It was not a good day for the virtual world. It was the next-to-last Sunday in October, a day before a major new patch for Second Life, a 3-D online environment that boasts 70,000 residents in the same, non-sharded world. It might have been a day like any other - except for the small spherical object one resident added to the stock of user-created content that makes Second Life almost unique among virtual worlds.
Adorned with an image of the G-Man from the Half-Life FPS games, the object had soon rezzed a copy of itself, and then there were two, floating side by side, low above the landscape of one of the 1,000-plus servers that make up the Grid that is Second Life. A moment later, each of those had replicated again, and there were four. Soon after that, there were eight, and then there were 16. Like the cell division that marks the beginning of life, the exponential growth continued. The spheres multiplied, overflowing the boundaries of the server in which they'd started and spilling over into neighboring regions, then into the regions that bounded those.
Eventually, according to some reports, there were 5.4 billion of them.
Who knows how long it took or what the exact sequence of events was, whether the servers went down one by one or spectacularly crashed out all at once. But by some point on that Sunday, they had all winked out. All of them. Second Life was no more.
Second Life gives its residents a great deal of freedom. They can create not only fantasy castles and other marvels, but scripted objects that can interact with each other, with avatars and with applications outside the virtual world as well. From time to time, an ambitious builder or scripter may overreach his or her talents. Create a linked chain of objects that need to be manipulated by SL's physics engine and you can strain a server's resources to the breaking point. Accidents will happen in such a world. Servers will crash.
What kind of "accident" hit Second Life on October 23, though, is open to interpretation. Was it an "accident" that the self-replicating objects had been named GriefSpawn by their creator? Was it mere coincidence that this creative mind was a member of a Second Life group long renowned for its inflammatory builds and harassment of other residents?
Signs point to "no," that what happened on the day the Grid disappeared was not an accident at all, but the most effective denial-of-service attack Second Life had ever seen, one that came from within the world itself.
Residents, needless to say, were dismayed. Many of them spend hours a day there; for some it is a full-time job. Though there's no comparison in terms of loss of life and other damages, having Second Life flooded with GriefSpawn spheres was a bit like having your city flooded by a hurricane: Businesses were forced to close, residents were forced to evacuate and it would not be for days or weeks that the full extent of the damage would be known.
That's a figure that will be difficult to calculate, though, for the GriefSpawn attack has had lasting effects, effects that go beyond whatever immediate destruction and business loss was caused. The code-meisters over at Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, were obviously not very happy campers on GriefSpawn day. But they must have been relieved that it came the day before a major patch, for they took the opportunity to sneak a change into Second Life's new version that was designed to prevent such attacks in the future.
To many residents, however, the cure was worse that the disease.
To create a self-replicating object on the scale of the GriefSpawn that crashed all of Second Life, it's necessary to have the parent object give a copy of the replication script to the children it creates - like cells passing along their DNA. So, to prevent such attacks in the future, Linden Lab coded new limitations into the function that passes inventory from one object to another, making it impossible to do so unless the objects you'd created were located on land you owned. The change slipped in just under the wire for the new release. And by Monday, residents were outraged.