Customers were out of luck for 11 days in April if they wanted to make online reservations for summer camping or outdoors classes in the west metro parks of the Three Rivers Park District.

Part of the district's computer system was shut down after its security system was breached and hackers accessed 82,000 user names and passwords.

Last week the Three Rivers board took the first step toward what will be a $3 million replacement of most of the computer system.

It voted unanimously to spend $700,000 in emergency funds to increase network capacity and sign a new licensing agreement with Microsoft.

"It's one of those vital infrastructure pieces that we really have to have, to do business in the modern world," said Boe Carlson, the district's associate superintendent of administration.

Commissioners differed on whether the remaining $2.3 million cost should come from general funds or through short-term bond sales. That will be decided later this year.

Carlson said that 80 percent of the registrations for dozens of programs -- everything from camping and golf reservations to horseback riding and butterfly collecting -- are done online.

"Folks really rely on technology for almost everything, including their recreation, and we've got to be able to support that," he said.

Three Rivers manages about 27,000 acres in 21 parks, park reserves and special use areas, mostly in western Hennepin County.

The need for change goes well beyond reservations.

The network was designed 35 years ago for a much smaller system of parks, employees and customers, Carlson said. Since then, Three Rivers has grown from 60 to about 350 full-time employees and its technology has neither the speed nor capacity to move large amounts of data quickly, he said.

It also cannot handle new software, improved technology and new programs that are available.

"We've been kind of just getting along with what we had," Carlson said.

The computer system pays vendors and staff and runs the internal e-mail and phone system, but has little backup to preserve data and records in case of a natural disaster or other emergency.

Anticipating the need for change, the district hired a consultant last fall to assess the system. It was told to expect "a very high probability of total failure of the system within the next 18 months resulting in at least two weeks of down time."

Last January, a power failure in the system's data center shut off critical cooling equipment, Carlson said, and servers started to shut down automatically as the room overheated. No serious damage was done, he said, but that incident also underscored the need for a backup system in a different building.

Still to come by the end of the year will be another $1.7 million to replace hardware, secure backup, and begin designing, testing and installing different components of the new system.

Another $600,000 will be needed in 2013 to complete testing and train workers.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388