Growing pains for Second Life

I managed to connect to Second Life this morning for the first time in two days.

The virtual world – generally known as the grid – was completely offline since Thursday as developer Linden Lab grappled with a combination of a hardware failure plus database issues.

Downtime due to infrastructure problems have plagued Second Life during the past few weeks, obviously frustrating for the developer and for SL users.

Whatever was the precise cause of the issues that led to the downtime, one thing seems clear – such infrastructure issues are a consequence of growth:

[…] Growth is often a double-edged sword. It is something to celebrate as any world grows and builds communities, allowing more people connect with each other and share hopes and dreams. But growth also poses challenges on how a community can scale, both in the technical and sociological aspects, and often involves some growing pains. I’m sorry for the current database issue, and please know we are working on it.

It brings to my mind similar problems suffered by TypePad and a year ago where growth in demand for their services outpaced the ability of the companies concerned to meet that demand.

Look at SL’s terms of service, especially point 1.6 where you’ll note that there is no guarantee of service. Is that something you simply accept, though? Some people don’t think so:

Unbelievable. A predictable failure that countless startups have had to grapple with. Where is the emergency plan? SL needs to get professional.. it is not a groovy experiment with 100,000 users any longer. This is not supposed to happen with a professionally run service with 2M+ residents. It reminds me of the Tanya Harding incident at the Olympics (the broken shoelace). Does LL want to be taken seriously by business? What are they going to do to get to that point? It’s not going to happen with posts that say “give your First Life a chance!” or “Holiday Support Hours” when there are none to be had.

In Linden Lab’s favour, I’d point to their good communication about what was going on, with regular updating to status posts on the Second Life blog.

While you may not like the news and information you read there, you could not complain at any lack of meaningful communication (unlike the TypePad situation a year ago).

When I first explored Second Life in early February, the total number of registered users was in the low hundred thousands. Now it’s more than two million.

sluserhoursIt’s not such raw numbers that matter, though, it’s how many people are in-world at any one time – it reached a milestone 20,000 users a couple of days ago – the time they spend in Second Life during each visit and what they do there.

The time-spent number has literally exploded during 2006 as the graph at left indicates.

Linden Lab estimates that about 30% of user hours are spent building and scripting content in-world. That means lots of interaction with the servers and software that run Second Life.

As more people sign up and start using using the service, the demand on the virtual world’s technical infrastructure increases exponentially. If the systems can’t handle it, they’ll fall over as happened this week.

Now I’m not excusing Linden Lab for anything – read again the last quoted comment above – but purely adding a perspective that is worth taking into account.

Until Linden Lab are able to improve the Second Life infrastructure (read: secure more inward investment), it would be prudent to expect more growing pains during 2007.

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