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Open Doors To Innovation

It takes a lot of horsepower to create the 3-D virtual world known as Second Life, where users can build digital avatars to their likenesses, participate in a virtual economy that lets them purchase real estate and construct buildings, and fly through pixelated blue skies over a 100-square-kilometer computer-generated campus. In the past, the sticker shock of buying and managing the 1,400 CPUs and associated software needed to power this rapidly expanding massive multiplayer online game would have been enough to curb the enthusiasm of even the best-funded startup.

So it's not surprising that creator Linden Lab has turned to open-source software to power the IT engine that keeps Second Life alive. The sheer amount of processing power--the number of CPUs grows as much as 10% monthly--made Linux the obvious choice to run Linden Lab's servers. The company also chose to store the avatars that its nearly 60,000 users have created in a file system front-ended by the open-source Apache Web server, while the open-source Squid Web proxy cache keeps the data conveniently nearby. Metadata about the avatars is stored in an open-source MySQL database.

Linden Lab, a privately held company with 31 employees that's a subsidiary of Linden Research Inc., and other small, growing companies are the perfect candidates to pioneer the use of open source. Such companies have fresh ideas that they're anxious to introduce to the marketplace. To do this, they need plenty of IT infrastructure, so they build farms of x86-based servers running Linux, proliferate MySQL databases, and write their software to work with open-source application servers like JBoss.

Cost Cutting
Open source is most valuable to small and midsize companies as a way for them to cut IT costs, according to a September study conducted by InformationWeek Research and open-source service provider Optaros Inc. The study, which surveyed 296 open-source users with less than $1 billion in annual revenue, found that 81% look to open-source software to reduce the cost of using commercial packaged software. More than half of the companies surveyed cite the need to reduce their dependence on commercial software as a motive for adopting open-source software, while 41% cited the potential to reduce hardware costs. Nearly three-quarters of the open-source users surveyed are small businesses with less than $50 million in annual revenue.

The key to launching Second Life in 2003 was using quality software that didn't require shelling out a lot of money for licensing fees. "The need to pay licensing fees might have prevented the growth of Linden and Second Life," says Cory Ondrejka, Linden Lab's VP of product development.

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