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Case Study

BadBolts Makes Climbing Safer Thanks to Rock-Solid Database Management

Long-time mLab customer Blake Bowling has launched numerous businesses using a DBaaS strategy. With more outdoor rock climbing safety bolts in need of replacement, Bowling, an avid climber, again turned to mLab to track all pertinent data and better maintain this equipment.

Highlights
  • BadBolts got started using mLab's free Sandbox databases for rapid prototyping.
  • Because climbing bolts come with many (and sometimes unique) attributes, BadBolts depends on a non-relational database as the most appropriate and advantageous fit for this data.
  • Datasets allow for predictive maintenance, as the lifespans of bolts with similar attributes can be compared for proactively recognizing trouble spots.
Customer Profile

BadBolts collects crowdsourced reports and data on sport climbing safety bolts, and coordinates efforts to replace those bolts as necessary. Originally founded in Kentucky by a group of climbers active in the Red River Gorge, BadBolts has since expanded into an international organization promoting safety at thousands of climbing sites worldwide.

The Challenge

With safety bolts along climbing trails deteriorating, Bowling's climbing group wanted a way to collect data and make restoration efficient.

Blake Bowling, a web engineer for more than 30 years, has built and tested a range of businesses using mLab's free Sandbox databases (up to 500 MB). He has sold several of these nascent companies after conceptually proving them using databases hosted and managed through mLab.

One example of this is JetSync, which digitized the 40 pounds' worth of airplane operating procedure documents required in cockpits — saving fuel and increasing usability. While using mLab with JetSync, Bowling became familiar with MongoDB and its ability to store large documents (documents which he was able to securely persist to a cloud-hosted mLab database). Thus, when it came time to create BadBolts, Bowling knew MongoDB — as hosted by mLab — would be the right fit for the job.

In sport climbing, expansion bolts are installed into rock along climbing routes that climbers use to hook themselves onto as a safety measure. These metal bolts can vary in quality and deteriorate over years through usage and weather. For about two decades, Bowling has been a member of Team Suck, a self-deprecatingly named group of friends who develop rock climbing routes, install bolts along them, and replace deteriorated bolts on trails as required. Given that this need to maintain trustworthy bolts is universal to the practice of sport climbing everywhere, Bowling began considering the challenge of applying his database knowhow to the issue.

Solution

BadBolts turned to mLab's hosted MongoDB platform to make bolt replacement organization a reality.

There are millions of mountain climbing bolts on routes in the United States alone — meaning that a database built to store data on them could have millions of records. And, because some bolts have completely different attributes than others (and some bolts may have attributes that no other bolt has), using a relational database for this data would be very cumbersome.

For these reasons, Bowling found MongoDB (as hosted and managed by mLab) to be a perfect fit for the BadBolts application. Whereas a structured database would be weighed down by countless empty columns, MongoDB's flexible configuration allows BadBolts to expand metrics as needed almost instantly — requiring no migrations to change data. With mLab, Bowling can use the mLab interface to edit data and complete tasks quickly.

mLab's free MongoDB database Sandbox offering is a great way to get started — it's allowed me to launch numerous projects. Using mLab along with Ruby on Rails, I can have a prototype of an idea up and running in ten minutes. At the same time, mLab's interface is so powerful and dead simple that I can fix any problems as they occur. I can find what's going on and resolve issues at the database level so much faster than I could if I had to log into my code, figure out what it did wrong, and put a fix into production. For every single issue in my code that causes a data error, mLab's interface saves me at least an hour. It's a tremendous value — and continues to be as my businesses scale and require mLab's paid database plans!

Blake Bowling Founder, BadBolts.com

Benefits

As a crowdsourced community effort, BadBolts has expanded into an international organization tracking bolt conditions and organizing re-bolting parties (where climbers gather to repair hardware and improve safety).

Global interest in sport climbing and the BadBolts project has skyrocketed in recent years. Bowling has quickly added requested features in response, empowered by mLab's solution. Climbers in the community have elevated the scope of the project, continuously adding metrics (such as tracking when a bolt is replaced) and attributes (such as the bolt manufacturer, the lot number of the metal, the lot number of the glue used, who installed the replacement, the install date, and more). Implementing these expanded metrics has been easy using mLab, where these new attributes can be plugged in on the fly. In one example, a climber on the phone with Bowling could literally click refresh and see the newly available bolt attributes appear (and verify that they were added accurately).

With more bolts and attributes expanding the dataset, BadBolts sees increased importance on predictive reports that anticipate when bolts need to be checked and replaced. These reports will also show whether a certain metal or manufacturer is at issue, providing new trends and insights never before gleaned.

By growing its community, BadBolts expects to coordinate many more re-bolting events and meetups. At the same time, BadBolts is also very much about teaching climbers self-reliance. Today, more climbers are entering the sport by learning in gyms. In the outdoors, though, these climbers need to understand what they're climbing on and the equipment involved, in order to make their own determinations as to what is safe. BadBolts provides data to helps foster that understanding.

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