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Calling Santa with NORAD and Cradlepoint

As an adult, it’s easy to get cynical around the holidays. Personally I always start sounding a little bit like Holden Caulfield, decrying hypocrisy swaddled in tinsel and garland. But there are still some things that make my Grinch-like heart grow this time of year. One of them is the NORAD Santa Tracker.

From Analog to Digital

Started in 1955 when a newspaper misprinted a department store phone number for Santa, putting Colonel Harry Shoup on the spot when a child called. That year he assigned some airmen to answer phones to answer as Santa. Growing from there, NORAD would provide records to radio stations with updates on Santa’s position through his ride. But like so many other things, the NORAD Santa Tracker was not immune to Digital Transformation.

Since 1997, NORAD has offered an online Santa tracker. Since then, their digital presence has expanded to impressive heights. They now offer the site in eight different language, serving up over 78 million page visits, growing 25% each of the last two years. Not limited to just Christmas Eve, the site offers games, a count down calendar, Christmas music from the US Air Force Academy Band, and Santa Cam videos. They’ve got a large YouTube channel, smartphone apps, and social media accounts.

But they haven’t strayed too far from their roots, still offering phone service to any kids that want to call on Christmas Eve. As they’ve grown, it’s become unfeasible to keep a physical phone infrastructure to handle the calls. I can’t blame them for not wanting to maintain a large PBX just for one night. Instead, they use VOIP calls and over 800 volunteers to answer them.

Handling the Volume

To handle this, NORAD partnered with Cradlepoint to help with the technical backend. NORAD uses a pair of their AER1650 routers to handle the load. These are ideally suited for the highly seasonal traffic the call center gets. Each is equipped with dual LTE SIMs. These serve two important functions. For one, these routers aren’t in use all year round. So when it’s time to spin up the Santa tracking, it might be a hassle to get them up and running each year. However Cradlepoint’s cloud management portal, combined with the LTE connectivity, means that once the routers are plugged in, it’s a simple matter to configure them remotely online. And as upgrades are needed, the new routers only need to be associated with their existing profiles, and they can get up and running with new hardware.

The other benefit of using dual-SIMs in the router is in performance assurance. When running normally, the second SIM can be used to load balance the incoming VOIP traffic, meaning less calls get dropped. The other is that in the event of any failure, the router supports automatic failover.

All of this enables the NORAD volunteers to handle an impressive call volume. Last year they received over 800,000 calls, and were able to personally answer over 150,000. Essentially the only constraints on the call system are the number of people available to answer, and the bandwidth on the backend. the AER1650 routers are easy able to cope with the volume.

Cradlepoint only handles the VOIP part of NORAD’s now impressively large Santa tracking efforts. It’s nice to see though that they’re able to provide the technology to keep the original spirit of the endeavor alive for thousands of kids.

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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