Tracking Santa’s Sleigh the High-Tech Way

REDMOND, Wash. – Dec. 19, 2012 – Microsoft made the nice list this year.

The company is working with North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) to help power the annual Santa Tracker using NORAD’s powerful global radars and Microsoft technology, including Bing Maps, Windows Azure, and apps for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

Santa Visits NORAD Santa Visits NORAD

December 18, 2012
Santa Claus (center) with Col. Marcus Beyerle (left), 21st Dental Squadron commander, and Lt. Gen. J.M. Duval (right), Canadian Forces, Deputy Commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., during his NORAD mission brief on Dec. 16, 2012.

Once upon a time children would have to take their parents’ word that Santa Claus was on his way (but will only stop at their house if they go to sleep already). Now, using a website, a mobile app, or by placing a phone call to NORAD, children can determine Santa Claus’s approximate global position.

The Colorado-based NORAD is a bi-national command between the United States and Canada, who work “side by side to defend North America” by monitoring the skies and seas for any potential threats. The organization’s headquarters are at Peterson Air Force Base.

“Since we’re watching the skies anyway, it only makes sense to watch for Rudolph as well,” said Marisa Novobilski, NORAD Tracks Santa project manager.

It was a wrong number in 1955 that first led NORAD to track Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. That year, a Sears, Roebuck & Co. department store ran an advertisement inviting children to call Santa. But the phone number in the ad contained a typo. Instead of reaching Santa directly, that wrong number meant children were calling the “red phone” at NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command. The line was typically reserved for major security situations.

Colonel Harry Shoup was on duty that night, and though he initially thought someone was playing a joke on him, he eventually realized what had happened.

“Then he played along, and for the rest of the night as calls came in asking where Santa is, he and his staff checked the radar and relayed location information to the children,” Novobilski said. “It became the goodwill military outreach program it is today that reaches millions around the world.”

It’s the first time NORAD and Microsoft have teamed up to help track Santa Claus across the globe.

“We appreciate all of Microsoft’s support,” Novobilski said. “It’s actually helping us grow to have such a great technology partner on board. It’s been great so far.”

NORAD uses Microsoft technology for other non-Santa-related projects the rest of the year, said Dana Barnes, account team unit manager for Microsoft’s Joint Defense Agencies.

“I attribute the opportunity for us to do something like the Santa Tracker to the men and women from Microsoft who are on the ground every day helping keep NORAD’s servers running, educating people on technology, building out solutions for line-of-business applications – they’ve given NORAD confidence in Microsoft,” Barnes said.

Test-Driving the Santa Tracker

Seattle sisters Tansy, 5, and Lola, 7, recently explored the NORAD Tracks Santa website using their family’s new Microsoft Surface. The Surface’s Touch Cover was an exact color match to Lola’s hot pink pants.

Sitting back on the couch, the girls played holiday matching games, watched a video about Santa’s Christmas Eve journey and learned about his fighter jet escort. “Wow … jets,” Lola murmured, as the video introduced children to the pilots who would be Santa’s escorts.

Surface Meets Santa Surface Meets Santa

December 18, 2012
Seattle sisters Tansy, 5, (left) and Lola, 7, recently explored the NORAD Tracks Santa website using their family’s new Microsoft Surface.

“I think this is pretty cool because you don’t have to go anywhere to find Santa, you can just stay wherever you are,” Lola said. “And I like that some people are gonna make sure Santa has a good trip and that everything goes well. Some people with jets.”

The girls then discussed at length how fast Santa would have to go to get around the world in one night (and finally deduced that Santa must be faster than both a cheetah and a peregrine falcon). Then the sisters pondered whether Santa has 50 of the same outfit, and what the big guy might wear when he’s relaxing at the North Pole.

Tansy, sophisticated in her argyle tights, crossed her legs and took a sip from her white tea cup (which contains all-natural, grapefruit-flavored soda).

“Next year I think he should wear pink pants and a black shirt,” Tansy said matter-of-factly, taking another sip.

