There are many risks associated with system downtime: business disruption, data loss, reputational damage, and, of course, money down the drain. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to prevent system downtime from ever occurring? Although a perfect solution is still years away, a network operations center — NOC, pronounced “knock,” for short — can certainly help. A NOC is a centralized location where IT professionals convene to provide dedicated infrastructure monitoring and management to help ensure as much enterprise uptime possible. A NOC can be built in-house, or NOC services can be outsourced to a third-party company, depending on the needs of the organization. In either case, NOC technicians are responsible for keeping a close eye on infrastructure and network operations health and performance and rapidly resolving any issues as they arise. Want to learn more about NOC services? You’ve come to the right place. Consider this your guide to all things network operations center-related.

Table of Contents

  1. NOC vs. Help Desk: What’s the Difference?
  2. What Services Does a Network Operations Center Provide?
  3. The Key Roles in a Network Operations Center
  4. How Should a Network Operations Center be Designed?
  5. What is a Security Operations Center?
  6. Challenges That Hinder NOC Performance
  7. Best Practices for a Successful Network Operations Center
  8. 12 Questions to Ask When Evaluating Network Operations Tools
  9. Why You Should Consider Outsourcing NOC Services

NOC vs. Help Desk: What’s the Difference?

It’s easy to confuse a network operations center as being the same thing as a help desk — after all, both are responsible for resolving technical issues. The key difference between the two is that help desks are client-facing, whereas NOC services take place entirely on the back end.

For example, if a customer was having login issues with a software product they purchased from a SaaS provider, they would contact that company’s help desk for support. If a company were to experience availability issues with one of its networks, it would work with a NOC to detect and resolve them.

NOC vs HelpDesk Graphic

What Services Does a Network Operations Center Provide?

Network operations centers provide a wide variety of monitoring, maintenance, and management services for IT operations, including:

  • Cloud resource monitoring: Technicians track the performance, resource allocation, network availability, and other relevant KPIs for cloud-based services and applications.
  • Server and infrastructure monitoring: Technicians review, analyze, diagnose, and resolve performance and availability-related issues across a company’s entire technology stack.
  • Network monitoring: Technicians keep a close eye on network components, including routers, switches, and firewalls, in order to identify and fix slow or failing components.
  • Communications management (voice and video traffic, email): In telecommunication environments, technicians monitor power failures, communication line alarms, and other performance issues that might impede network operations.
  • Performance, quality, and optimization reporting: Technicians are responsible for aggregating data in real time and generating detailed reports with suggested network operations performance and process improvements.
  • Patch management: Technicians comb through computers, servers, and other devices on a network for missing software updates, and install patches as needed.
  • Backup and recovery management: Technicians develop a comprehensive data backup and recovery strategy to protect important business data in the event of a crash or failure. Technicians also manage existing backups, guaranteeing that they’re usable and deleting redundant or obsolete ones as necessary.
  • Firewall management: Technicians configure firewall rules, logs, and alerts in order to protect computers, servers, and other devices on a network from malicious internet traffic.
  • Network discovery: Technicians adjust network settings, thereby dictating which computers and devices on the network can communicate with each other.

NOC Services Graphic

The Key Roles in a Network Operations Center

Infrastructure monitoring is definitely not a one-man job. Instead, it requires a team of engineers, analysts, team leads, and managers, each of whom plays a very important role in ensuring that systems remain online.

Key Roles in NOC Update Graphic

How Should a Network Operations Center be Designed?

In the not too distant past, the average network operations center would consist of a single room with wall-to-wall video screens displaying network performance, incidents, and alarms and multiple workstations — one for each technician — cluttered with monitors. Although its true that many NOCs still look like this, the concept of onsite network management is quickly becoming outdated, with a distributed NOC workforce using centralized tools rising to take its place.

There are a few reasons for this: Remote network management eliminates locational constraints, which allows for more hiring flexibility. Rather than source talent from their immediate area, organizations can hire more skilled technicians, regardless whether those technicians are based down the street or across the country. This flexibility also enables organizations to hire employees from multiple different regions and time zones, allowing for round-the-clock infrastructure monitoring coverage.

Distributed network management also eliminates commute time, which enhances employee productivity with the added benefit of improving an organization’s carbon footprint. Due to these and other benefits, looking to the future we can likely expect more and more organizations switch to a modern, distributed NOC model.

NOC and the Cloud Graphic

What is a Security Operations Center?

A security operations center (SOC) is a dedicated team that is home to the information security engineers who respond to security issues. SOCs are responsible for proactively monitoring enterprise security systems, detecting abnormal activity within the network, and responding to possible breaches and other cybersecurity threats. SOC teams typically consist of managers, cybersecurity analysts, and security engineers.

Although SOCs are similar to NOCs in that they exist to identify, analyze, and resolve issues before they can harm the business, SOCs serve a unique purpose; as a result, there’s very little overlap between the two. That said, if a SOC were to detect a security issue on a server, it might lean on the company’s NOC to help investigate and eliminate the issue.

