Today's brave new "virtual worlds" aren't just for nonwork socializing. Businesses have been using Linden Lab's Second Life as a publicly accessible space for selling, recruiting and other interactions, and have also been using "private space" from Linden Lab. Companies looking for more interaction than a collaborative environment like IBM Lotus Sametime are also turning to other virtual-world-environment providers like Qwaq for private activities like pre-first-day job orientation, meetings and project collaboration.
But what about, say, mission-critical operations, like running a network operations or data center? Is virtual-world technology up to the challenge? And are today's often technologically conservative IT departments ready to consider something that makes enterprise use of Facebook-type social networking sound staid by comparison?
The short answers are: Not completely, but getting there—and a growing number say: If it can shave some costs off IT operations and improve IT capabilities, sure, why not?
Virtual Worlds for Real Activities
Like today's webpages, virtual worlds can also include windows to the real world. "The Second Life platform provides a generic way to bring live content into the 3-D virtual world, where you can drive interaction of objects," notes Joe Miller, vice president of platform and technology development at Linden Lab.
"Managing real-world systems, using an immersive 3-D environment is one of the primary-use cases of virtual environments," says Erica Driver, principal at technology advisory consultancy ThinkBalm. But, Driver cautions, "It's still highly experimental."
What does a virtual-world view offer for a data or network operations center?
"The ability to visualize things, and see things that aren't visible in 2-D, like airflow and temperature," says ThinkBalm's Driver. For example, in its virtual-world-based data center, Driver notes, "IBM has thermometers hanging all over the data center, and the picture can portray airflow."
The virtual-world interface also makes it easier to "bring in" other people, such as subject-matter experts to consult on a problem or prospective clients wanting to "tour" a data center hosting area before becoming customers.
While virtual-world technology may not be ready for mission-critical applications, a number of companies have begun using it, and others are exploring it, notably government agencies and Fortune 100s, who have the mix of budget and motivation to pursue better ways to manage their technology infrastructures.
The best-known nonvendor doing this is Implenia , Switzerland's leading construction, civil engineering and services company. Implenia started the Eolus One project exploring how virtual-world technology could be used for to help with CO2 reduction, energy/facilities management, and other tasks, including data center management, according to Oliver Goh (avatar Eolus McMillan on Second Life), IT specialist at Implenia.
According to Goh, "Eolus One uses back-end systems like IBM Websphere Commerce, Maximo and advanced Building Automation (Energy Management, Preventive Maintenance, Alert Management) to cover the whole supply chain from manufacture to customer delivery."
Subsequently, Implenia worked with IBM on a Second Life-type 3-D interface for its distributed data centers, using IBM's Holographic Enterprise Interface (HEI) virtual-world integration middleware, linked to Implenia's own EOLUS VWCI building automation interface, and running on the OpenSimulator, the open-source OpenSim application platform for 3-D virtual worlds.
According to Goh, by including data center equipment in what it monitors—a three-dimensional representation of network gear and servers in their racks, along with power and cooling—Implenia has been able to exercise better control over its HVAC and its security system.
For Implenia, managing data center operations is admittedly just one part of a larger overall initiative, says Implenia's Goh. To demonstrate the value of virtual world, Implenia has been concentrating on energy management and on building a property performance management solution. "We need to show the [real estate] industry we can get immediate financial returns."
IBM has been exploring the use of virtual-world technology both for itself and as a service offering. IBM's current efforts include Project Big Green, IBM's Virtual Data Center in Second Life, and separately, on an OpenSim server, IBM Dallas Global Solutions Center is monitoring more than 130 devices as of June 2008. According to IBM, the 3-D data center models "receive data from live enterprise managers such as IBM Director, Enterprise Workload Manager, Tivoli Omegamon and MQ Series. With the available SDK, other data sources are easily integrated. By aggregating information from these management systems and presenting it in a familiar 3-D space, managers are able to respond quickly to alerts and events on demand."
(See IBM's video about its Virtual Data Center, and also this IBM video about Project Big Green, which IBM expects to use to help planners and administrators with power management, to double computing capacities without using more power. )
According to IBM, the 3-D data center models "receive data from live enterprise managers such as IBM Director, Enterprise Workload Manager, Tivoli Omegamon and MQ Series. With the available SDK, other data sources are easily integrated. By aggregating information from these management systems and presenting it in a familiar 3-D space, managers are able to respond quickly to alerts and events on demand.... The modeling and simulation capability can also be used for exercises in space, power and cooling planning, training, and disaster-recovery scenarios. Users can move assets, interact with them, and drive them with real or simulated data."
Nor is Second Life the only, ahem, game in town. Other players in the 3-D/immersive/virtual-world arena include Forterra Systems Inc., which is focusing on scalable environments for enterprises, and Qwaq, which provides 3-D virtual collaboration solutions for enterprises, aiming at the enterprise by supporting tools already used to create 2-D and 3-D information, for example, 3-D objects made using Google SketchUp, and the ability to create extensions using standard languages like Python.
Having distributed centers, or one big one, is a good reason to consider using a virtual-world approach, suggests ThinkBalm's Driver.
But using virtual worlds for monitoring IT is far from ready for prime time.
"We're in a phase where we recommend this is a great experimental era," says Steve Nelson, EVP and chief strategy officer of Clear Ink, a digital marketing company that's added virtual-world development to its services portfolio. "You don't yet want to be doing mission-critical tasks, because of the state of things."
Unless you're a major government agency or Fortune 500 company committed to leading-edge technologies, it's too soon to whip out your big-bucks checkbook—today's offerings aren't yet at the off-the-shelf commodity-priced stage. They may not support all the protocols and interfaces you want; the software and systems you want to monitor may not be able to talk with them; and there may not be "objects" to represent them.
However, you don't have to—and shouldn't—wait. There's a lot you can do easily and affordably to start familiarizing yourself with virtual world technology. (See How to Get Started in Virtual-World Operations.)