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It’s the height of the holiday season in 1955. A young child glances at yesterday’s newspaper folded over the back of her father’s living room armchair, and a particular ad catches her eye. Tucked beneath an uninteresting news story is an advertisement inviting children to call the North Pole—and talk to Santa! Eager to speak with the rosy-cheeked Saint Nick, the child dials the number to check-in with him and make sure he is all set for a safe journey around the world.

The person who answered the phone that day wasn’t Santa Claus; it wasn’t even an employee of the North Pole. The person at the end of the line was the Operations Center Director at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, that was responsible for monitoring aerospace activity over North America. The child had accidently dialed the unlisted phone number of the CONAD Operations Center, believing she was calling Santa Claus after seeing a promotion in a local newspaper.

“The director on duty that night was quick to realize what was going on,” says Preston Schlachter, Program Manager for the NORAD Track Santa program. “So, he talked to the parents, and assured the child that CONAD would keep Santa safe during his journey around the world.”

The tradition continued in 1958 when the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was formed, and they’ve been managing and developing the annual program ever since. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, NORAD, a United States and Canada bi-national organization that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning in the defense of North America. The NORAD Track Santa program is housed out of the Strategic Outreach division of NORAD’s Public Affairs Office.

Behind the Santa Track’s annual success

Every year, NORAD’s Track Santa program kicks off on December 1 and runs through the remainder of the month. The bulk of the program’s success relies on a group of 1600 volunteers around the country who manage the phone lines on the program’s busiest day: December 24. Volunteers begin taking calls and managing online email communication at 4 a.m. and work 2-hour shifts through midnight. In 2017 alone, the program received more than 126,000 calls and more than 2,000 emails from children hoping for information on Santa’s whereabouts.

In 1997, the program’s first website went live, and has since evolved into a massive online platform, delivering global experiences available in eight different languages. Now, using the online system, site visitors can see 2D and 3D geographical representations of where Santa is located at any given time—a resource available through Bing’s mapping technology—in addition to multiple interactive games, and educational features. After operating for more than half a century, NORAD’s Santa Tracker team wanted to implement new innovative solutions to ensure a modern, streamlined experience for users around the world. To do this, Schlachter and his team began exploring their own digital transformation.

Building an Azure-based infrastructure to support the Santa Tracker

Millions of users access the Santa Tracker website from more than 220 different countries throughout the holiday season, and each time, NORAD’s team needs to ensure a reliable digital connection and a consistent global experience. To manage the program’s massive traffic and dramatic influx of users, the program needed a digital environment that was flexible and scalable, with the capacity to continue operating steadily as Santa Tracker employees and volunteers update and adjust the website in real time.

Originally, Schlachter’s team was leveraging a different cloud solution to design a new system. But after reassessing their digital needs, they approached Microsoft to develop a more effective, agile cloud-based solution and decided to migrate to Azure’s platform.

Improving scalability and reliability with cloud technology

With Azure’s PaaS infrastructure and auto-scaling capabilities, the Santa Tracker has improved scalability and reliability, while still successfully hosting a number of other features.

Azure also supports the system’s operational success on desktop, mobile app, and their web application, maintaining a consistent look and feel and the most updated information every time. The Santa Tracker program ensures global reliability using a total of three Azure-based datacenters: two in the U.S.—one on the east coast and one on the west coast—and one in Europe. With Microsoft’s cloud-based system, NORAD can easily make updates across multiple datacenters and geographic regions and carry out automated performance testing across the entire system.

Supporting a committed volunteer base with innovative solutions

The Santa Tracker’s manpower is largely fueled by their volunteer team contributing to the program from call centers around the country. The program’s modern, Azure-based digital environment keeps remote volunteers connected to the system with the ability to interact with the website and make real-time edits without slowing down the platform. In addition, Microsoft provides an on-call team of technology specialists to offer website support for the entire 24-hour period during their program’s culminating day.

“The website is a very key piece to the success of the program, and we appreciate everything that Microsoft is doing to make the Santa Program successful,” adds Schlachter.

According to Schlachter, the Santa Tracker team hopes to continue developing and rolling out more versatile features and add-ons. For example, the team creates 23 new games every single year, releasing one game each day of December leading up to Christmas. The website also includes educational aspects that teach users about the history of Santa and how the Christmas holiday is celebrated in cultures around the world. Users can also learn more about NORAD’s formal operations. Overall, Schlachter’s goal is to encourage the program’s expansion and evolution alongside Microsoft’s innovative technology.

Using innovation to impact generations of families

Despite being founded decades before the internet, the Santa Tracker has been able to leverage innovation to stay functional and accessible, and ensure its own longevity. With cloud-based technology and other digital innovations, the Santa Tracker team can successfully adapt to the digital age without losing its sense of wonder and family-friendly appeal.

“There are kids who tracked Santa 50 years ago through the programs we had in place back then, who have not only introduced it to their kids, but now their grandkids are a part of that tradition too,” Schlachter explains.

Indeed, their recent digital transformation provides NORAD’s Santa Tracker program with a modernized, streamlined system that carries on the program’s original mission and sets the program up for impactful, multi-generational, global experiences for years to come.