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Inside the GNOC command centre

AT&T's Global Network Operations Center monitors 20 petabytes of data and voice traffic daily from across the globe.

March 1, 2011  

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It is no surprise that AT&T’s Global Network Operations Center or GNOC for short, is a technological masterpiece. It is located in a corridor of communities in the north central part of this state that over the past 50 years has housed some of the brightest minds in telecommunications and computing.

Nearby, is Murray Hill, home of AT&T Bell Laboratories Inc. where Unix was invented, TDMA and CDMA digital cellular telephone technology was patented and the C++ programming language was developed.

At either a former location in Manhattan or Murray Hill, Bell Labs engineers also implemented the first transatlantic phone service in the 1920s, were responsible for the first transatlantic telephone cable being laid between Scotland and Newfoundland in the mid-1950s and invented fiber optics communications in the 1970s.

In 1996, a major cultural and corporate shift occurred at AT&T with the divesture of the company’s equipment and computer businesses, which resulted in the creation of Lucent Technologies Inc. and a virtual severing of the Bell Labs organization.

Bell Labs scientists and the name itself went to Lucent, while the newly formed AT&T Labs “focused” on the areas of computing, information and communication science.

“We have a long history,” said David Belanger, chief scientist at AT&T labs during a recent press briefing.

Belanger is also vice president of information, software and systems research at AT&T Shannon labs in Florham Park, N.J. According to AT&T, the lab conducts research in “large scale and real time information mining related to operations of a (communications) service business, interactive information visualization, scalable software systems and information based communications services.

Its patent portfolio currently stands at more than 9,000 that have been either been issued or are pending.

“Each communication technology advance has shortened the useful life of information and increased the need to obtain new information more rapidly regardless of the situation or location,” said Belanger.

To that end, he outlined selected research directions his staff is focusing on over the next five years. They include:

  • Network Based Computing in which corporate grade cloud computing will be routinely employed in critical applications
  • Rich Media: Mission critical interactive applications will employ multimedia and move seamlessly between different devices
  • Networks Of Everything: Billions of devices, many of them mobile, will interact as computing, sensing and communications platforms
  • Information Leverage: The collection, analysis, visualization and distribution will include all forms of data such as text, speed, video and images and “be integrated, near real time, and at huge scale.
  • Communities of Interest: These include collaboration efforts and social networking initiatives.

“The Web has created an enormous number of new business models for technology,” Belanger said.

In terms of video, an example of the type of work AT&T scientists are working on can be seen in a project still under development called MIRACLE.

According to an AT&T project team, MIRACLE encompasses the technologies and interfaces required for multiple types of video search including text content, visual information and speaker segmentation searches.

“A wide variety of video formats are handled by the Content Analysis Engine and played back on almost any device,” a fact sheet states.

With so much new data entering the ecosystem, the need to stay secure becomes even more paramount.

Edward Amoroso, AT&T’s Chief Security Officer, spoke at the briefing about business trends impacting security needs. They include globalization, virtualization, mobility and the cloud.

He also talked at length about botnet attacks, which he said are becoming more sophisticated and also more “frightening.”

In his new book Protecting National Infrastructure from Cyber Attack, he writes that the botnet is “perhaps the most insidious type of attack that exists today.

“In short, a botnet involves remote control of a collection of compromised end-user machines, usually broadband-connected PCs. The controlled end-user machines, which are referred to as bots, are programmed to attack some target that is designated by the botnet controller. The attack is tough to stop because end-user machines are typically administered in an ineffective manner.

“Furthermore, once the attack begins, it occurs from sources potentially scattered across geographic, political, and service provider boundaries. Perhaps worse, bots are programmed to take commands from multiple controller systems, so any attempts to destroy a given controller result in the bots simply homing to another one.”

The security mandate of Amoroso and his team is a daunting one – protect the company’s massive IP backbone network and computing infrastructure that on an average business day, carries somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 petabytes of data traffic. For anyone, wondering just how large that is, a single petabyte is equivalent to 1,000 terabytes.

The network also includes over 150,000 kilometres of fiber, 129,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, and more than 3,800 MPLS nodes serving 163 countries.

A key component is GNOC, which is the world’s largest command-and-control centre of its kind in the world and is located in Bedminister.

The GNOC staff monitors and proactively manages the data and voice traffic flowing across AT&T’s domestic and global networks twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” the company states on its Web site.

“From their workstations on the GNOC floor, they can quickly survey a sweeping wall of 141 giant screens showing different aspects of network activity, network topography and news events. At their consoles, each team member monitors a different segment or technology in the network using the most advanced diagnostic and management tools available.”