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North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)
North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)
Santa Tracker Moves to New Service, Gives Real-Time Insight to More Than 22 Million
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) monitors the sky to detect possible attacks against North America by aircraft, missiles, or space vehicles. On December 24, NORAD also monitors Santa as he makes his journey around the world. To enable people to visualize Santa in real time and to educate the public about NORAD, the agency provides the Tracks Santa website. In 2012, NORAD worked with Microsoft, iLink Systems, and other partners to redesign noradsanta.org using Windows Azure Cloud Services and other Microsoft technologies. In December 2012, the new site supported a record number of users—22.3 million people—on desktops and mobile devices, and it delivered 91.5 million page views in a 48-hour period. The site also increased its social media presence by 23 percent, enhanced learning for international students, and boosted traffic to NORAD government sites by 650 percent.
"Everything is moving on to the cloud, and using a service that provides servers around the world is helpful when you’re running a program that is viewed by so many people internationally."
Established in 1958, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) provides strategic early warning services to the leadership of the United States and Canada. To accomplish this mission, the agency coordinates a worldwide system of sensors that include satellites, ground-based radar, airborne radar, and fighter jets.
Although the agency plays a critical role in the protection of millions of citizens, every year, on December 24, NORAD’s sensors track Santa as he delivers presents to children of all ages, around the world. Marisa Novobilski, Strategic Outreach Specialist of Public Affairs at NORAD, says, “Our goals for the NORAD Tracks Santa program are to provide a goodwill service to the community and to educate people about the missions of NORAD and the United States Northern Command, including our history and what we do to protect the United States and Canada.”
The idea behind the NORAD Tracks Santa program came about on December 24, 1955. An advertisement in a Colorado Springs newspaper misprinted the number for Santa’s hotline: instead of Santa’s number, the advertisement gave the phone number of Colonial Harry Shoup, the Director of Operations of the agency that preceded NORAD—the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). Shoup answered all of the calls that night. When CONAD became NORAD in 1958, the tradition carried on, and the program has continued to grow to this day through donated services. In 1997, the first NORAD Tracks Santa website was launched. Hosted in a garage on a single server, the site quickly went offline because it was overwhelmed by 100 simultaneous users.
By December 2011, noradsanta.org supported 19 million unique visitors. NORAD continues to work with its partners to evolve the site so that more people can take advantage of it.
In early 2012, the agency sought a new partner to help deliver the NORAD Tracks Santa site and Microsoft offered to run noradsanta.org on Windows Azure. “We needed a solution that could accommodate large-scale growth in a 24-hour period, from as many devices as possible,” says Novobilski. “Everything is moving on to the cloud, and using a service that provides servers around the world is helpful when you’re running a program that is viewed by so many people internationally.”
In addition to moving its site to a new service, NORAD also wanted to add capabilities including a new user interface and enhanced two- and three-dimensional maps. To do so, NORAD worked with iLink Systems, a Microsoft partner with six gold competencies, to redesign the NORAD Tracks Santa site. Developers also updated two existing mobile apps for Android devices and iPhones, and they created a new one for Windows and Windows 8 devices. Engineers from iLink managed all development, collaborating with NORAD and other partners to develop content. For example, Analytical Graphics provides all of the site’s 3-D maps and images; RadiantBlue Technologies developed and managed interactive games; Visionbox developed the mobile applications; and Microsoft provides all of the 2-D maps, via Bing Maps.
All contributors store code and site content—measuring about 20 gigabytes of compressed data—in binary large object (blob) storage with the Windows Azure Storage Service and Windows Azure Content Delivery Network (CDN). Blobs are a simple and affordable option for storing large amounts of unstructured text or binary data such as video, audio, and images.
To simplify access to information about Santa’s status, engineers created a home page that provides a Twitter feed and a link to NORAD Tracks Santa on Facebook. Developers also created a countdown clock that displays the time remaining to December 24. And on December 24, it details in real time, where Santa was last spotted in the world, which city he will next arrive in, his estimated time of arrival, and the number of presents delivered.
From September through November, NORAD conducted biweekly or weekly teleconferences using Microsoft Lync 2010 to maintain close communication between all parties working on the new solution. “One of the great things about this project was the level of collaboration we were able to achieve,” says Novobilski. “Having everyone navigate the same staging site and share content on our desktops really helped our large team work more efficiently.”