Tansy decided to draw Santa with a red marker, and the girls debated whether they should call the NORAD hotline on Christmas Eve to ask where Santa is, or track him via the app and website throughout the day.

“I can’t call,” Tansy said. “I’m going to be busy sleeping and thinking about getting books for Christmas.”

“What if Santa gets lost in a snowstorm?” Lola said.

“He’s gonna be alright,” Tansy said. “He’s always alright.”

“Are you always alright?” Lola said.

Tansy stops coloring her Santa and looks at her sister. “Sometimes,” she said.

They both exploded into giggles as Tansy finished drawing Santa’s hat and added the final touch, a speech bubble containing his trademark laugh, “Ho, ho, ho.”

Reindeer-Friendly Technology

Santa tracking has evolved since 1955. What began as telephone calls and radio reports has blossomed to include a website, apps and online mapping.

Christmas Eve at NORAD Christmas Eve at NORAD

December 18, 2012
Each Christmas Eve thousands of volunteers answer calls and emails from children, using NORAD’s powerful radars to keep everyone apprised of Santa’s location.

“The first year we were on the internet, in 1997, we crashed when we had 100 visitors to our site at the same time,” Novobilski said. “Last year we had 18.9 million visitors through month of December, and upwards of 1 million inquiries per second on December 24.”

Now that’s a traffic spike. No problem, said Bill Hilf, general manager of Microsoft’s Windows Azure Product Marketing. Whether it’s the Olympics in London, the launch of “Halo 4,” or a busy month tracking Santa, Windows Azure was built to help a website and its components scale up and down – and way up, if needed.

“All of this stuff is kind of like a rubber band – it has to grow and stretch together or it won’t grow the right way,” Hilf said. “Each component of the NORAD Santa Tracker site was designed for scale.”

Windows Azure’s consumption-based model means that sites like the NORAD Santa Tracker that experience heavy traffic on Christmas Eve, or perhaps a mainstream retailer on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, can both accommodate the tremendous load, “then week after week slowly scale back to the bare minimum of what you need, and also pay only for what you need,” Hilf said.

Phew. Santa could use that kind of tech support from Windows Azure.

“I think Santa already has it,” Hilf said, though when pressed for details, he’ll only add that the North Pole’s non-disclosure agreement is pretty strict.

“I think tracking Santa is a great, great example of Windows Azure being put to use in its full glory,” he said. “And I love that this is an application of Windows Azure that I can tell my mother or my kids or everyday people about as an illustration of what the cloud can do.”

Barnes said the Bing Maps component of tracking Santa will show kids where Santa is, let them place icons on the map, and focus in on his trip past the world’s major cities.

“NORAD has predicted the flight they think Santa will make to be able to cover the entire world in one night. Bing Maps will map that out so kids can have the visual, zoom in and out, watch videos, and see where Santa is,” Barnes said. “We’re really excited about it.”

Microsoft was thrilled to start work on the project in September, and Microsoft and NORAD are already dreaming up features for future holidays that will continue to show off Microsoft’s multi-device platform and back-end technology in a way that continues to create a delightful holiday experience for children and their families all over the world, he said.

“It’s a fantastic fit,” Barnes said. “The timing of this with all of the new products Microsoft releasing – it’s kind of a perfect storm in a way.”

He adds: “A perfect storm, but not one that will keep Santa from making his deliveries.”

On Christmas Eve, the hotline is staffed by about 1,200 volunteers who, over the course of 24 hours, will sit “shoulder-to-shoulder” working two-hour shifts.

Apart from inquiring about Santa’s location, children have all manner of questions, from “How do I become an elf?” to “Can Santa bring me Justin Bieber?” All told, volunteers will answer upwards of 10,000 e-mails and more than 102,000 calls.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Novobilski said.

On Christmas Eve, children can call the hotline at 1-877-HI-NORAD or email noradtrackssanta@outlook.com to get information on Santa’s whereabouts. In addition, children can download the NORAD Tracks Santa free app or visit the website, which is available in eight languages, including English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish.