105 and protects the grid against lawsuits caused by their users uploading illegal content — otherwise, the grid itself is liable. (Read more about it here.)

History of fixing problems

I’ve done business with vendors who blame all problems on OpenSim or on their customers. Nothing is ever the vendor’s fault.

Dealing with such a vendor always leaves a bad taste in your month.

For example, if you want a feature, and the vendor tells you it’s not possible with OpenSim, you feel stupid. Then when you discover that other vendors already offer this feature, you feel dumb all over again for falling for it.

Or say, the vendor tells you that the feature is already available, and you should have been able to figure out how to use it. And, clearly, you didn’t — you big dummy.

I’ve been in both of those positions, and I don’t like it. I’d rather deal with a vendor who says, “Yes, that would be a great feature, we’ll add it to our roadmap, and if a lot of customers request it, we will make it our top priority.” Or: “Yes, we have that feature, but if you couldn’t find it, then other customers are probably having problems as well. We’ll take another look at the interface — thank you for bringing that to our attention. Meanwhile, we can walk you through it, or do it for you until we fix it.”

If there is a particularly big problem — one that causes losses for the customer — I would want the vendor to take responsibility, offer restitution, and update its processes so that the problem doesn’t recur. A great example of a vendor doing just that is SimHost, which had a problem with backups a couple of years ago, but dealt with it extremely well.

Another example of a vendor that deals with problems in a transparent manner is Kitely, which uses the Get Satisfaction system. Users can see the problem other customers are having, the company’s responses, and can even post feature suggestions and other ideas.

A couple of commercial grids do something similar with their forums, where users can raise problems and get answers from grid administrators. This enables potential customers to see how the company responds to issues — is it defensive, or does it deal with problems in a clear and straightforward way?

A sterile company website with no bad news isn’t fooling everyone. Every vendor has problems once in a while. Sweeping problems under the rug doesn’t make me feel more secure — in fact, it makes me more anxious — what are these guys hiding?

Ability to delegate

This isn’t so much of a big deal with small, trial regions or grids. But, in the long term, I don’t want to be doing business with one-man (or one-woman) shops.

Many companies are launched by folks tired of working for someone else. Chefs open their own restaurants. Doctors launch their own practices. Car mechanics open their own repair shops. But these businesses can’t grow and prosper if the owners insist on doing everything themselves.

After all, there are few people who are simultaneously great at their craft, great at customer service, great at marketing, great at bookkeeping, and great at everything else it takes to run a company.

With OpenSim hosting providers in particular, the folks launching them tend to be technologists, with little or no prior experience in customer service, marketing, sales, or business management. If they can’t hire people for these jobs, even part-timers or freelancers, then it doesn’t bode well for the future of the company — nor for the happiness of individual customers while the company is still in business.

OpenSim hosting companies for example often focus on improving the technology, often re-inventing the wheel, instead of simply licensing the technology they need and focusing on sales or customer service. These vendors are also likely to get distracted by shiny new tech, instead of focusing on perfecting their existing offerings.

No fee, self-serve exports

I would not use a Web hosting company if I couldn’t easily export my entire website for backup purposes, or to move to another vendor.

If I’m using a grid hosting company to run my company grid, I want to be able to get a backup of the entire grid instantly, with the push of a button, no questions asked.

After all, when I make a backup of Hypergrid Business, DreamHost doesn’t ask for proof that I own the copyright to all my articles. Yes, if there’s infringing content, they’ll ask me to take it down — or remove my entire site. But barring that, they’re going to let me do what I want with my pages.

I expect the same from an OpenSim vendor.

But I also understand that if I have a region on a closed, commercial grid, different rules apply. Commercial grids offer exclusive, proprietary content to their users — but, in return, expect that content to stay on their grid. It’s a fair trade. If I build a farm on Farmville, I don’t expect the right to download a fully-functional copy of that farm, and put it up on my own website. Or take my World of Warcraft character and teleport it to Club Penguin — or my Gears of War character and equipment to World of Warcraft.

Geographic proximity

I want my vendor to be located as close as possible to me, my staff, and my customers. Not because I want to show up at their door and rail at their customer service staff. But because I want my vendor to be awake at the same time I am to deal with urgent problems — and to reduce lag time when it comes to accessing the world.

Some vendors are beginning to offer hosting in multiple data centers, and have support staff working at various hours.

But many vendors aren’t at that point yet.

So, for a mission-critical grid, I’d want a vendor in my own country, speaking my language, and working during my business hours.

My company's satellite office in Second Life -- one of many locations where we have a virtual presence.