Network Operations Centers (NOCs) are an essential component of modern IT management. By centralizing key operations in a single location, NOCs allow IT professionals to monitor and manage an organization’s hardware, databases, security, services, and network via remote 24/7. The NOC is essentially the hub of an entire IT operation and fulfills many roles, both in day-to-day IT management and in urgent response and remediation situations.
What this post will cover:
- What are Network Operations Centers?
- Why NOCs are important to IT operations
- The difference between NOCs, SOCs, and helpdesks
- The roles a NOC serves within the larger IT environment
- The methods and tools used in a Network Operations Center
What is a Network Operations Center (NOC)?
If you can imagine the “situation room” in a movie about spies and political intrigue, you already have a good idea about the atmosphere in the typical NOC. In essence, a network operations center is the situation room of a network, with important data about hardware, software, usage, and threats aggregated and displayed on numerous screens while IT professionals monitor and manage that influx of data from the centralized location.
The IT staff within the NOC -- generally referred to as NOC Technicians -- are fulfilling many roles from this room (or rooms) which serve as the heart of the much larger IT operation. From the NOC, these techs monitor and resolve issues that may arise on the network or networks under their purview. This is also a center of preventative maintenance, as automation tools and scripts are often heavily used within the NOC to handle routine work like patching and backing up data.
Is a Network Operations Center (NOC) the same as a helpdesk?
As we get into the details of NOC operations, it may seem like there’s no difference between a network operations center and a helpdesk. (Don’t worry, many people miss the distinction here!) It’s important to recognize that there is a distinction, and that NOCs and help desks are not the same animal.
The big difference is in who these entities serve. Help desks are geared toward the end-user, whereas NOCs are meant to serve IT providers, IT teams, and managed service providers (MSPs). When someone in their office is having trouble with their device, they would call a help desk. When someone in the IT department or an MSP needs to communicate with the technicians who are remotely running operations behind the scenes, they would call the NOC.
What is the difference between SOC and NOC?
They may sound similar, but there are key differences between a SOC vs NOC. Whereas a NOC handles a wide spectrum of network tasks, a Security Operations Center (SOC) is largely focused on -- you guessed it -- security.
A SOC will typically use similar tools as a NOC, but they’re focused on security-related network activity rather than overall performance. The SOC team is always looking for malicious activity and potential intrusions. The SOC is usually responsible for responding to and remediating any cyberthreats that they encounter.
What IT Roles are Carried Out by the NOC?
The NOC staff serves many key functions within the IT realm. Their most common work will involve observing and reporting on important metrics as part of an ongoing preventative maintenance or support-focused role. The NOC is heavily involved in security and continuity efforts as well, including backup and recovery (BDR) and security logging tasks. In some cases, the NOC may be supported by a Security Operations Center (SOC) which is dedicated to round-the-clock monitoring for cybersecurity threats or suspicious network activity.
More specifically, NOCs will often handle the following:
Backing up data and disaster recovery
Data backups have become a key part of an organization’s Business Continuity (BC) strategy. Data can be lost or corrupted through natural disasters, human error, or cyberattacks, and such situations can be very costly in both time and financially -- and may involve hefty penalties when regulatory concerns come into play. A NOC will often assume the responsibility of making and testing backups, as well as restoring backed up data should the need arise.
It’s more important than ever to keep software updated thanks to opportunistic cyberthreat actors who are quick to move on any exploits that may be discovered. Patch management is also important for maintaining functionality of firmware and software, and as such is best handled through centralized, remote, and often automated patch management tools. The NOC technicians will usually handle this responsibility, using the best patch management solutions to ensure everything on the network is constantly kept up to date and safe.
Install and troubleshoot software
Apart from updating software, the NOC can also install and troubleshoot software that’s on any device in the network. This makes preventative maintenance and troubleshooting much easier, as it reduces or eliminates the need for the IT team to make on-site visits and manually install software on individual devices.
Report on network performance, optimization, and scaling
The IT team has a large part to play in a modern organization -- strategic planning. With technology serving such an important role in modern business, it’s critical to keep tabs on usage, growth, and the health of existing hardware. The NOC typically assists with gathering and assembling important data that can be relayed on to the organization’s leadership, helping them to better understand IT resource allocation and future needs.
Monitor and manage network security
The NOC staff is typically in control of firewall, antivirus, and other solutions related to security. Another benefit of centralized IT management is the agility and speed offered when remediation becomes necessary. Growing focus on cyberattacks -- especially the widespread scourge of ransomware -- has made rapid response a critical factor in business safety and continuity.
Identify and respond to suspicious network activity
In situations where security monitoring is not delegated to a SOC, the NOC team will typically monitor network traffic for unusual activity that could indicate a cyberthreat.
Preventive maintenance and health reviews
It’s a NOC’s responsibility to monitor the overall health of a network, and an extension of this role is providing ongoing scheduled health reviews to ensure that everything stays in order. Preventive maintenance helps to ensure that network hardware and connected devices are always functioning optimally, reliably, and securely.
Why is a NOC Important?
Networks can be expensive to maintain, and larger networks require entire teams of IT professionals to run smoothly. That said, most modern organizations can’t survive with technology that they can rely on day in and day out. Individual enterprises may find that outsourcing to a NOC can help to ensure their networks are being monitored, analyzed, secured, and maintained at all times. For some, this is a cost-effective option that bridges the gap between a complete internal IT team and outsourcing all IT operations.
Another option is to outsource some or all IT operations to an outside provider (such as an MSP). In these cases, the IT provider may have their own NOC or they may be partnered with a NOC provider who works closely with MSPs.
In any of these cases, the NOC is a critical component of the bigger picture. Regardless of where it falls in the supply chain, the NOC makes it possible for organizations of any size to keep tabs on their network and data.
What Are the Best Tools for a NOC?
NOC management involves several types of key tools used for network management and improvement. While the actual software being used varies, you can expect every NOC to employ the following:
Incident tracking is a large part of the NOC operation. NOC techs must be able to prioritize, track, and assign various tasks and requests as they arise.
Automation and Scripts
There are countless day-to-day tasks that NOC techs must manage, and the potential for tedium and human error could be quite high without automation. Scripts and automation tools allow techs to schedule and execute tasks like patches or report generation en masse.
Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM)
An RMM tool is essential to NOC operations, as it allows techs to monitor and interface with multiple networks and devices from a centralized location. RMM solutions (like NinjaOne) give technicians centralized access to large amounts of data, as well as the means to act on that data from any location.
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