GLOBAL: Save money switching to OpenSim

Educators in post-secondary institutions, colleges and schools looking for lower costs, better controls and no age restrictions might consider switching from Second Life to its open source alternative, the OpenSim virtual world server platform.

The OpenSim server software can be used to power an entire public grid or a small private, behind-the-firewall installation, and can be run on an institution’s own server or hosted with third-party providers.

Educators say they find OpenSim offers significant cost savings over Second Life although there may be hidden costs.

“OpenSim is far less expensive to us to run,” said Shenlei Winkler, President of the Fashion Research Institute, in an online comment to the International Society for Technology in Education.

“We pay less a year for most of our regions than we do for a month of our Second Life region’s hosting bills,” Winkler said.

According to Winkler, institute students use OpenSim as a rapid prototyping tool and to hold virtual fashion shows for their designs. The Fashion Research Institute is currently running projects on three OpenSim-based grids, including their private Fashionable Grid, the Intel-backed ScienceSim and the hypergrid-enabled V-Business grid, as well as on Second Life.

The basic download of OpenSim is free and there is also a free pre-configured, hypergrid-enabled four-region minigrid called the Diva Distro.

Organisations that have a computer or server to spare and in-house tech talent can thus run OpenSim for free behind their firewalls. Regions from third-party OpenSim hosting providers such as ReactionGrid are just $25 a month — or less.

By comparison, Second Life regions rent at $300 a month — or $147 a month for educational institutions, with an initial setup fee of $1,000 ($700 for educators).

“I think one of the obstacles for Second Life has been the price for permanent builds,” said James Abraham, a professor of Spanish at Glendale Community College. “OpenSim eliminates that barrier. With no barrier, I think more people will be willing to give it a try.”

But that does not mean OpenSim has no hidden costs. There’s a saying about opensource software: “It’s free like a puppy, not free as in beer.”

“It’s certainly cheap, but you still need professional help,” Nick Wilson, founder and CEO of the UK-based virtual worlds consulting firm Clever Zebra, told Hypergrid Business. But that is true of virtual worlds in general, he added.

Institutions running their own grids need to factor in these added labour costs, educators said.

“‘Much cheaper’ is not true if you include the salary of the tech as he costs as much as a month of Second Life tier for an island every week,” freelance educational consultant Lindy McKeown told the Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.

That could add up to four times the cost of Second Life, McKeown said. She is currently working with the University of Southern Queensland to develop their virtual worlds strategy.

The time it takes to manage OpenSim can shorten significantly if the technician is familiar with the platform, said Jeff Lowe, a project manager with the University of Oklahoma. In addition, the per-region support costs fall quickly if an institution is running multiple regions.

“You do get economies of scale when you have a larger grid,” Lowe told Hypergrid Business. Lowe has just become part-owner of ReactionGrid, the top OpenSim hosting company for educators.

Most users opt for hosted versions of OpenSim, said Lowe, either on the ReactionGrid main grid or as private grids — both options offer free technical support.

ReactionGrid also offers one-click install packages for behind-the-firewall installations as well as remote management of self-hosted grids, he said. A-la-carte support is $85 an hour and clients can get a lower rate if they sign up for support packages.

“I’m sure other hosting businesses also have support available,” he added. “ReactionGrid and other companies are stepping up, taking the technical pain out of running OpenSim.”

It cost NZ $10,000 (US $7,000) for the University of Auckland to set up its own behind-the-firewall version of OpenSim which included the hardware for two virtual servers, said Scott Diener, the university’s associate director of IT services, at last month’s Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable.

“The total investment is pretty small,” Diener said.

By comparison, the behind-the-firewall, enterprise version of Second Life costs $55,000 and is limited to only eight simultaneous regions.

Since OpenSim runs on an institution’s own servers, or on external servers run by an institution’s hosting company, an organisation has full control over how OpenSim is configured. In addition, the open source nature of the software means that schools and colleges can plug in additional code at will, including replacement physics engines, commerce modules, and enterprise integration tools to connect with student and staff directories and learning management platforms.