The Cloud vs. The Home


For the past couple of months I’ve been flirting on and off with Amazon Web Services (AWS). This past summer my students started using it in some of our research projects, so I had to catch up with them. Those projects have nothing to do with OpenSim, but I made my own learning plan focused on getting an OpenSim instance to run in the cloud.

I must say I really like AWS, specifically Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). I feel like a kid in a [computing] candy store! How much better can it get when you can have as many servers / storage as you want in a high-bandwidth / high reliability data center at the tune of pennies/hour?! Pennies per hour! Turn the thing off, and the charges stop! Very different, indeed, from billing model of traditional data centers.

Of course, learning how to operate non-trivial systems in AWS is not an easy hill to climb. Add OpenSim to the mix — a system with complex networking and configuration requirements — and it gets very challenging very quickly. But persistence will get you there, at least to the first milestone of having a diva distro server up & running in the cloud.

Geek fun aside, is it really worth it to use cloud computing for OpenSim virtual worlds? It depends.

First, let’s look at the benefits. You get a high bandwidth / high reliability data center for your virtual world, with a lot of flexibility regarding the cost. Compared to hosting in home networks, high bandwidth and high reliability is a very attractive proposition.  Home DSLs have notoriously limited uplinks; if you place a server like OpenSim in your home, uploads is what happens most of the time. As such, you aren’t able to serve that many external clients, and the ones served will feel lag. That’s what data centers are for. But traditional data centers are prohibitively expensive for casual hosting, as they have high fixed monthly costs, well above $100/month. Usually you need to have a business in order for a data center to become cost-effective; personal use is not really a use case for them.

Let’s look at the numbers in more detail. AWS is a flirt for any geek, because the prices, at face value, are so low. Look at AWS pricing, and you rarely see anything above$1. It’s all pennies! 1 server? $0.085/hour. 1GB of data? $0.10/month. Storage I/O? $0.10/million requests. Traffic in? $0.10/GB. Traffic out? $0.15/GB after a first free GB. Dirt cheap.

But pennies add up. If you want your server to be always on, the cost of the server alone is ~$60/month. Add to that  the I/O and network traffic, and this number can easily go well above $100/month if your world has a lot of action. The very smart people at Amazon know the economics of data centers… Nevertheless, if you make the calculations, AWS is actually very competitive with dedicated server hosting offerings, even in the always-on scenario. And the elasticity of the billing, the pay-for-what-you-use model, is a very attractive proposition.

Cloud computing only starts bringing real cost savings if one takes advantage of the elasticity of billing. Which means that one needs to make the server up-time elastic. In other words, turn it off if you’re not using it. Which is probably what you do if you host your virtual world at home anyway. Or if your use of virtual worlds is related to scheduled activities, such as classes.

So here’s my conclusion: for personal virtual worlds with not a lot of external traffic, home hosting is probably the best solution; you’re paying a fixed monthly fee for your DSL, you may as well max out the value that you get from your provider. But if you’re thinking about offering a virtual world for a larger number of visitors, and if that virtual world doesn’t need to be always on, then pay-on-demand seems like a very good idea indeed. Plus you help the environment.

6 replies on “The Cloud vs. The Home”

  1. Dirk Krause says:

    Yup. That’s why I started the OpenSim-In-A-Box project some time ago.

    Great summary, thank you!


  2. Ener Hax says:

    thank you for the thorough discussion of the feasibility of cloud computing for OpenSim. it certainly does seem less than traditional hosting plus the “green” aspect of being able to shut down is an attractive thought

  3. […] knows OpenSim inside and out and that is why her post on using cloud servers is a great read for anyone curious about cloud computing for […]

  4. peterhost says:

    Hi Diva,

    Interesting post :)

    I’ve been digging in the VM personal hosting for opensim since early 2010, when I could get my hands on pretty nifty beta virtual machines as a beta tester (french company OVH). Sadly enough, they won’t support UDP anymore on most of their entry level cloud distros, but it gave me time to experiment with many different companies in the meantime, and different virtualization techniques.
    I’m not willing to get into the hosting business myself, as I’m more interested in developement, but I have tried to develop for my own use a set of scripts to automate, migrate (from grid to grid, from cloud-host to cloud-host, upgrade, backup opensim regions on the cloud (including Ovh, Amazon S3, Rackspace, and some more), with an adjacent set of inworld tools. Goal was, as your distro already does, to provide a fast setup for non-technical persons (or for myself, cause i do not want to spend 1 hour every time I setup a new region). User pays his hosting company, then installs the cloud (opensource, to come, not on github yet) management scripts, and voila.

    From my own experience, contrary to what many have said, hosting a sim on the cloud is not only feasible, but in many case it’s the home user’s best option. If you’re hosting a small set of regions with very little traffic, the basic rackspace with 512MB ram is plenty sufficient. It amounts at an average 15 USD/month, which is also very affordable. I host scenery only regions (with low to null trafic) on very cheap VMs for less than 3$/month.

    As comes to techniques, I’ve tried (on full servers I rent), different virtualisation techniques. Vmware & Xen work very well and is what most hosting companies use, for ease of use and management, and customer service. The most debatable techinque being Proxmox/OpenVZ containers, which are often used to sell very cheap VMs as you need not dedicate RAM/CPU per VMwith this system. However, when handled well, its overload is close to null (almost native OS perfs) and a 512MO 1GHz VM holds well, even with a 6×6 megaregion and several (more than 5 !) avatars.

    Thx for your work, by the way. We owe you much.


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  6. I’ve been running my virtual world and learning opensim for about three years now. Initially I had a virtualized server instance (I use windows server) and it was ok with the provider I had for a while. The problem was that ISPs tend to oversell the VM (quad cores or eight cores) and getting a consistent performance level from a virtual world with many regions can be an unknown, things seem to slow down for unknown reasons, but then again this was earlier on before the opensim refactoring and my experience could also be related to performance improvements in opensim versions. So I had also done the cable hosting thing, and for a sandbox its ok, but never for a growing virtual world. So I got a real deal on a server in a San Diego Data center, It doesn’t sound like much (a dual core celeron) with windows server installed, usually microsoft wants $20 extra for a license per month, so my total costs were $70 per month, highspeed professional business comcast was asking $100 a month and a contract, I’m month to month in my datacenter, but I doubt you could get such a good deal again. I have been shopping around and now best deals for dedicated servers seem to be core 2 duos for $125-140 per month. A little high, I had looked into the cloud computing costs a while back and it was still expensive, but I just might check those out again. There are some small guy’s in texas that are gaming server setups and they provide a good deal, but this would be a third or fourth move now and I hate going through those DNS domain name move hassels… but if you’re looking for a deal you probably have to do it! What did I forget? yes I have tested 3 avatars simulataneously in my world from three seperate computers at home going over my wireless network into a comcast cable provider and the limitation wasn’t my datacenter opensim server, but upstream speeds of my cable connect… so if you’re serious you’ll need to be in a datacenter or cloud! Just the way it is here in Feb 2011…

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