Second Life steps into the enterprise

[From InformationWeek]

Second Life Steps Into The Enterprise

Companies can now run their own, private version of the virtual world in their data centers, for added security and control.

By Mitch Wagner
November 4, 2009 10:10 AM

Second Life is attracting a cult following among businesses, who say the virtual world gives them richer collaboration than teleconference calls or video conferences. But Second Life still has limitations that pose barriers to enterprise adoption.

One of the major limitations is that Linden Lab, which developed and operates Second Life, runs the service on its own server farms. This software-as-a-service model creates problems for user control and confidentiality of sensitive conversations.

But Linden Lab is working to change that. The company plans on Wednesday to launch open beta for Second Life Enterprise, a $55,000 hardware appliance that enterprises can install in their data centers.  The appliance allows companies to run Second Life on their own networks, behind the company firewall. Linden Lab expects beta to continue through the fourth quarter, and plans to announce general availability by March.

Second Life offers an advantage over conference calls and online conference apps such as Cisco’s WebEx, in that it creates the illusion that participants in an event are sharing the same place and time.  “What you’ve got with a virtual environment is that it’s completely immersive. There’s depth to what we’re doing,” said Chris Collins, general manager for the enterprise for Linden Lab.

Second Life Enterprise will likely be used by companies that already have a public presence in Second Life, Collins said. “It’s like having an Internet Web site and an intranet,” he said. The public Second Life grid is useful for public events, but it has difficulties. It suffers occasional outages. Security protections are sometimes tricky to use, which can lead to meetings being disrupted by vandals (called “griefers” in Second Life jargon). And text chat and Second Life’s built-in VoIP service go through Linden Lab’s servers, which can be a problem for healthcare providers and other industries subject to confidentiality policies.

By running Second Life on company servers, organizations will be able to control downtime and maintenance, control who has access to the server, and store communications behind the firewall.

Second Life went through a hype bubble in 2006-2007, as businesses jumped in to use it for advertising and marketing. The bubble collapsed when businesses figured out that Second Life has, in fact, very few users compared with platforms like Facebook and YouTube — about 750,000 users with more than one log-in in September — which made it difficult to use for mass-market publicity.

Some companies, however, stuck around, and others joined the service since the bubble. The service is now used by 1,400 organizations for training, meetings, conferences, and team-building, Linden Lab said. These include several companies beta-testing the enterprise software, such as IBM (NYSE: IBM), Northrop Grumman, and Case Western Reserve University. Also, Chicago Children’s Memorial Hospital uses Second Life for disaster preparedness training, and the University of Texas launched a year-long, state-wide initiative to use Second Life in the curriculum for all 16 campuses.

Second Life Enterprise users will be able to transfer virtual goods, such as buildings, clothes, and furniture, between the main, public grid and a Second Life Enterprise server. They won’t, however, be able to move avatars between Second Life Enterprise servers and the public grid, so employees will need to keep a separate avatar for each service.

The new server provides standard tools for enterprise software, including LDAP support and backup and restore abilities. Avatars on Second Life Enterprise servers can have the users’ real names, or any other names; in the public Second Life, in most cases, users have to pick between an approved list of surnames, and select a first name that isn’t already in use in combination with the surname they’ve chosen.

Second Life Enterprise can support up to eight simultaneous virtual servers — known in Second Life jargon as “islands” — and users can customize the servers and store the customizations. So, for example, an island might be a virtual conference center one day, and a training area the next.

Second Life Enterprise can support up to about 700 avatars logged in simultaneously. It comes with a set of 10 business-ready default avatars, with different ethnicities and appearances.

In addition to enterprises, Linden Lab sees the new software as useful to service providers who could use the servers for multiple clients  or training and Second Life events.

As part of the enterprise announcement, Linden Lab announced the Second Life Work Marketplace, to be launched in the first quarter, where developers can sell virtual merchandise such as clothing, furniture, building, and collaboration tools and tools for delivering presentations. Linden Lab will take a cut of the revenue from the marketplace.

Linden Lab is far and away the leader in non-game virtual worlds (World of Warcraft is also a virtual world). But it’s a small market, and LInden Lab has competition from companies including Forterra Systems, ProtonMedia and Teleplace. Also, OpenSim is an open source Second Life clone, which IBM integrated into its Lotus Sametime collaboration software.

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