Network operations centers, commonly referred to as NOCs, are increasing in numbers, due in large part to the growing service provider industry. Application service providers (ASPs)—companies delivering fee-based applications over the Internet—and network service providers (NSPs)—companies offering fee-based management of network services—are the two main groups creating NOCs faster than they can find IT professionals to operate them.

For good reason, the NOC is often seen as the heart of ASPs and NSPs, as well as ISPs and telecom companies. However, few people know what actually goes on inside a NOC, and even fewer know what type of IT professionals are up to the challenge of working in one. In this article, we’re going to take a look inside a network operations center and see what kinds of IT positions NOCs offer.

A look inside the operations of a NOC
For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the day-to day functions of a typical network operations center, we’ll start with a look inside my company, Realtime IT Support Center. Realtime IT Support Center is an NSP that provides fee-based, real-time managed network services to small and medium-size companies.

As with virtually any NSP, Realtime has a NOC. The NOC at Realtime depends heavily on state-of-the-art management and reporting tools to provide a watchful 24/7 eye on the networks of their many clients. The overall success or failure of the network operations center, however, does not rely on a piece of sophisticated hardware or software but on the IT professionals running it. Realtime’s NOC is run by Doug Beamer, network operations center manager, and a team of networking professionals. Both Doug and his team have several years of experience and hold various certifications from Microsoft and Cisco.

Doug’s responsibility as network operations center manager for Realtime is to define and document processes and procedures that his teams of engineers follow. Daily duties involve everything from data backup management to keeping tabs on mission-critical frame relay circuits. His team resolves or escalates network-related issues in accordance with Doug’s established service level agreements and documented procedures.

There are many days in Realtime’s NOC that everything goes smoothly, and the team simply keeps a watchful eye on the networks. Then there are those days that are a little more challenging, like when a telco has inadvertently dropped a frame circuit or a mission-critical e-mail server has decided to call it quits for the day even though it is only 9:00 A.M.

Like most NOCs, Realtime IT Support Center’s network operations center does not know the term “business hours” and is required to function 24/7/365. Doug and his team of engineers are required to carry a company-issued pager and cell phone with them at all times. Like most IT positions, they receive little praise when the systems function like they’re supposed to, but they become the center of attention when things go wrong. The job is demanding, but the NOC has to run smoothly in order for Realtime to satisfy existing clients and bring on new ones.

IT positions in a NOC
Many service provider companies are aggressively seeking skilled IT professionals to fill positions for their network operations centers. Companies employing individuals to work within their NOCs are interested in IT pros who have experience in providing network infrastructure support for a large organization and who have experience with a variety of network management tools.

These companies are seeking IT professionals for several different types of positions. Network operators are needed to handle the ever-important day-to-day operations and provide proactive monitoring of all network systems. Companies looking to operate a NOC also seek network engineers to troubleshoot and provide technical support on a variety of network-related issues. Typically, they are looking for network engineers with an emphasis on network management. These engineers may also develop and implement site-specific disaster recovery and security procedures based on company standards.

Another crucial position is that of the NOC manager, such as Doug at Realtime. The NOC manager is responsible for the day-to-day management of the NOC operations. He or she develops and maintains staffing schedules and prioritizes NOC tasks. This person must understand NOCs and know how to plan, build, and maintain them. The most successful NOC managers have worked in the capacity of desktop support, server administration, and network engineering. This type of IT professional will have an overall view of corporate networks and will be able to use and develop the tools to manage the network.

The skills listed above are usually considered “soft skills.” Network operations centers often make detailed lists of technical expertise or “hard skills,” although finding IT professionals who posses all of them is virtually impossible. However, to name a few, IT professionals looking to work within a NOC should know IP routing, Ethernet switching, TCP/IP, routing and switching, system administration, and best practices for common tasks such as backup, antivirus protection, and network security.

The recent growth of the service provider industry and the resulting proliferation of network operations centers have created a new demand for skilled networking professionals. Now that you’ve taken a look inside a NOC and know what type of IT professionals these service providers are looking for, you can decide if working for a NOC is right for you.