What is a network operations center (NOC)?
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Illustration showing how network operations centers help organizations maintain optimal performance
What is an NOC?

A network operations center (NOC) is a centralized location where computer, telecommunications, or satellite networks systems are monitored and managed 24x7. It is the first line of defense against network disruptions and failures. 

Why organizations use NOCs

Industries like telecommunications, financial services, manufacturing, and the energy sector operate around the clock and need reliable, constant connectivity. Maintaining this modern state of 24-7 global operations requires continuous network monitoring. This can make network services challenging to manage within traditional IT services. NOCs do this monitoring for organizations, quickly dealing with issues that might impact network performance, such as identifying malware and managing volume of users and website traffic. They also seek to optimize the network by performing updates and maintenance, and improving network performance.

Ideally, a NOC team is operating behind the scenes without the end user ever being aware of the work they’re doing. If a NOC is functioning properly, the end user has a seamless, continuously connected experience without issues such as prolonged downtime, malware infection, or poor network functionality.

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How NOCs work

NOCs work directly with organizations to oversee their complex networking environments, including servers, databases, firewalls, devices, and related external services. The IT infrastructure may be located on-premises and/or with a cloud-based provider, depending on the company’s needs.

NOCs typically operate in a tiered fashion. Incidents are categorized from one to three, with one being the lowest level, such as assessing alerts from infrastructure devices, and three being the most severe incidents, such as a ransomware attack or network outage. If a technician cannot resolve an issue in a timely manner, it moves up to a more experienced technician. NOC engineers then troubleshoot problems that arise and look for ways to prevent future network downtime and connectivity issues.

Some companies choose to operate a NOC internally and locate the infrastructure and operations hub on-premises, often within the data center. But for other organizations, this work is outsourced to a third party that specializes in network and infrastructure monitoring and management.

NOC capabilities

The NOC oversees network systems to manage data storage, update software and ensure connectivity. Here are some of the tasks and operations that a NOC performs:

  • Updating, troubleshooting, and installing software on systems connected to the network
  • Managing IT infrastructure and equipment
  • Backing up data and ensuring its accessibility on the network
  • Providing antivirus support
  • Monitoring firewall and network security software
  • Patch management
  • Emailing management services
  • Network monitoring, including analyzing the health of the network, reporting on performance and network optimization
  • Disaster recovery
Benefits of NOCs

Whether located in-house or contracted through a third-party vendor, NOCs offer companies various advantages.

  • More efficient IT departments: By taking the work performed by a NOC off the internal IT team, employees can focus on critical projects and new initiatives.
  • Scalability: A NOC can grow with an enterprise as it expands into new locations and markets, as well as offer the scalability that is needed for daily or seasonal fluctuations in traffic.
  • Eliminates downtime: The 24-7 capabilities of a NOC mean someone is always there to ensure that all software, hardware, and networks are working.
  • Rapid incident response: NOCs are designed to continually monitor network systems, identify problems quickly, as well as head off issues before they become a problem. This “always on” design means that incidents are resolved quickly.
  • Network optimization: NOCs provide real-time reporting on the health of your network, identify areas of improvement, and build these improvements for a stronger network.
In-house versus outsourced

An in-house NOC requires significant resources, and for some enterprise tech or communications companies the investment is worth it. They prefer to manage their networks internally to maintain a high level of control over the network operations.

Other companies, governmental agencies, or universities, may not want to allocate the enormous resources it takes to staff and manage an in-house team. Outsourcing a NOC, where the work is managed by skilled professionals and a trusted vendor, can be more cost-effective and less work for these organizations. For these companies, a third-party NOC provides high-quality, standardized management of networks without the requirements of staffing, managing, and funding an internal team. Because they act as an extension of a company’s existing workforce, NOCs also enable a company’s primary technical staff focus on core business functions.

NOC versus SOC versus help desk

NOC and a security operations center (SOC) both perform mission-critical functions, but there are major differences in the objectives of a network operations center. A security operations center and a help desk. All three offer assistance when problems arise, although help desks are often more focused on the end user. Let’s look at each and how they differ.

NOC

As noted previously, NOCs focus on network management to ensure network uptime and identify problems quickly. They typically work behind the scenes to ensure a seamless experience.

SOC

A SOC also works behind the scenes, but is focused on network and information security, performing threat analysis and monitoring for attacks on a client network. SOCs are trained to detect anomalies and mitigate cyberattacks as they arise. Where the NOC’s mission is to ensure 24-7 network connectivity, a SOC is assessing threats and building protections against attacks that might ultimately disrupt the 24-7 network.

Help desk

Help desks identify issues with the network, among other roles. However, the help desk mainly interacts with the end user, such as an office worker experiencing disruption in network connectivity, or a field technician having trouble with an equipment connection. NOCs rarely interact with the end user, but instead work directly with managed service providers and/or a company’s internal IT team.

Neither team works in isolation; NOCs can also be on call to support the help desk. For example, if a customer service rep is having trouble logging on to the network, this would be referred to the help desk first. If the issue cannot be resolved there, it would be escalated to the NOC.

AI and network operations

5G, edge computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) are putting increased demands on telecommunication companies’ network services. A network with millions of endpoints can make system oversight and incident management difficult.

By 2024, Ericsson (link resides outside ibm.com) predicts there will be 1.5 billion 5G subscriptions for enhanced mobile broadband and 4.1 billion global cellular IoT connections. The sheer volume of use and devices that are connected to the network is challenging human capabilities to respond to all incidents. Troubleshooting millions of incoming alarms can lead to cascading problems that slow down response time and put strain on engineers.

To handle the complexity of these new products, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation are making it possible for network operations to quickly analyze incoming data and fix issues across millions of endpoints as they arise. In addition, the advanced analytics and machine learning capabilities of AI can shift a NOC from reactive to proactive operations.

Using AI in this way is referred to as network observability. It shifts many low-level decision-making activities—such as troubleshooting or capacity planning—from engineers to the network observability tool, where they are resolved. The result is less rote work for engineers, reducing escalation of common issues to higher tiers, and more time to focus on larger issues and network optimization.

An example is how AI technology is being used by communication service providers (CSPs). AI offers greater insight into how a network system is working throughout, not just analyzing device by device. These tools are transforming CSPs to more automated network operations where problems are fixed before they impact customers.

NOC case study

With more than 4 million subscribers in Brazil, Nextel was looking for a way to improve network operations technologies to maintain uptime and minimize outages. Service time was especially challenging, taking an average of 30 minutes to respond to network incidents. Nextel looked for way to shift response operation from reactive to proactive and further still, to predictive responses to meet users’ expectations and reduce downtime.

Nextel uses IBM Netcool Operations Insight to monitor a network of more than 25,000 elements. To become more predictive, it incorporated IBM Watson® cognitive technology for better insights on network performance and to identify problems areas.

With the use of this AI technology, Nextel saw an 83% reduction in response time to network incidents, from 30 minutes down to five minutes. More importantly, Nextel was able to deliver better service to its customers, which rely on mobile connectivity 24-7.

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