Although the cloud-based infrastructure on Windows Azure was ready in a few days, it took the team approximately three months to redesign the solution. All work was completed as scheduled, and the updated NORAD Tracks Santa site launched on December 1, 2012.
NORAD has realized a dramatic increase in 2012 in site traffic and page views, and it now provides a better user experience on more types of devices. It has also expanded its social media presence by more than 23 percent, facilitated greater learning by global students, and educated more people about NORAD’s mission.
Supports 91.5 Million Page Views and 22.3 Million Users in 48 Hours
NORAD Tracks Santa can now support significantly more users. “In December 2012, we had 22.3 million unique visitors from 233 countries and regions to the website, which was an increase of 18.5 percent over 2011,” says Novobilski. Page views also jumped exponentially between December 23 and 24. Jeffery Dernbach, UX Manager of iLink Systems, says, “In a 48-hour period, the NORAD Tracks Santa site scaled from 16,000 daily page views to 91.5 million views. We could handle this spike in traffic using caching and load balancing in Windows Azure.”
Delivers Global Scalability, Fast Performance, and 99.95 Percent Availability
As site traffic increases, consultants from Microsoft Premier Support for Windows Azure monitor the solution so that it provides continually fast performance and 99.95 percent uptime. If demand requires more resources, consultants can add new virtual servers, more CPU, more memory, or blob storage in seconds. “By using Windows Azure CDN, NORAD Tracks Santa can handle the global scale and load needed to support the burst of traffic in December while also reducing costs,” says Ahsan Ashraf, Senior Software Engineer at iLink Systems. “The solution automatically caches content on edge nodes throughout the world based on how often data must be updated. The use of multithreaded processes and client-side scripting also reduces demand on servers and helps maintain fast performance.”
Enhances Users’ Experience with New Features and More Device Support
Today, people can track Santa’s progress in real time using any browser or Internet-connected device. “December 24, 2012, was the first time that users could get a consistent location for Santa regardless of what method they used to view Tracks Santa,” says Abhi Vantaram, Practice Manager at iLink Systems. Users can also now play games using any browser or Internet-connected device. “In the past, Santa Tracker was designed primarily for desktops,” explains Dernbach. “We made the 2012 website design more responsive for all devices to that people can view it using any smartphone, tablet, or desktop.” In 2012, the NORAD Tracks Santa apps were downloaded to 1.5 million devices, an increase of 7.1 percent over the previous year.
Increases Social Media Popularity by More Than 23 Percent
More people are now following NORAD Tracks Santa online. “In 2012, our social media presence grew by more than 23 percent on all platforms,” says Novobilski. Between 2011 and 2012, Santa Tracker received more than 1.2 million Facebook Likes, an increase of nearly 24 percent. Followers on Twitter grew by nearly 28 percent, up to 129,000 people. And 53 percent more people subscribed to the site’s YouTube channel—up to 19,161 individuals. One reason behind the site’s growing popularity is that NORAD provides frequent social-media updates about Santa on December 24. Stacey Knott, Public Affairs Specialist at NORAD, says, “We make a social media post every five to fifteen minutes on December 24 about Santa’s location or fun trivia about Santa, NORAD, or the NORAD Tracks Santa program.”
Helps International Students Learn About the World
Teachers and students can now learn more about other countries by using the site’s improved 2-D and 3-D maps, as well as full-screen video capabilities supported by HTML5. The site also provides links to YouTube videos that depict Santa flying by key landmarks, short presentations by NORAD personnel, and also videos submitted by K-12 schools around the world that want to contribute to the site. “As users watch Santa moving across a map, YouTube links appear so that people can watch videos that relate to that region,” says Knott. “We like providing interactive experiences for people, and I’m excited to see what we can do in the future.”
Educates More People About NORAD and Its Mission
NORAD’s government sites also realized a 650 percent increase in traffic in December 2012. Novobilski says, “In November and December 2011, we had 19,500 visitors to norad.mil. That number increased to 150,000 visitors in November and December of 2012. It’s wonderful how many people across the globe can use NORAD Tracks Santa as an educational tool, whether it’s to learn about the military, geography, or just other cultures.”
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