Microsoft to Provide World’s Most Powerful Weather & Climate Supercomputer for UK’s Met Office

By Oliver Peckham

April 22, 2021

More than 14 months ago, the UK government announced plans to invest £1.2 billion ($1.56 billion) into weather and climate supercomputing, including procurement of the world’s most powerful system dedicated to weather and climate research. With today’s news, those plans are solidifying: the Met Office (the UK’s national weather service) has announced plans to build that new system with Microsoft using AMD and HPE hardware.

While exact specifications are unavailable for the billion-dollar machine, Erin Chapple – corporate vice president of Azure Compute – explained that the system will consist of four resilient “quadrants,” each consisting of an Azure-integrated HPE Cray EX supercomputer with third-generation AMD Epyc “Milan” CPUs and totaling over 1.5 million cores for the complete system. Beyond the processing power, Microsoft will provide an active data archive system capable of supporting nearly four exabytes of data, and Azure cloud capabilities will help to enable supercomputing-as-a-service capabilities.

The system complex is scheduled for operation beginning in July 2022, with further plans to upgrade the infrastructure – including an upgrade to fourth-generation AMD CPUs – over the course of the following ten years, resulting in an anticipated additional threefold increase in computing power closer to 2030. The Met Office and Microsoft estimate that the first iteration of the system – as-yet unnamed – will deliver over 60 peak petaflops across the four quadrants. At ~15 petaflops (peak) per system, each HPE Cray EX quadrant machine would be powerful enough to rank in the current top 25 supercomputers, according to Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK.

“This choice by one of the world’s premier weather centers to add Microsoft cloud services to its resources confirms that HPC cloud computing has come of age, even for many of the most challenging use cases,” commented Steve Conway, senior advisor for HPC market dynamics at Hyperion Research. “It also confirms the continuing importance of on-premises supercomputers from established vendors – in this case, HPE Cray. It will be interesting to see if other leading weather sites follow suit.”

For Microsoft, the system plays into an increasingly important green growth strategy shared with competitors like Apple and Google. Barclay explained that Microsoft – which is already carbon neutral through its purchasing of carbon offsets – has committed to becoming carbon-negative, water-positive and zero-waste by 2030. 

To that end, the system – based in the southern United Kingdom – will itself use 100 percent renewable energy, which Microsoft estimates will save 7,415 metric tonnes of CO2 in the first year of operation (for reference, the annual energy use of an average UK home might be expected to cause the emission of just a few tonnes of CO2).

The Met Office’s current XC40 systems. Image courtesy of Microsoft/Met Office.

For the Met Office and the UK, of course, the strategy behind the system is much more far-reaching. The Met Office’s current supercomputing capabilities include three Cray XC40 systems that will reach end-of-life in 2022. When the procurement process was announced last February, Penny Endersby – chief executive of the Met Office – said that the new system, by way of contrast, was planned to “provide earlier more accurate warning of severe weather, the information needed to build a more resilient world in a changing climate and help support the transition to a low carbon economy across the UK.” 

Today, the partners released more details on some of the new and enhanced capabilities that will be enabled by the new system: more detailed and varied models incorporating more environmental and social data, enabling better planning for applications like risk management and public transit; improved and more rapid local-scale weather forecasting; increased access to massive stores of climate and weather data through the exabyte-scale storage system; and more accurate weather forecasts for the aviation system.

“We are delighted to be working in collaboration with Microsoft to deliver our next supercomputing capability,” Endersby said of today’s announcement. “Working together, we will provide the highest quality weather and climate datasets and ever more accurate forecasts that enable decisions to allow people to stay safe and thrive. This will be a unique capability that will keep not just the Met Office but the UK at the forefront of environmental modelling and high-performance computing.”

Endersby also took the opportunity to link the development of the system to the UK’s participation in COP26, the November climate conference that will be the latest in the series that produced the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement – and which, this year, will be hosted by the UK. The system is a major publicity coup for the nation, with the £1.2 billion investment constituting the largest-ever single investment for the 150-year-old Met Office. The UK also hopes to use the insights from the supercomputer to help it reach its net-zero carbon emissions commitment, currently slated for 2050.

“This partnership between the Met Office and Microsoft to build the world’s most powerful weather and climate forecasting supercomputer is a ringing endorsement for the UK’s credentials in protecting our environment, as we prepare to host COP26 later this year,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK government’s business secretary. 

Not everyone is happy about the partnership, though: this February, Atos spoiled the reveal by filing a legal challenge against various departments of the UK government, including the Met Office, for selecting Microsoft as the vendor for the system when, Atos claimed, Microsoft’s offering “scored lower in quality, transferred more commercial risk to the defendant and is more expensive.” The Met Office, for its part, stood by the procurement decision and has been allowed to proceed with the development of the system.

Today’s announcement marks another major milestone for weather and climate supercomputing, which is once again taking the spotlight in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly seizing the attention of the scientific community for the bulk of 2020. Just a month ago, the U.S.’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced another major upgrade to its Global Forecast System (GFS) that marks the first major upgrade to the system since it received its first new dynamical core in nearly 40 years in 2019. NOAA also plans to upgrade its operational supercomputing capacity for weather and climate, tripling it through the implementation of dual HPE Cray Shasta systems, each with a peak capability of 12 petaflops.

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