Delta3D – a Government Open Source Success

I’ve been on a mission lately to find working open source projects in government, and specifically in the DoD, to see what makes them work and what roadblocks they have had to overcome. A week or so ago a colleague pointed out a paper (pdf) published in the July 2006 issue of JDMS on a successful open source community called Delta3D being managed out of the Naval Post Graduate School (NPS) in Monterey.

Perry McDowell is one of the authors of the paper that I read and was kind enough to take some time to discuss the Delta3D project with me.

What I was most interested in were the licensing and community issues. What license was the project using and why did the team select it? What stumbling blocks (if any) were there to open sourcing the software? Was it a vibrant community and how much committer control had been ceded to the community by NPS? Are the lessons learned from a wide open project transferable to a GLOSS gated project? Who outside of NPS is participating in the community and for what reasons?

It’s a good story.

The seed for Delta3D came from a project developed by two students at NPS in 2002 for Marine Corps training. The game they developed was of interest to the Corps at large but couldn’t be distributed because of too-high runtime costs associated with the commercial gaming engine. A pretty familiar story.

The folks at NPS started looking around for open source or low cost alternatives and concluded that they could piece together a complete open source gaming engine from a variety of complementary projects. The projects they chose had to be both valuable from a capabilities point of view, but perhaps as importantly, had to be licensed appropriately. The team felt that it needed the copyleft features of GPL but couldn’t live with the viral aspects; those elements of GPL would, in this market, act as too strong of a barrier to use. They needed projects that were licensed under Lesser GPL (LGPL) (previously known as Library GPL).

Delta3D was born from those projects through the development of a common api and the entire project is LGPL licensed which insures that improvements to the engine will get back to the community, but still permits a game built from it to be proprietary. The Delta3D team maintains strong relationships back to the contributing projects.

The community is active with multiple DoD contractors participating; a mixture of large and small. One of the large participants provides technical support to the community, one feeds back code improvements and bug fixes to the community, and one relatively small contractor has achieved committer status on the team. I have no insights into how the big companies are viewing the IP considerations of participation though I am happy to see them contributing. The smaller company is contributing actively and seems to be happy to “level the playing field” through core commoditization. If this is the beginning of a trend away from IP lockup as strategy to a strategy based on competency and agility I’m happy to see it.

This is a nice success story but was simplified somewhat by the fact that NPS didn’t create Delta3D from scratch, nor was it developed initially under a Government Purpose License Rights (GPLR) contract. If Delta3D had been built from scratch by NPS I wonder if government competition issues would be louder (the public works as competition issue) and if it had been initially developed under contract I wonder how much harder it would have been to move it to an LGPL license. In my mind these are still question marks and it is hard to predict from this example what would happen in those situations.

Kudos to the team at NPS for making this happen and thanks again for sharing the lessons learned.


  1. A Former User - August 10, 2007 @ 4:48 pm

    As a former user of Delta3D I can tell you that it is not as modular as advertised. It has rapidly dated itself and has the cost of free. Cost benefit by my company was to either pay the Delta3D team to do something or buy a commercial engine that already did everything that we needed it to do out of the box. It turned out to be cheaper to license the engine than to pay engineers to make the enhancements to Delta3D. It is a great idea, but was outdated when it was released. A shame.

  2. Jim S - August 10, 2007 @ 4:53 pm

    @former user – I’m disappointed to hear that. I am curious though, was there no alternative to paying the team to make the changes? Was there any way that you and/or the community could have provided the improvements you needed? Had the underlying components that made up Delta3D ceased evolving or were their improvements simply not making it into the Delta3D distro?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *