A Beginner's Guide to the Network Operations Center (NOC)

If your IT help desk is too busy to manage overall network performance, you need a network operations center (NOC). The Blueprint covers NOC basics and best practices for your small business.

Updated July 6, 2020

As your small business's computer network expands in size and complexity, the resources required to keep it running also increase. You'll eventually outgrow your IT help desk's ability to respond to end users and maintain your enterprise network.

When that happens, you'll need a network operations center (NOC) that concentrates on behind-the-scenes maintenance, security, and performance. We'll go over NOC basics and best practices below so you can decide if your business would benefit from one.

Overview: What is a network operations center (NOC)?

The NOC is a central location where IT technicians monitor, maintain, and oversee enterprise networks. The NOC may be dedicated to servicing internal company networks or, if it's part of a managed service provider (MSP), external client networks.

NOC computer services detect, diagnose, and remediate problems in four areas: servers, networks, applications, and websites.

NOC network, server, application, and website monitoring services are arranged in a circular diagram.

IT NOC monitoring services ensure 24/7 uptime for enterprise networks and related assets.

NOC services include:

  • Install, troubleshoot, and update software applications
  • Manage email services
  • Manage data storage and backup
  • Perform network assessments and asset discovery
  • Enforce IT network policies
  • Generate performance reports and recommendations for improvements
  • Monitor firewalls and intrusion prevention systems
  • Perform antivirus scanning and remediation
  • Conduct threat analysis

With its emphasis on overall network performance, NOC activities often incorporate Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) protocols regarding problem management and other service life cycle management areas.

ITIL best practices and checklists integrate IT departments with other business units, their processes, and goals.

Some NOC functions overlap with the security operations center (SOC), but the SOC concentrates exclusively on network security, and the NOC oversees entire network performance.

NOC vs. help desk: What's the difference?

The NOC is similar to an IT help desk — both are concerned with maintaining network performance — but they are different.

The IT help desk consists of customer-facing activities such as responding to support tickets and service requests, but the NOC operates behind the scenes with no direct customer interactions.

The NOC and IT help desk do not, however, operate independently of each other. If an IT incident or event is escalated to a high enough level, it's routed to the NOC. Their different perspectives — the help desk's end users versus the NOC's back-end support — are complementary.

Best practices for running a network operations center

NOC activities revolve around detecting, diagnosing, and resolving network infrastructure issues and allow the IT help desk to focus on end-user support requests.

This narrow focus creates opportunities to incorporate ITIL processes to better align network operations and support with overall business objectives.

A diagram identifies the three basic steps — detect, diagnose, and remediate — to resolve network infrastructure issues.

Basic NOC workflow has three steps to resolve infrastructure and performance incidents. Source: Externetworks

Setting up a NOC separate from your IT help desk requires a significant investment, so follow the best practices below for the best return.

1. Use the right tools

The best IT management software includes the features a NOC requires for optimal performance. Necessary NOC tools include:

  • Ticketing system: NOC network issues are too important to resolve informally; a ticketing system documents pertinent information and operator actions taken until an incident's resolution. A ticketing system also allows the shift manager to prioritize issues instead of handling them on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Knowledge base: This provides a centralized location for approved information and procedures for consistent results. If yours is online, it can be easily updated and shared as technology changes and new events occur.
  • Reporting system: Ongoing reporting for network and NOC performance is critical for actionable insights to increase efficiency and enhance outcomes.
  • Process automation: Using automated processes for low-level tasks such as cleaning up disk space reduces mean time to recovery (MTTR) and frees up operators to work on more complex issues.
  • Infrastructure monitoring: Tracking NOC server and network performance and data center environments allows for quick remote responses or human intervention after a physical event or disaster.
  • User experience monitoring: While the NOC doesn't interact with end users, it must monitor user behaviors to replicate problems and discover solutions.

If your IT management software doesn't have these features, or the ability to integrate with third-party software that provides them, upgrade to a more robust system.

2. Define roles and responsibilities

Once your NOC has the necessary tools, staff it 24/7 with appropriate personnel, who come in two categories:

  • Shift managers: Prioritize tickets, assign them to operators, communicate as required outside the NOC when escalating incidents, prepare reports, distribute notifications throughout the company, and make service decisions during critical events.
  • Operators: Perform incident handling and update or escalate tickets as incidents demand.

NOC employees require well-developed critical thinking skills and the ability to remain calm under pressure. Staffing your NOC around the clock also means hiring people willing to work nights, weekends, and holidays; otherwise, your turnover rate will remain high.

3. Map workflows and processes

Given the technical complexity of enterprise networks, codified NOC procedures help guarantee consistency in personnel actions and ensure results.

There are three key workflows to map:

  • Incident handling: Details locations of technical solutions and temporary workarounds, escalation procedures, incident reporting, and the after action review (AAR) process.
  • Escalation: Outlines the protocols and channels for escalating tickets and how to contact personnel with the expertise and authorization to resolve them.
  • Prioritization: Defines critical incidents and, based on business impact, identifies a shortlist of critical projects and most important case types.

Remember, these processes are not set in stone; you should review them periodically, especially after network, hardware, or application upgrades, to ensure they continue to produce desired outcomes.

4. Prioritize communication

The NOC can seem like a black box — who knows what's really going on in there and why? — so your NOC must communicate and work effectively with other IT staff and the rest of your company.

  • Change meetings: The NOC is an integral part of change management and should have a representative at change meetings and on the change advisory board (CAB) that evaluates change and service requests.
  • IT policies: The NOC must participate in ongoing discussions, meetings, and decisions about overarching IT policies, their dissemination throughout the company, and subsequent evaluation and enforcement.

NOC communications with the entire company lets everyone understand the impact of network operations. These interactions also allow NOC personnel to see the larger business picture and how their efforts contribute to increased customer satisfaction and revenue generation.

5. Analyze performance

Regular reports analyzing performance metrics are important to track overall NOC results and individual operator effectiveness. Common key performance indicators (KPIs) based on ITIL checklists include:

  • Number of incidents
  • Average initial response time
  • Average incident resolution time
  • First-time resolution rate
  • Number of repeated incidents
  • Incidents resolved remotely
  • Number of escalations
  • Number and percentage of incidents resolved within service-level agreements (SLA)

Beyond identifying high- and low-performing personnel, you'll be able to spot trends that could require additional hardware or software tools to address.

Put the NOC in networking to improve performance

If routine IT help desk activities are preventing your IT department from addressing overall network performance, you need your own NOC or a NOC hosting solution.

Its focus on back-end detection, diagnosis, and resolution of problems enhances system operations and allows your IT help desk to concentrate on customer service.

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