Ahh, the Network Operations Center. I have been working in a NOC in many compacities my entire career in IT. I have also had the chance to build one from the ground up, physically and operationally, including the continued facilities management. Most people in the industry have either worked in, around, with or are aware of the NOC and its functions in the business. For individuals not in the IT space, they may have heard of one, but exactly what its functions are and how it works can be a bit of a mystery. It has definitely come a long way since its inception. The exact role it plays is based on the business or customers it serves varies, as well.
The idea and concept started in the 1960s mainly with AT&T. There are typical ideas and visuals you get when you think of a traditional NOC. 24 x 7 x 365 support: a big wall of monitors displaying a variety of data, rows of desks with low or no separation walls with supervisors and managers usually in the back rows. This is to foster mentorship, communication and learning via auditory methods by hearing your surrounding colleagues solve problems.
Security is also a big part of a NOC, employing tightly controlled access, cameras, escorts and security controls. The other big piece of the NOC function that often gets forgotten and overlooked is the fact that it is indeed also a full call center/contact center. Last, but not least and probably most important, is monitoring and event management of just about all things in the IT infrastructure. In other words, it is a big IT support command center.
As just about everyone has seen now due to COVID-19, a lot of companies across the globe have moved to either a hybrid or full remote workforce. In the IT space, this was more prevalent even before COVID took hold. The NOC is no exception to this new working world. The lens I am looking through is mainly a NOC in the MSP (managed service provider) space, but a lot of this dovetails across all NOC types, government, carrier, individual enterprise etc. At an MSP, it is really the core of support services a MSP offers.
The big question is how do you run a large traditional, scalable NOC successfully with a remote workforce? It absolutely can be done successfully, but there are challenges and hurdles to overcome. There are also big wins for your customers and your organization if done right.
Pros of a Physical NOC:
- Engineers can walk over to each other regularly and provide direct support and mentorship daily.
- You can physically seat the engineering tiers strategically in the NOC for better learning and mentorship.
- You can pick up a lot of things in a NOC from just hearing what is going on around you on a daily basis.
- As supervisors, managers and leads occupy the NOC with engineers’ escalations can be addressed quickly. It also gives managers the chance to see and hear issues quickly and get ahead of them before they become a bigger issue.
- If a large percentage of the NOC workforce lives in same area, the NOC acts as great spot for a storm DR command center. Blizzard, hurricane, major power outage etc. Teams can come in and bunker down for extended periods and support customers during these extreme weather situations which can leave remote employees in that region unable to work without a NOC.
- The NOC is a great marketing tool and offers impressive visuals and a physical look into the operations of the NOC. This can go a long way with customers helping with sales and it can also help with recruiting. Scheduling site tours and guided NOC walk throughs is a great way to help sell your product.
- The physical NOC can sometimes double as a SOC as well and overall offers good security controls from the network, physical devices and access to sensitive information from outside parties while on shift.
- Not relying on the uncertain stability of various home networks across different geographical locations and carriers.
Pros of a Remote NOC:
- As a call center, the NOC can be very loud. The remote NOC eliminates that issue completely allowing engineers to take calls without distractions and loud background noise.
- With no commute, it allows engineers to stay more engaged with major issues and hand off properly even when going over their shift as they are not worried about traffic or leaving to get home.
- As you expand and grow as an MSP, there is just no way (with the exception of very limited metro areas) that you can recruit all the talent you need in one physical area within driving distance. The remote NOC opens up big doors to top technical talent.
- It allows for major reduction in equipment costs and facilities administration costs, including NOC monitor wall, security systems, hard phones, generators, UPS’s, furniture, electric, maintenance, cleaning, etc.
- Because of the close nature of all the people in the room, along with closed nature of the NOC due to security controls, air quality control is always an expense and concern.
- With the lack of a commute and greater availability to the talent pool, it is much easier to staff the afterhours shifts and work out 24 x 7 x 365 scheduling options. This, of course, translates to greater ability to find coverage when there are company events, callouts, vacation, major outages, etc.
If your company decides to go to full-time remote NOC model, there are some key things you can do to help bridge the gap on some of the pro’s you lose from moving away from a physical NOC.
- Have a well-defined MIM process and couple that with training on the process.
- Heavily utilize group chats for specialized functions or technical disciplines.
- Schedule working sessions with high level engineers and lower level or entry engineers regularly on live issues so they can learn in real time.
- Keep disciplined on communication with your teams though weekly and monthly team calls, one-on-ones, training sessions and round tables.
- Have a solid shift handoff process, preferably a call coupled with a documented shared record of everything being handed off each shift.
- Pick up the phone as much as you can vs. just relying on chat/presence programs. Yes, those programs are key players in the modern remote workforce, but they do not remove the need to just pick up the phone and interact.
- Utilize automation in your ITSM/CSM tools to parse out work to engineers based on skill sets, career goals and certifications.
- Keep very close track of your call center metrics, especially things like abandoned and dropped calls. This could indicate problems with voice traffic over scattered home networks.
- Leaders must use every tool available and stay hyper-focused to keep a solid understanding of the pulse of the NOC and customers.
At the end of the day, this remote world we are now heavily immersed in is not going away. As an organization, there are a lot of factors that must be weighed when deciding how, when or if you move your business units remote or not. When it comes to the NOC, this can be a successful practice as long as you recognized some of the current disadvantages and use good operational practices, management and up to date tools/platforms to fill those gaps. Do this, and you will absolutely be able to provide best of class service to your customers while moving remote.