Conrad Dennis knew that things were going to be tough. It was already mid-winter in 1995, and he was going to have to deal with nearly a million people during the next six months. Worse, they would all show up at about the same time. Dennis knew that to keep his members satisfied, his visitors happy, and everyone else working at top efficiency, he had to find a way to keep track of all the visitors, pilots, airplanes, and members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) when they arrived for the world's largest airshow in late July.
While he was considering what to do about the hundreds of thousands of members he'd have to chart during the EAA's annual fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, he received a call that changed everything. Microsoft engineer Boni Weis was on the phone with an offer Dennis couldn't refuse. Weis, a Wisconsin native, proposed combining Microsoft's networking ability with the development skills of a local systems integrator. Together, they--and some additional players--would revamp the EAA's aging data network in time for the show.
The Microsoft offer, backed up by RR Systems Group, was a tall order indeed. The fly-in draws more than 800,000 people. Although the EAA didn't need to list them all, it did need to track its members, thousands of airplanes, every pilot, and tens of thousands of people who camp out on the airport grounds. The group also needed to maintain a database of new members, members who renewed their memberships, and members of other aviation organizations.
The Airport Problem
Keeping track of all the information would be tough enough, but the fact that the event takes place outdoors on the grounds of an airport added a whole new dimension. Reliable access to the database was required across miles of open fields under a variety of conditions. In addition, the data had to be secure at all times because the EAA couldn't take the chance that it might be lost or garbled.
"We went with Microsoft SQL Server," explained Ron Rudolph, President and CEO of RR Systems, pointing out that the company decided to combine the database with Windows NT Server 3.51 because of the performance and reliability that the products exhibit when they are paired. "We also needed the replication \[that the combination would\] provide," Rudolph said.
Making the decision about NT Server was only part of the story. There also had to be a server--in this case, a pair of servers--and a means of transferring data. More help was called in. "We picked AT&T Globalist 3416 servers with 256MB of memory," explained Holly Emmer, general manager of RR Systems, adding that they actually installed two of the dual-Pentium servers, one as a backup for the other.
Then, there was the question of networking. Was there a way to cover the thousands of acres reliably and still maintain the performance needed? "We used our Intersect Remote Ethernet Bridge," explained Patrick Pacifico, a Persoft technical-support specialist. Persoft's 915-MHz spread-spectrum bridge delivered both the range--up to three miles--and the speed that was needed to deliver on-line database access in the association's new wireless environment.
The Membership Database
With the initial choices out of the way, RR Systems faced up to the magnitude of the task. It was already late March, and they needed a working membership database, applications for registration, renewal, and status checking, forms to track aircraft and locations, and a means of providing communications among members of the convention staff. "They needed instant membership lookup," Rudolph explained.
The EAA used its records to make sure that only members were allotted the coveted flight-line passes and access to camping facilities. The group wanted to eliminate the long lines that had hampered registration in previous years. This meant that staffers had to be able to tell who the members were in a few seconds and sign up new or renewing members in a couple of minutes or less.
Ultimately, it came down to creating a major customer-service application to be conducted under difficult circumstances, and the application had to go from design to live use in a matter of weeks. "It was truly rapid application development of a mission-critical application," Dennis noted, as he reflected on the effort. At the time, though, the effort was considerable. RR Systems' employees put in long hours writing the Visual Basic code necessary to access the SQL database across the network, knowing that they had to create programs that worked right the first time. And they did!
Up and Running
In fact, the effort exceeded everyone's expectations. "The SQL product was one of the fastest things I've seen," said Emmer. She was equally pleased with the wireless network. "It went through airplane hangers, rain, trees--everything," she said. RR Systems' representatives found that they could load Windows 95 for the workstations from NT Server across the wireless network faster than they could from a CD-ROM.
Evidence of speed was everywhere. Dennis pointed out that registration lines nearly disappeared, despite the fact that attendance was up considerably from previous years. Because the convention staff was performing updates in real-time, the information was always available, thus solving another problem. "It helped reduce post-convention costs," he said. In past years, EAA staffers had spent weeks entering information into the membership database to reflect new members who had joined at the convention as well as changes and renewals from existing members. This information, previously stored in an aged Wang minicomputer, could now be transferred directly from NT Server. "It cut down on our overtime costs," Dennis said, adding that the changed significantly reduced employee workload and improved morale. "It's easier on people," he said.
In addition to making registration lines shorter, NT Server and its databases provided new capabilities. For example, RR Systems put a copy of the Federal Aviation Administration's aircraft registration database on the server. Thus, when convention workers needed to register an airplane, they could look up its ownership, compare that to the membership database, and display the combined information. This capability dramatically sped up aircraft registration--a big help with airplanes arriving every few seconds throughout the week of the convention.
Making Things Better
Of course, not everything went smoothly. For example, the programming team was still making changes to the financial accounting system on the first day of the convention. And the process of distributing application software updates to the individual workstations turned out to be more difficult than anyone had imagined, prompting the team to vow that next year, they'll use Microsoft Systems Management Server.
Otherwise, things worked well for everyone. "It absolutely proved the technology and the value of doing this on-line," Dennis said. He also noted that the EAA's senior management and its membership were pleased with the improvements in the registration and accounting process. Even better, the group could now do things it couldn't do before. For example, RR Systems had added various demographic fields to the database that the EAA could use to learn more about the members who attend the convention. The bottom line was that the whole system worked, and it worked well.
The Gift of Success
Another thing that worked well was the desire to see the project succeed. The EAA is a non-profit organization and, despite its desire to make things easier for its members, couldn't afford a programming effort of the magnitude required to bring a wireless network on-line. That didn't matter, though, because the entire effort was a gift! The four companies, Microsoft, RR Systems Group, Persoft, and AT&T, donated their time and their products. They donated one more thing, too: the desire to do an apparently impossible job--and do it well.
|AT&T * 800-637-2600|
|Microsoft * 206-882-8080|
|Persoft * 608-273-6000|
|RR Systems Group * 414-792-9345|