IIRC: User Scripting in Second Life

I’ve had some positive feedback from the last post I wrote, so I thought I’d write up some information about how User Scripting functioned in Second Life from the time when I worked on it. This post covers the background of scripting, the LSL language and a bit about how the legacy LSL2 VM works.

One of the unique features of Second Life is the way users can create content. Using the Editor in the Viewer (the name for the client), they can place and combine basic shapes (known as Prims) to make more complex objects. Prims can be nested inside another prim or joined together with static or physical joints. They can also be attached to the user’s Avatar (guess what the most popular “attachment” was?).

To give an object behaviour, Prims can have any number of scripts placed inside them. A script is effectively an independent program that can execute concurrently with all the other scripts. There is a large library of hundreds of functions they can call to interact with the world, other objects and avatars. A script can do a wide variety of things, for example; it can react to being clicked, give users items or even send an email.

Users can write scripts in LSL; a custom language, which has first class concepts for states and event handlers. A script can consist of variables, function definitions, and one or more named states. A state is a collection of event handlers, only one state can be active at any one time.

The Second Life viewer contained a compiler which converted scripts into program bytecode for its bespoke instruction set and layout.

    llSay(0, "Hello, Avatar!");

  touch_start(integer total_number)
    llSay(0, "Touched.");

Above shows the default script, created when you add a new script to an object. When created or reset it will print, “Hello, Avatar!” to the chat in the region. When clicked it will print “Touched.”.

LSL has a limited number of data types. It is limited to integer, float, string, list (a heterogeneous list), vector (a 3d floating point vector) and key (a UUID).

The approach of treating each script as an independent program lead to many regions containing thousands of individual scripts within them. To give the effect of concurrency (in the single threaded Simulator), each script would get a timeslice of the main loop to execute a number of instructions before control was passed to the next.

The individual scripts within the original LSL VM, are quite limited. They are only allocated 16KB for program code, stack and heap. This fixed program size made managing memory limits simple; the heap and stack would grow towards each other in address space, and when they collided, the script threw an out of memory exception.

With LSL2, when a Prim moves between regions, migrating the executing script to the destination server is required. Migration of scripts between servers is relatively simple, all the program state was stored in a contiguous block of memory. The running form is identical to the serialized form. This can simply be sent directly over the wire and execution would continue the next time it was scheduled. No explicit serialization required. Unfortunately, this simple design VM lead to poor performance. The code was interpreted; there was no JIT compiler, it did not generate any native instructions.

In an attempt to rate limit particular actions that scripts could do, some library calls would cause the script to sleep for a given time. For example, calling llSay (the method to print some chat text) would cause the script to yield control for 0.1 seconds. Users worked around this limitation pretty easily; users would create a Prim containing multiple scripts. They could farm out the rate-limited work to multiple scripts using message passing. There was no limit to the number of scripts a user could have so this meant they’d effectively have unlimited calls to the restricted function.

For later features, we replace these sleeps were with per Sim rate limits. The rate limit was fixed for scripts that were attached to an avatar and proportional to the quantity of land owned within a region. For example, own 10% of the land, get 10% of the budget. This same style of limit was applied to the number of Prims within a region. This means that the rate limit was now, at least somewhat, tied to actual resource usage.

The users applied similar techniques to give more storage to their objects. Again by placing multiple scripts in a single object, users could distribute the values to be stored to multiple scripts. To retrieve it, they could broadcast a message to all their scripts and the relevant one would respond.

On the Sim, scheduling of scripts is effectively round-robin, however, there are some differences in the way events are scheduled. These differences were discovered and exploited by the users; for example, the users would craft scripts that could get more CPU, they would creating a loop using the colour system. A user could add a handler to the colour changed event and then within the handler change the colour. This short circuited the scheduling and allowed the script to jump the queue.

Like any thing in SL, users created scripts within the Viewer. There is an editor window with basic autocomplete which users can write or paste in any code. The code is then compiled on the client and uploaded like any other asset. This service was a simple, Apache hosted, CGI perl script. The upload process did no validation of the bytecode and users would occasionally try to exploit this by uploading garbage (or deliberately malicious) bytecode.

Users want to be able to use a mainstream programming language; the professionals wanted to be able to hire normal programmers with language experience and the amateurs wanted a transferable skill. The language and runtime often got in the way of adding new functionality, the lack of any data types made some methods very inefficient.

Second Life is fundamentally about user created content and User Scripting was one of the main tools used for this. It suffered many serious flaws and limitations including the problems I’ve described above. We wanted better performance, fewer limitations and new programming languages. To that end we replaced the legacy VM with Mono and the compiler backend with one that could generate CIL instructions. However, this wasn’t a simple swap; it we had to solve many complex problems. The implementation of this is going to be the topic of my next post.


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