Wrong Answer, Mr M Linden

For some time now we’ve been sort of expecting with anticipation what M Linden’s style of management would be. One thing was sure: the old Tao of Linden (where developers would be pretty much allowed to do what they wished) would slowly be replaced by a goal-oriented strategy (in this case: “more stability” and “a better ‘first hour’ experience for new residents”), and the focus would switch from “making residents happy” to “make companies happy”. We’ve seen both happening in the past few months. It’ll be the work of several years, though, not just a few months.

But how would M Linden react to crisis? We’ve finally figured it out. And, sadly for all of us, the answer to a crisis was nothing we expected.

The Case of the Overused Openspace Sims

Becoming detectivesque in my approach, I picked up my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and took a critical eye to the whole openspace sim fiasco. Openspace sims, once called void sims, was an experiment in the early days of SL.

As you can see in the map to the right, these were “filler” sims to allow people to sail across the “inner sea” of the old mainland continents. Linden Lab had just upgraded their infrastructure to a newer generation of servers (I don’t remember if they had just upgraded to Class 3 servers) but they had a lot of old servers lying around.

Why didn’t they simply throw the old, obsolete servers away? Well, very likely — but I’m just speculating — these servers were bought under a long-term agreement. Probably a 24-month or 36-month lease, computers and bandwidth included, and disconnecting the servers would not get LL a refund from their co-location providers. So it would be better to continue to use them, instead of disconnecting them and keep paying the monthly fees. A few of those migrated to the Beta Preview Grid (Aditi), some to the many internal grids, a few others became webservers for tests, but still… a few could be used for low-traffic sims.

At that time, sailing in SL was a huge boom (it is still fashionable; probably there are more people these days who are fans of sailing, but SL is so huge with so much variety that it “feels” the fad has gone. It has not), but you could only manage to sail by the coast, which — thanks to terraforming and huge over-the-ocean platforms and houses — became more and more complicated. “Void sims”, where there are no prims and just a handful of Linden trees, was an interesting solution. It could be used by a handful of sailing enthusiasts at the time (regattas seldom had a huge participation, and when spread across a large area of the “inner sea”, it would mean less than 20-30 ships in each of the “ocean sims”).

They had little practical use. Some very few allowed you to build on them (with an auto-return of several hours), very likely by mistake — I used to go there as an alternative to the Linden Sandboxes. Once I met with a group which was quite amusing. They landed on boats, sported uniforms and weapons, and their leader said something like: “Ok, now we split in two teams, Red Team remains here at this beach, the Blue Team will go to the other side. We’ll work towards the middle and see who captures it first.” For about an hour, I amused myself watching the tiny battle unfold, as the two teams had some fun shooting at each other, until finally a group won. It took less than an hour; they peacefully retreated to their boats and went away. I just smiled. It was one of those little experiences in SL that happen all the time and will be part of my memories.

Later, void sims were also used for Linden forests (not that there are so many), and were pretty much unused, except for romantic walks under the moonlight.

For Linden Lab this just meant a way to put those long-term leases of obsolete equipment to work.

Then at some stage the big landowners (the ones with their mini-continents) started to attract the sailing fans, and they came to LL to ask if they could use void sims too. Why not? After all, it couldn’t hurt anybody. Linden Lab cleverly demanded that they buy 4 sims at a time (thus using a full server) and that you could only get void sims if you already owned a “regular sim”. This worked well for LL to keep using those obsolete machines, and now earn a small income from them — they would in fact earn the same from those 4 sims, using old hardware, than from a full, regular sim on new hardware. It was good business.

Technology improved, and we moved into Class 4 sims, then Class 5 ones, and soon we’ll migrate to Class 6. Now I don’t have my tables around me, but at some stage, LL started to buy quad-core servers (I can’t remember when Class 4 servers were introduced). What this mostly means is that, at some point, the new servers could handle four regions at the same time, while the very old ones (Class 1 and 2) could only use one or two (Class 3).

This is very important to understand. LL managed to increase the density of their servers: this means that they could support the whole grid with less servers. Granted, bandwidth costs very likely outweight the cost of individual servers, but the difference will still be a cost reduction to maintain the infrastructure (if the Class 6 servers, as I suspect, have 16 cores, LL will even cut more costs that way, as a single Class 6 server would be able to run 16 regular regions or 256 openspace sims!).

So what happened next is that the “old” single-core or dual-core servers suddenly became twice more obsolete: not only would they be old hardware, but they would only run one or two sims at the time — or, obviously, four or eight void sims. But LL would still have to keep them until their lease (or long-term agreement) expired.

What to do?

Clearly, even for someone with little business sense, the option was to start selling those old servers aggressively, but making sure that these are “low quality” products, not fit for regular use. The “openspace sims” were born. And the strategy was such a huge success that in March 2008 allowed them to be bought in isolation, increased the number of prims to 3750 (what a regular quarter-sim is supposed to have), and allowed parcels to be sold and announced on the available parcel list (i.e. on the map).

The conditions for a stratospheric growth were set.

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