Challenges That Hinder NOC Performance

Enterprise infrastructure monitoring is a full-time job, one that requires buy-in across every line of business in order to be successful. There are any number of challenges that can prevent NOC staff from doing their jobs effectively:
  • In a network operations center, collaboration is vital. Silos — either across the organization or in the NOC, itself — stand in the way of that collaboration.
  • Technology evolves at such a rapid rate that, without the proper support, it can be difficult for NOC technicians to keep their skills up to date. This can lead more junior team members to repeatedly call upon senior members for support when resolving issues, which wastes valuable time.
  • Disparate systems present a multitude of challenges, including, but not limited to:
    • Too many alerts come in all at once, making it difficult for technicians to pin down which issues are real and need attention and which ones are just white noise.
    • Technicians are forced to pull data from multiple different systems, making troubleshooting more time consuming than it needs to be.
    • Technicians struggle to monitor each and every component of an application or network at the same time, leaving the network open to potential downtime that could have otherwise been prevented.
  • With so much else to keep track of, client documentation can fall to the wayside — and when client documentation isn’t kept up to date, technicians are forced to repeatedly relearn components of the client’s environment, once again resulting in time wasted.

Best Practices for a Successful Network Operations Center

In order to overcome the challenges presented in the last section, business leaders should implement the following network operations center best practices:

  • Prioritize training and knowledge development. As we’ve already mentioned, technology evolves at a rapid rate; without the proper training in place, it can be difficult for even the most skilled technician to keep up. Therefore, it’s imperative that organizations develop a comprehensive course curriculum and update it regularly to incorporate the latest innovations. In order for this training to be truly effective, it must be repeated with some regularity; organizations are advised to create a training schedule that routinely reinforces training content until it becomes second nature.
  • Thoroughly document NOC policies and procedures. These should be supplementary to training materials and should offer specific guidance on how to resolve common issues, how to prioritize incidents, and how to respond in the event of an emergency.
  • Let NOC staff know who’s in charge. Although most technicians are capable of doing their jobs effectively without direct supervision, every network operations center needs to have a clear chain of command and path of escalation. From NOC managers to team leads, it’s important that technicians have someone they can turn to when they’re in need of assistance, and that the client have someone on the team with a thorough understanding of their infrastructure and their needs.
  • Establish strong lines of communication. Infrastructure monitoring is a collaborative effort, so it’s critical that NOC staff be able to communicate with key figures across multiple lines of business in order to keep systems online.
  • Regularly collect and review performance reports. The various solutions within an organization’s software ecosystem generate massive quantities of data. By regularly collecting and reviewing performance reports for these solutions, senior NOC personnel can proactively identify weak spots and predict future outages based on data trends.
  • Look for creative ways to guarantee round-the-clock coverage. MSPs generally have clients spread out across multiple regions and time zones, which means their operational environments need to be available 24/7/365. In order to accommodate this demand, organizations need to find creative solutions to guarantee coverage, such as varying shift schedules, supporting multiple NOC teams, or have a mature on-call policy to handle issues outside of business hours.
  • Establish standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each client. Similar to NOC policies and procedures, client-specific SOPs provide technicians with clear guidance on when to escalate tickets to the client and which issues require client communication or intervention.
  • Re-evaluate systems on a regular basis. A network operations center is only as good as its toolset; technicians are less likely to identify issues in a timely fashion and sufficiently resolve them if they’re working with outdated technology. Therefore, key decision-makers within an organization need to continually re-evaluate existing systems and invest in new technology as needed in order to make their network operations center more lean and efficient.

The easiest way to ensure a high level of NOC performance without any of the hassle is to outsource network operations to a third-party company — but more on that in a bit.

12 Questions to Ask When Evaluating Network Operations Tools

When it comes to network operations, there’s no one-size-fits-all tool. In all likelihood, each technician will require a combination of tools to do their job, which will vary depending on their specific role within the NOC and the needs of your organization. That said, you can use the following questions as basic criteria for evaluating NOC tools:

  • Do I already have a solution in my software stack that offers this functionality?
  • Is this solution easy and intuitive to use?
  • How difficult would it be to implement this solution?
  • How long will it take to train my staff to use this solution?
  • Does this solution provide a 360-degree view into network operations?
  • Is this solution able to automate repetitive tasks?
  • Does this solution provide data-driven analysis for incident reporting and issue logging?
  • Does this solution offer visual analysis and graphical representations for incident reporting?
  • Does this solution offer ticket management capabilities?
  • Will this solution be able to scale along with my business?
  • Can this solution translate technical issues into business impact?
  • Can this solution integrate with third-party tools?

Why You Should Consider Outsourcing NOC Services

We touched briefly on the idea that outsourcing NOC services is an easy way to guarantee a high level of network operations performance; let’s explore that idea in greater depth.

Many organizations choose to outsource network operations to a third-party provider because it enables them to work with a highly skilled team of technicians, each of whom are location-independent. This not only helps businesses save time and money that would have otherwise been invested in onboarding, training, and retraining NOC staff, it also allows for round-the-clock network coverage. Without network operations to worry about, businesses can dedicate their existing resources to finding new ways to deliver business value.

Best of all, third-party NOC service providers are solely dedicated to infrastructure monitoring, which translates to reduced response times — since technicians are sitting, watching, and waiting — and better enterprise uptime.

If you’re considering outsourcing your organization’s network operations, talk to Hitachi Solutions. Our NOC team specializes in Azure-based systems, but we have extensive experience working with on-premises systems, as well. We also work closely with the Hitachi Solutions’ consulting team to deliver a high level of response, even for the most complicated issues. Whatever the challenge, we’re ready to handle it — contact us today to get started.