IT service companies, like many of the Second Life solution providers, will be happy to help you build a virtual-world environment for your network operations or data center. (Also read Using Virtual Worlds to Run Your Network Operations and Data Centers.) But it won't be cheap. It might run anywhere from tens or hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on how much IT stuff you've got, how many people it's for, and how much development and integration you need (and how many of these wheels haven't been implemented yet). And even then it may not have the features or provable reliability for mission-critical operations. IBM's Global Technology Services IT Optimization Business Unit, for example, has a four-phase service offering to build a 3-D data center. Phase 1\u2014requirements analysis and inventory assessment\u2014and Phase 2\u2014installing a 3-D environment with a rough mock-up of your center within your network\u2014could run in the low five figures. Phases 3 and 4\u2014deploying integration middleware and turning the mock center into a live environment\u2014are likely to be low six-figure tasks. (IBM declined to give specific prices, and, of course, the exact price will depend on how much needs to be done.) Fortunately, there's a lot you can do that's comparatively easy and affordable\u2014some even free, other than your time and possibly a better graphics card or newer computer. \n1. You can learn a lot by reading.\n\nLinden Lab offers a lot of free information through its website, including:\n\n\n\nSuccess Stories on how organizations have used Second Life,\n\nlinks to external lists of companies using Second Life,\n\nHow Organizations Use the [Second Life] Platform and \n\nHow To Articles, Overviews and Tutorials.\n\n2. Try it. \n\n\nDownloadthe free Second Life client (available for XP\/Vista, MacOS, and Linux). You'll need an adequate computer), especially in terms of graphics capabilities.\n\nGet an account on Second Life. A basic account is free; accounts that let you buy land start at $9.95 per month. Use Second Life's tutorials to familiarize yourself with how things work, and then explore. "IBM has some nice public sandboxes, where people can build 3-D objects and apps for free," says Michael J. Osias, chief 3-D architect for the IBM IT Optimization Business Unit. \n\n3. Deeper reading\u2014buy (or borrow) some books on Second Life and other virtual-worlds environments, e.g., \n\n\n"Second Life: the Official Guide (includes a CD with resources for users and developers), \n\nSecond Life For Dummies, by Sarah Robbins and Mark Bell, \n\nThe Entrepreneur's Guide to Second Life, by Daniel Terdiman, \n\nIntroduction to Linden Scripting Language for Second Life, \n\n4. Learn about programming for virtual worlds. \n\n\n"Get the basics down of what it means to meet, build, and script in a virtual world," urges Clear Ink's Nelson. "'Script' means create objects that are 'scriptable' in an object oriented way to communicate with each other, and to the outside world." Also, Nelson advises, begin determining "what are the APIs to processes on the outside, e.g. so your data center can feed data to them, and actions on these objects can communicate out." \n5. Try getting "land" and "building" within Second Life. \n\nYou'll need a premium account, which costs at least $9.95 per month; you can "Rent" some land in the main Second Life space, or get an "island" (private region). Land has initial and monthly costs. \n6. Try deploying a Second Life-type environment internally on a server inside your network. \n\nUse the free OpenSim Open Simulator server. Also be sure to check out open-source code available through SourceForge (search on "Second Life" and on "Virtual World").\n7. Explore more of today's collaborative tools. \n"Web 2.0" tools like presence-based tools like instant messaging (IM), "Facebook"-type organizers, blogs, wikis...the odds are, many, if not most, of your new employees came in using consumer versions of these tools, and many people are probably using them informally for company activity. \nEnterprise collaborative tools will include security, archiving and other features that IT and the company proper need. If you're using Microsoft Office Live or IBM Sametime, you may already have many of these, in fact.\n\nQwaq's Forums let you create a virtual meeting space, in which you can "import" your working materials, and costs $60 per person per month for use of its hosted service. \n8. Identify resources for next steps. \n\nSecond Life's Solutions Provider Directory lists companies that can help you do a small project, like integrating one of your management applications\u2014or create an entire "island." \n9. Explore alternatives to Second Life technology, e.g.: \n\n\nProject Wonderland, a toolkit for Building 3D Virtual Worlds, sponsored by Sun Microsystems,\n\nForterra Systems Inc.'s secure dedicated On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE) platform and\n\nIBM's Project BlueGrass\n"It's time to get involved, to get used to the issues, the programming concerns," advises Clear Ink's Nelson.\n10. Be patient. \nThis year, virtual-world operations centers will be expensive to create and won't be provably mission-critical reliable. \nHowever, within the next year or two, "virtual world as management interface" should get closer to reality, as a) more APIs and virtual-world representations of are built, b) the client and server software gets more provably reliable, and c) client software that can provide scaled-down access for less powerful computers and for handhelds and smartphones, becomes available.Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology writer based in Newton Center, MA. His website is www.dern.com and his technology blog is TryingTechnology.com.