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Atos, UK government reach settlement on $1 billion Met Office supercomputer dispute

It is sure a lot of money to be able to say confidently: 'It's going to rain'

Exclusive A court case which would have seen Atos take on the UK government over a £854 million (c $1 billion) supercomputer contract for the Meteorological Office has ended before it began.

The case, Atos Services UK Ltd v Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy and The Meteorological Office, concerns an agreement last year between the Met Office and Microsoft to provision a new supercomputer to "take weather and climate forecasting to the next level."

The system is intended to be the world's most advanced weather and climate system, and was expected to be twice as powerful as any other supercomputer in the UK when it becomes operational in the summer.

This stemmed from a government announcement in February 2020 which committed a total £1.2 billion ($1.45 billion) for the supercomputer project, which kicked off a tender process for vendors to bid for the work.

Only two companies submitted a final tender to build the supercomputer – Atos and Microsoft. However, it emerged in February 2021 that the deal was awarded to Microsoft. Atos subsequently filed a legal challenge against the outcome, claiming the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Met Office had breached procurement law.

Atos had alleged there were breaches of the government's obligations under the Public Contract Regulations 2015, which led to its unfair dismissal for being "non-compliant" with the technical requirements specified in the tender. From court documents [PDF], it appears that the claims hinged on the requirements for the supply of two test supercomputers and a development supercomputer in addition to the main supercomputer system, where the test and development systems were to be "architecturally equivalent" to the main supercomputer.

BEIS and the Met Office had found the tender from Atos to be non-compliant with the stated requirements, with its tender being scored at 0/5 in each of three categories on the basis that the proposed development supercomputer system was "not architecturally equivalent to the main supercomputer system". It was claimed to have used different processors.

Atos then alleged there had been manifest errors in the evaluation of its tender and in the finding that the proposed development supercomputer was not architecturally equivalent to the main supercomputer. Furthermore, it alleged the decision had been made on the basis of "undisclosed requirements" or that BEIS and the Met Office had "interpreted the requirement of architectural equivalence in a way which would not be transparent" to Atos.

It was also alleged that BEIS and the Met Office had acted in a disproportionate manner in simply ruling that the tender was non-compliant without seeking further clarification on the architectural equivalence aspect from Atos.

According to a report in the Financial Times, Atos claimed "the Met Office has chosen a final tender which scored lower in quality, transferred more commercial risk to the Met Office and is more expensive," and that it had been "unlawfully deprived of the contract award, despite having the most economically advantageous tender."

For its part, the government denied liability, stating that the requirement of architectural equivalence was interpreted correctly, and the Atos tender was scored correctly because the proposed development supercomputer lacked the required architectural equivalence.

The case was due to come to court on May 9 for what was expected to be a nine-day trial, whereby the court would have had to determine the correct interpretation of the concept of architectural equivalence in the context of the invitation to participate (ITP) and the tender process as a whole.

However, the case was settled out of court, the parties confirmed to The Register. The terms of the settlement are not being disclosed.

A spokesperson for BEIS sent us a statement: "The proceedings regarding supercomputer procurement have been resolved with no admission of liability from any party.

"The agreement allows the Met Office to concentrate efforts on delivering the infrastructure necessary to keep the UK at the forefront of global weather and climate science leadership."

Atos told us: "We are pleased to have resolved this matter."

The Met Office's legacy supercomputing resources comprise three Cray XC40 systems, with two dedicated largely to forecasting while the third is used as a research system.

According to a report in HPCwire, the replacement supercomputing system from Microsoft will comprise four Azure-integrated HPE Cray EX supercomputers based on AMD "Milan" Epyc processors, with an active archive system capable of storing nearly four exabytes of data. ®

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