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April 18, 2013

Tech Corner: Network operations center


The NOC: Making the invisible work

Out of sight, not out of mind

Pitt’s information technology infrastructure supports the academic, research and business operations of the University. Much of that infrastructure is complex and resource-intensive, yet invisible to users. Some of that infrastructure has a significant physical footprint, however, and is invisible only because it is out of sight of most of the University community.

The University of Pittsburgh Network Operations Center (NOC) is a secure 15,000-square-foot facility located off-campus in O’Hara Township. Established in 2005, the NOC was honored by Computerworld for “network operations center design and implementation”; its function is to increase the availability, reliability and security of the University’s network services.

Ten thousand square feet of the facility space is taken up by hardware: hundreds of servers that maintain University services such as web sites and email, the course management system, data warehouse and financial systems. While a significant number of these services are run on dedicated physical servers or computers, a growing number are managed on virtual servers.

Going virtual

physical-virtualA virtual server still has a physical presence. But, as opposed to a computer dedicated to hosting a single software application, the virtual server provides a shared space for multiple “servers” within one physical piece of hardware.

This more efficient use of resources is becoming standard at Pitt’s Network Operations Center.  More than half of the servers at the NOC now are operated as virtual servers.

Server hosting

enterprise-departmentalIn addition to managing and monitoring centralized servers for University-wide applications, the NOC also hosts servers for departments and for researchers.

Departments can locate physical servers and/or virtualized servers here, depending on their needs. The NOC maintains and supports VMware (virtualization) infrastructure for departments, including the server hardware, storage, operating system and the supporting network infrastructure.

Currently, 36 University units have their server infrastructures at the NOC. Some of these units are academic departments while others are administrative divisions. The services provided through their servers cover a broad range, from file storage for academic departments, to effort reporting systems, genetic statistical analysis and timesharing on electronic microscopes.

For departments and researchers, moving servers from on-campus department space to the NOC provides more effective and cost-efficient service. Department servers hosted at the NOC receive skilled on-site and round-the-clock monitoring, management and security for their services and their data.

In addition to hosting departmental servers, the NOC is the site of research- and high-performance computing. The University’s Center for Simulation and Modeling “frank” cluster is the most long-term research “resident” of the NOC, having been brought online in 2010 as a 40-node cluster.

Now a 379-node cluster with 21 terabytes of memory, the “frank” cluster can handle serial and parallel calculations as well as calculations requiring large memory or disk space.

Security and sustainability

For the University, hosting departmental servers at the NOC yields significant increases in both security and sustainability.

In addition to network security, the NOC facility is marked by strict physical controls to keep both the servers and the data stored on them secure from malicious attacks. As more units become sensitive to information security concerns, they have sought the advantages of a secure location for their technology resources, including the servers managing those resources.

While the number of servers at the NOC for enterprise services has increased in the past four years, power consumption has remained steady.

This efficiency is achieved through such practices as:

  • hot aisle/cold aisle rack arrangements;
  • “intelligent” cooling and dehumidifying systems;
  • server virtualization, and a
  • centralized infrastructure to support computer, network and storage needs.

As researchers and departments move their servers to the NOC, they also become part of these security and sustainability gains for the University.

Is it right for you?

Departments whose servers are hosted at the NOC are charged through a cost model based on the resources needed to support the servers — virtual and/or physical — and applications.

Those servers are then housed in the NOC’s environmentally controlled facility and provided regular monitoring, backup and recovery services.

Researchers and department administrators interested in exploring the advantages of moving servers to the NOC should call the technology help desk (412/624-HELP) or send an email to A meeting will be set up to review your needs, including data-set security considerations.


Lou Passarello is Computing Services and Systems Development’s director of operations and networking.

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