Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The Cloud v. Data Center Decision

How hybrid cloud is strengthening Fitness First

The gym and fitness company has moved away from tin and deployed a flexible hybrid cloud solution.

fitness-first.jpg

Hybrid cloud has helped Fitness First drive development efficiency.

Image: Fitness First

There's never been a better time to start a business: whereas in the past you'd have needed to build your own data centre and fill it with IT infrastructure, now major cloud service providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google can provide you with all the services you need to run an online business. To take just one example, Airbnb runs many of its services on AWS.

But what about more established enterprises? It's not viable for them to suddenly pack up all their data centres and move everything into the public cloud. But there is a happy medium: hybrid cloud. This approach enables organisations to take advantage of cloud services while also harnessing the power of on-premises platforms in a way that provides enough flexibility to deal with any sudden demands.

One organisation that has opted for this hybrid approach in an effort to modernise and improve their IT strategy is Fitness First, the gym and health club operator. Founded in the UK in 1993, Fitness First has grown to become one of the largest fitness brands in the world, with over one million members across 370 clubs in 16 countries.

But in the 24 years since Fitness First began operating, technology has changed dramatically, and so have the needs of the business. That's why the company decided to examine its infrastructure and how it was used -- especially as the cost of physical servers escalated as the firm expanded.

IT as an enabler

"The issue the organisation faced is that it has historically gone down a physical server, physical data centre setup -- a lot of investment over the years into tin. What it ended up with was a lot of hardware which was now getting out of date," explains Jon Forster, Consulting Senior IT Advisor at Moray Limited, the holding company that owns the Fitness First Group.

The company was beginning to struggle with the flexibility required in order to make make changes while also managing costs. "We wanted to change to IT being more of an enabler rather than a reason for things to be slow. We'd really hit a roadblock," says Forster.

It's for that reason that Fitness First looked towards hybrid cloud, to provide "that flexibility to increase or decrease the computing power you need at that moment in time," he says.

For example, tasks such as application development or work around the website and coding only need to be powered at very specific times; the rest of the time the servers dedicated to these tasks are doing nothing. "They have no value until you want them back," says Forster.

So Fitness First began looking for a hybrid cloud provider that did all this and also tied into its Microsoft Azure-based infrastructure. One of the key demands of the new service, explains Forster, was the ability to be "flexible within your own environment without additional tin." Discussions with colleagues in the industry led Forster to enterprise cloud provider Nutanix.

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"They deliver what we want; it's tied into Microsoft and I can have no real gap between where we host things and there's no need for multiple technologies," Forster says.

So Fitness First opted to work with Nutanix and set up a hybrid cloud server in a matter of weeks. Forster was impressed enough to expand the relationship after just a few months.

"They worked with some of our guys and set it up very quickly. In fact within about 10 weeks of buying the first three blocks, it was going to well I bought another one in order to put everything on Nutanix," he says.

By shifting towards a partially cloud-based model, Fitness First has "completely changed" the way it does back end development, says Forster. "It suddenly becomes really quick. It changes so many ways -- having to look up backups has just gone away as you push it all up into Azure and it just tells you where and how it worked".

On-demand flexibility

The ultimate benefit to Fitness First is that it's now able to spin services up or down in reaction to increases in demand -- be that during a day-to-day basis or at the times of year when there's a surge in new members.

"The business runs in peaks and troughs. But now it's got enough compute power which you can wind back whenever you want, so when we have those peaks, it's absolutely fine, it doesn't slow down," says Forster.

The new setup also enables Fitness First to build new features of alter existing ones much more quickly than was previously possible, he explains.

"It's now quick so it's not a case of asking for something and getting it 12 months later; it's much quicker. You can give anyone the ability to get on and do it straight away and not be held back. That's helped everybody".

Cost savings

Naturally, switching to a cloud-based model has also saved Fitness First costs in terms of running and operating physical data centres.

"It's much cheaper than we had before. Before we had about 18 racks of kit and now we have two half-racks -- that's it. In terms of cost of space, of power, that's totally collapsed," Forster says, adding that those funds can be used to improve customer service and feed into the bottom line.

So what's the main thing organisations looking to invest in hybrid cloud infrastructure should be doing? It's important not to be nostalgic about your old physical data centres, and to look to move forward, according to Forster.

"Take a step away from what you have and don't base everything on that -- base it on the need for the future. Don't just keep slowly changing what you have, or it'll end up costing you a lot more money," says Forster.

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