Theme park operator Merlin selects Simplivity hyperconverged infrastructure over Nutanix to aid business expansion

legoland image credit merlin entertainment

The business behind top theme parks and attractions like Legoland and Madame Tussauds, Merlin, has picked hyperconverged infrastructure provider Simplivity to simplify its operations and support the swift expansion of international business.

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“One of the things that struck me about Merlin was just how quickly they move when it comes to opening new sites and new attractions,” says Sean Channon, global infrastructure architect at the firm.

“It’s just a really fast-paced business from that point of view.”

However he says that building attractions is the priority and that  “IT systems are usually the last thing to go in”.

So to be able to prepare and deploy IT rapidly on an as-and-when-it’s-needed basis was appealing.

“We can essentially build all the virtual servers and infrastructure for any attraction now in the data centre,” Channon explains.

‘We can do all our testing, the pre-live tasks, on those virtual servers – as soon as a site is handed over to us from a general contractor we can drop a Simplivity Omnicube on site, deploy it, and I think that takes all of about thirty minutes.”

“We can just take the virtual machines and systems down to the site,” he says. “It’s made meaningful savings for us, in terms of the amount of time it takes for us to stand up an attraction.”

Rather than picking any of the big vendors who were testing the waters in hyperconverged infrastructure or rival Nutanix, Merlin chose Simplivity because of its deep integration with VMWare and for the reliability it offered over alternative cloud solutions. Merlin has already made considerable space and cost savings, according to Channon.

“We started looking at Simplivity in January 2015,” Channon says, speaking with ComputerWorld UK. “We ran quite an extensive proof of concept for a couple of months until about May 2015, and then our first live deployments were in June 2015, to Legoland California.”

Infrastructure set up in 'under an hour'

According to Channon, Merlin has 125 attractions at the moment, varying in size from the smaller Madame Tussauds style attractions all the way through to the larger theme parks. Of these, across Europe, the UK, the US and Asia, Merlin is running 32 Simplivity Omnicubes across 24 sites.

So although the business is in the process of rolling out Simplivity to replace a hodgepodge of older legacy systems, an advantage is that the backend work can be performed and then optimised on virtual machines, so when a site’s ready, it’s just a case of bringing a box into the location, plugging and playing. This can take under an hour.

“It’s the one thing that surprised us – scale – just how quickly from June last year we’ve managed to get so many boxes out into production,” Channon says.

“I think that’s testament to the fact it’s very easy to deploy, and being VMware as it is, migrating onto it has been fairly easy as well.”

From an operational point of view, it has “massively reduced” the complexity of Merlin’s environments.

“If you looked at how our sites were composed previously, some of them were running purely on physical hardware, others were running HyperV or VMware on traditional servers," he says.

"Some attractions were a mix of both. So being able to take the complexity out and no longer having to worry about storage arrays and all the other intricacies required has reduced our day-to-day admin.”

An example where the deployment has also helped in cost is the first attraction running Simplivity – Legoland California.

“We essentially took them down from around three racks of IT equipment to just under half a rack when we were finished,” Channon says.

And with a “fairly small” operations team trying to run the estates from the UK, having trimmed down the daily operations using this platform frees up IT staff to focus on providing better services.

Selecting Simplivity over Nutanix  

Why Simplivity over the big vendors, all of which are now taking HCI as a more serious prospect? Or Nutanix, the other new player in the HCI space?

According to Channon, when Merlin was looking into the competition at the start of 2015, the more established vendors just were not offering anything as appealing. VMware's EVO RAIL was kicking around, and there were some other propositions, but Channon claims these were all “fairly
piecemeal” and there were add-ons that needed to be bolted on.

“They weren’t as tightly integrated and that for us was a defining decision,” he says.

Merlin did consider Nutanix, however.

“We had a very brief look at Nutanix,” Channon explains. “With them versus Simplivity, it was still going to be separate siloed infrastructure in terms of management, whereas with Simplivity we can connect to one virtual central server and manage not only our Simplivity estate but our more traditional IT as well.”

Channon says he was not concerned about picking Simplivity over more established IT vendors.

“You’re always going to have concerns about working with a new and young product,” Channon says.

“But we definitely put them through their paces when we did the proof of concept. We went through as many scenarios as we possibly could to try and find a fault in the product – and we couldn’t find anything that would prevent us from rolling out to production.”

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