Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

SLEEK: Second Life Enterprise and what it isn’t

With the launch of Second Life Enterprise, Linden Lab has delivered a polished, peppy, turn-key appliance for enterprise that’s both more than you might expect from the Lab and less than you’d hope for. I like to call Second Life Enterprise “SLEek”, which either means ‘ Smooth and lustrous as if polished’ or – “Second Life Enterprise? Eek!” but at the very least puts to rest the code-name Nebraska, which has probably notched the State up the Google rankings a bit but left a number of Nebraska residents flummoxed by their association with virtuality.

For long-time Second Life/Linden Lab watchers, Second Life Enterprise comes as….well, a surprise. Or it did for me anyways.

The Lab hasn’t always been known for, well, simplicity. The messy, chaotic nature of Second Life doesn’t always lend itself to elegance as the Lab juggled straining asset servers, a wide-ranging customer base, a vibrant economy and all the coding, infrastructure and policy challenges that go with that. Traditionally, hacking around in the code is what makes the world sing, or strain, or scream, but in this case they took a decidedly ‘clean installation’ approach to their new corporate appliance. And in keeping a focus on simplicity, SLEEK is as much about what it ISN’T as what it IS.

The Box: Second Life Enterprise (SLE) is a box. Well, two boxes actually: a ‘world server’ and a ‘voice server’. Now, I’m not much of a techy, but I’ve been in SLE, and it’s amazingly fast. Decoupled from an asset server holding terrabytes of data (as in Second Life), and hosted on some pretty sweet machines, SLE runs like lightning.

But it’s just that: a box. Ready to ship. Hand-packed, I suppose, by the gnomes at Linden Lab and delivered to your doorstep. You can host it in your corporate data center, put it in the cloud, or just polish it up and use it as a foot rest if you want.

What it is NOT is some sort of special region sitting at Linden Lab and somehow running on the same infrastructure as Second Life. Which is why I prefer to call it ’stand-alone’ rather than ‘behind-the-firewall’ although you can put it behind a firewall if you want to.

The Avatars and the World

SLE comes with a bunch of politically correct and business-attired avatars. Up to 800 avatars can be supported ‘in-world’ at any one time on 8 active regions. You can connect SLE to your corporate database using LDAP protocols to auto-generate avatar accounts and names (real names, names that you assign, or names that employees choose). Otherwise, SLE looks and feels exactly like Second Life. You can build in the same way, parcel regions the same way, stream media, assign permissions and groups, all the same stuff you can do in Second Life, only in a much much much smaller world.

In fact, the size of an SLE installation is one of the surprises, because the Lab hasn’t really released “Second Life in a Box” they’ve released a “Mini Estate in a Box”. Which means that we won’t see enterprise continents popping up any time soon. We won’t see some kind of ‘mega education campus’ or a mirror world or a private Zindra.

Now, having said that, one of the key features of SLE is the ability to turn regions on and off at will and move them around. You can create an inventory of regions…say, a conference space and a meeting space and a bunch of sailing sims or something, and you can place them on the map of your little mini world, or take them down and put them back into inventory. So while the active size of your virtual environment is 8 regions, you have a bit of wiggle room in being able to keep some stuff in reserve and pull it out as needed.

God Powers
Now, again, depending on where you sit, the lack of ‘deep controls’ is either a smart move by the Lab or a bit of a shocker. If you were imagining estate level Windlight controls or being able to tweak the physics then forget it. “God Powers” as an SLE administrator are pretty much limited to being able to kick or ban people, to move regions around, and to do a couple of cool things through an admin panel, primarily related to tracking and user database integration.

But there’s no poking around in the server code to do the stuff that you can do in OpenSim, for example, which I think is good: it means that the OpenSim development community can continue to offer virtual world solutions that are significantly cheaper (SLE clocks in at $55k just to get started) and more flexible, because of their ability to tinker around in the server modules.

Which means we really need to keep thinking of SLE as ‘mini-estates’. For an extra $14,000 a year for 8 regions, what you get is the ability to host the boxes yourself, and to be disconnected from the Second Life. Think of it as a a $14,000 security charge over simply buying and paying tier for 8 regions in Second Life.

The Market
With the launch of SLE, Linden Lab also announced a new Marketplace.

This will also come as a surprise to Second Life watchers. Because the Marketplace is NOT XStreet, the commerce site that’s connected to Second Life. It’s a separate entity. Part of the reason for this is that the easiest way to manage transfer content into SLE was on a region basis – something not unfamiliar to users of OpenSim. It’s far easier to back-up a full region and transfer it, put it in storage, and load it up again later, than it is to figure out how to transfer a single item, like a house or chair or animation.

So the Marketplace will be a sort of ‘region show room’ where corporate clients will be able to browse a catalog of regions and upon purchase have those region files securely delivered to their admin dashboards. Now, a region can include a single chair. I don’t see why there would be a particular lower limit on what someone loads into a region they’re selling. Or maybe a clothing designer throws together a region with vendors filled with outfits. The SLE client buys the region, brings it “live”, unpacks the clothing, and shuts the region down again.

Amanda noted in her blog post:

The SL Work Marketplace will be the first virtual world application and solution marketplace in the world. It will allow large organizations to download entire regions of collaboration tools, meeting and event solutions, training solutions, work avatars, business-oriented environments, and much more, into their stand alone SL Enterprise environment and make enterprise-wide use of that content under an organizational site license. For Solution Providers and content creators, this opens up a whole new market for work-related content. Initially, we’re only accepting content from Gold Solution Providers and Recommended Application Providers, but we will open up the application process to a broader audience soon.

Which also indicates a few things: one, that they’re hoping to sell MORE than the content you typically find on XStreet (say, a Web module for managing textures, or a user authentication module), and that two, they hope to open up a second market for content creators, in time, after they’ve given it a test run with solution providers.

In the meantime, there will be a barrier, because shifting existing content from Second Life to SLE won’t be easy: you’ll need release forms, with real names, for every script, texture and prim that you want to shift over. For existing businesses in Second Life who want to move to SLE, this could be incredibly problematic. On the other hand, it puts in a level of content protection that respects content creators who never intended their in-world work to go, well, out of world.

Where We Go From Here

There’s no interoperability between SLE and Second Life. You won’t be leaving a business meeting behind the firewall and zipping over to Caledon for a formal dance. We’re not seeing, with the birth of SLE, an interconnected universe of mini-worlds. What we’re seeing is a nice, simple box that Enterprise can fiddle around with a little, use for meetings or training, prototyping or data visualization.

With the amount of content (scripts, codes and objects), that have been developed for Second Life, we’ll see a slow migration of ‘business-friendly’ content shifting to the new Marketplace – a sort of step-by-step migration which will favor solution providers to start, and everyone else ‘in time’.

For most corporate customers, however, this will be enough. With concerns over corporate security (and the Lab released a security white paper which helps to further ease fears), or about letting staff ‘mingle’ on the main grid, enterprise will have a new option to take advantage of the power of virtual environments.

Once that environment includes the MediaAPI (rumored to be ready in Q1 2010) we’ll see further applications that extend the power of both Second Life and SLEEK.

What the Lab has done is release a fully-functioning box that isn’t loaded up with new features and makes a simple value proposition: join us in Second Life or run a little environment of your own behind your firewall or up in the cloud. Hop on board, grab a seat, let’s take a ride.

Join Us
In case you missed it, Mark Kingdon will formally unveil SLE at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco. You can watch the event live (or view the archive once the show is over).


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