The Technology behind NORAD tracks Santa

imageYesterday I told you about NORAD Tracks Santa – a website and group of apps where parents and children can track the progress of Santa on Christmas Eve as he travels around the world delivering presents to all the children who have been good this year.

Although these days children think that tracking Santa online is normal, the idea originated in 1955 from a misprint of a phone number in a US newspaper. When children phoned the special Santa hotline, a typo in the advert meant that they were put through to the North American Aerospace Defense Department (or NORAD for short). Pretty soon, NORAD were answering lots of calls from children wanting an update on where Santa was on his trip round the world (and, of course, in the Cold War years, where better to call to track high-speed flying objects incoming from Europe?)

Time moved on from phone calls to a website, and this year 25 million people are expected to follow Santa’s journey in real-time through the web and apps, in addition to sending 7,000 emails and making 100,000 phone calls [link].

To track Santa, NORAD are able to use their existing systems – radar, geo-synchronous satellites orbiting at 22,300 miles above the earth following the infrared signature from Rudolph’s nose, and the NORAD CF-18 and F-15/16 jets.

But for getting the information published, NORAD rely on various Microsoft technologies which help to scale the website up for the massive traffic peak on Christmas Eve. Of course, it’s a classic case study for why people choose cloud services in education too, with the ability to build scalable and elastic services, to cope with sudden, short-lived peaks.

Here in Australia, we use Windows Azure in education for the online ESSA test in NSW, with 65,000 students answering a 100 question exam on one day, where there’s a similar sudden peak of demand – and then nothing for another 364 days.

In both of these cases, the ability to spin up hundreds or thousands of cloud based Azure servers for a day or two avoids the need to build expensive individual data centres which will sit idle for much of their life. Why build for a year, when you can rent for a day?

But there’s more to the Santa Tracker than just that:

  • The Santa Tracker website is built on the Microsoft Windows Azure cloud, meaning that they could get the service running online quickly, and then scale it up for the millions of users on Christmas Eve [Link]
  • They use Bing Maps to plot progress and display real-time positioning
  • Children and parents can track Santa’s progress from their Windows Phone, Android phone or iPhone
  • The new Windows 8 app will allow families to track progress from their new Windows 8 devices, or the Microsoft Surface

Find MoreVisit the Santa Tracker website for apps, and more of the Santa-tracking story