In many areas of research, virtual research environments (VREs) have become an essential part of modern research processes. The providers of VREs need to respond to this growing importance with functioning and efficient processes for the development, operation and quality assurance of VREs. We have developed a life-cycle model for VREs, which focuses in particular on the success-critical points for the transition to a VRE's sustainable operation. Furthermore, we discuss a set of success criteria that enables all involved in the VRE (operators, funding bodies, users) to identify which aspects will be relevant to their specific needs prior to the creation of a new VRE. In light of the heterogeneity of VREs, this set of criteria is supplemented in individual cases by discipline-specific criteria.