An organization’s network operations make up the skeleton of its entire infrastructure. Among them are the internal and external communications of your organization, the applications you need to produce and promote goods and services, and the management of your employees. A business continuity plan depends on keeping network operations running smoothly and reliably in the digital era.
It is no wonder then that many organizations turn to managed services providers to provide them with this business continuity. These companies usually operate out of Network Operations Centers (NOCs) and provide levels of support ranging from basic support and advice when an active network experiences problems to proactive network monitoring and maintenance services that aim to prevent such problems from occurring in the first place.
Many businesses operate in this area, and there are so many different levels of service available, that it can be difficult to know what to look for when selecting a managed network operations provider. A systematic approach, secure business plan, however, can make the decision-making process as efficient as possible, thanks to five key factors.
The NOC business community and company culture
Your managed network operations provider is ultimately responsible for keeping your business online and operational; as such, you would like it to work not just as a short-term supplier, but as a long-term partner. It often depends on whether the provider’s culture is aligned with yours, and whether its community is committed to forming long-term relationships.
What are some ways you can assess these qualities? An organization’s efforts to get to know your network will provide significant clues, as it can understand proactively where issues might arise rather than just react to them as they arise.
It is also important to consider the team structure – are you going to have the same account manager and the same core team of engineers rotating shifts each week, or will they vary? Consider, too, whether the NOC is based in the UK or offshore – the latter will likely have some cost advantages, but these may come at the expense of continuity between shifts and close partnership. Many providers who deploy offshore NOCs employ a ‘follow-the-sun model, where monitoring services are routed from one office to another, time zone to time zone, to deliver 24/7/365 coverage, with each handover potentially resulting in lost information and incomplete service.
Engineers and technicians skilled in network technologies
At the end of the day, your managed network operations extend your in-house technology function. Therefore, the engineering skillsets and experience, as well as the technical expertise, of your provider will directly and significantly impact the effectiveness of your project. Assess the number of first-, second-, and third-line engineers the provider has, as well as how many partnerships and certifications it has with vendors such as Cisco, which of course should relate to the technology in your unique environment. A network service provider needs to be agile across different technologies and able to adapt to what their customers use already. Find out about their CPD practices, and how they ensure their engineers are always current with emerging technologies and software. A well-managed service provider will have a detailed training plan and a budget for each member of staff.
Also, you should consider what technology the provider has available to examine issues from the perspective of an end-user. Most of the work managed network operations do takes place remotely, so they must have diagnostic tools and processes that enable them to see problems from your perspective, so they can find the root of the problem. For example, the latest networking monitoring software or advanced wireless network diagnostic tools could be purchased.
Additionally, you should make sure they have good customer service skills, as well as whether they will be able to build good relationships with your staff. Customer satisfaction involves more than metrics and it is important to have the softer skills and ability to remain calm during a crisis and put customers at ease.
KPI Metrics and NOC Service Level Agreements
All this has to do with measurements. How does your potential supplier measure its performance over time, keep its promises to you, and deliver, as much as possible, continuous improvement? Transparent systems must be in place to record its performance, report it back to you, and benchmark its performance against agreed-upon standards.
Make sure your contract contains a range of performance metrics for measuring service quality, as well as internal KPIs for keeping engineers motivated. There are two areas in which your provider should have a structured KPI system: incident response and change activities. In general, the incident response involves guaranteeing response times for incidents based on their priority – a 15-minute response time and a 90-minute fix time for Priority 1 problems, for example. Change activity involves processes such as setting up new users or reworking the network in some way – again, your service provider should clearly define how long the process should take and how it will be conducted.
If you have highly qualified network engineers and a good working environment, you should be able to set and achieve ambitious targets for your SLAs and KPIs.
An approach to change management
Collaborative and agile approaches are the holy grail here. A managed network operations provider must be able to seamlessly and comprehensively handle the addition of new users and applications to the network. Before implementing any changes, you must be able to model them accurately, so that the implications of those changes can be tested without causing any operational damage.
Fortunately, this factor is easy to test. There are several official change management frameworks available, so asking your provider which(s) they use should get you a detailed explanation of which they have chosen, why, and how it works. To respond quickly to any changes in their chosen strategy, you must ensure that their strategy can integrate seamlessly with yours. A comprehensive post-change report, a realistic timeline, and rigorous testing should comprise the change management strategy.
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