Just as the pipes and powerlines that transport water and electricity are critical infrastructure, society cannot function without the vast network of satellites, wires and undersea cables that carry information across the globe. The failure of these networks can mean lost revenue, lost time and even lost lives.
Over the past 25 years, a growing number of critical services that people take for granted — such as fast and reliable access to accurate weather data, economic statistics for policymakers and research information — have grown reliant on the watchful eyes of the network engineers, technicians and developers at the Global Network Operations Center at Indiana University, or GlobalNOC. Headquartered at IU Bloomington, the GlobalNOC provides 24/7 monitoring services that prevent disruption to data networks that stretch across the majority of the continental United States, as well as large areas of Asia, Africa, South America and Europe.
“We’re the ‘eyes on glass’ who watch the monitors and make the call the moment something goes wrong,” said David Jent, associate vice president for networks at IU. “We guarantee there’s always a human in the loop so critical networks can function safety and reliably.”
Established in 1998, the GlobalNOC was created to provide 24-hour network monitoring for Internet2, a network of 36 U.S. research institutions established with leadership from IU. Once called the Abilene Network — in honor of the scope and ambition of the U.S. railroad system, whose railhead was once located in Abilene, Kansas — Internet2 depended on a small group of three to five network operation specialists to “keep the lights on” in the event of a breakage in its system.
Twenty-five years later, Jent said the GlobalNOC has over 120 full-time employees and over 20 major clients, including multiple government agencies. It has attracted more than $95 million in federal funding to IU, including over $65 million in support of research and education networks from the National Science Foundation; $29 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and $2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One of the most vital networks monitored by the GlobalNOC is N-WAVE, which supports the weather data that informs the National Weather Service and the weather forecasts on most smartphone applications. This data is used by local governments and first responders to prepare for, and guard against, extreme weather and natural disasters.
The center also manages other data networks at the Department of Commerce, including the systems that carry financial data for the Bureau of Economic Analysis and scientific data for the Office of Weights and Measures and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This data informs major financial policy, such as U.S. interest rates, as well as guarantees accuracy in the trade of consumer goods and timekeeping.
The GlobalNOC also provides network monitoring services to various functions at the USDA.
“We see everything through our alert notification system,” said Marianne Chitwood, executive director of client services at the GlobalNOC. “We know who to notify, and how. And we’re always there to pick up the phone, 24/7. Christmas day, any day of the year, people are working. We take a lot of pride in the fact that so many different and important life-savings networks rely on us.”
An important part of the task is creating and maintaining operational procedures for clients, Chitwood said. Each network has individualized protocols to guarantee that fixes are implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible. The center’s network operation specialists monitor over 100,000 individual devices on their clients’ networks with tools developed in house by software engineers.
“If a router goes down in the middle of the night in Oklahoma — or anywhere else in the world — we review the alert and investigate to get it fixed,” Chitwood said. The specialist assigned to the job won’t close out the “ticket” until the job is complete, she added.
One memorable network disruption involved a months-long breakage in one of the undersea cables connecting a trans-oceanic research network monitored by the GlobalNOC, Chitwood said. The specialist assigned to the case received updates through their system about such events as the trawler that had been assigned to pull the cable up from the surface of the ocean returning to shore because of storms.
Another major challenge occurred in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina washed away the physical location housing equipment used in the operation of Internet2. Due to the length and complexity of the repairs, GlobalNOC specialists spent several months helping reroute research data traveling across the southeastern U.S.
“It took a long time to physically locate the building and put everything back in place and get it fixed,” Jent said. “These networks rely on us to be here all the time — to provide a central point of contact and act as a ‘traffic cop’ on network data. You really need skilled people who are settled in and able to manage their way through these situations.”
The center’s expertise extends to software development, Chitwood added. For example, GlobalNOC specialists develop custom network monitoring tools tailored to clients’ needs. One of their most popular tools is “WorldView,” a program that uses Google Earth data to easily visualize where network disruptions are occurring on an interactive map. One of the most public examples of the software in action appears on the giant screens spanning a wall in front of desks staffed by GlobalNOC employees in the Cyberinfrastructure Building at IU Bloomington.
Among the GlobalNOC’s many other clients are:
I-Light, a research network that connects nearly every university and two- and four-year college in Indiana.
OmniSOC, an IU-based center that provides cybersecurity consulting services to universities across the state.
OmniPOP, a fiber optic network that connects member universities in the Big Ten Academic Alliance.
AMPATH, which extends international research and education networks to underrepresented research and education communities in Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.
TransPAC, a research network bridging institutions in the United States and Asia.
The GlobalNOC has also more recently begun to provide services to smaller clients through GlobalNOC Light. This project offers affordable network operations services — such as basic network monitoring and data on traffic volume — to smaller institutions that have less complex requirements. Early clients include a small, faith-based college in Pennsylvania and several tribal colleges in rural areas of the U.S.
No matter the size of the organization served, Jent said the GlobalNOC is valued for its expertise and reliability.
“No one else can provide the same level of support to their clients because no one else has same level the executive or administrative support, or the same level of staffing,” Jent said. “We’ve built something unique. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the GlobalNOC has no true competition, and no equal.”