Microsoft has seemingly been awarded the contract for the Met Office’s new £1.2 billion supercomputer, with Atos filing a legal challenge against the deal.

Last year the Met Office announced it would spend £1.2 billion (US$1.56bn) on building the world's most powerful supercomputer dedicated to weather and climate. The first phase is due to begin in 2022, with a second phase (2028) proposing to expand it a further threefold.

Atos IT Services UK Ltd is claiming the secretary of state for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Meteorological Office breached procurement laws when choosing to award the contract to Microsoft in January. This is the first public mention of a company being awarded the Met Office supercomputing contract.

Atos is asking the High Court to set aside the contract decision and declare that it should have been awarded the project, as well as damages because it was wrongly excluded on the basis of undisclosed requirements and therefore breached procurement law.

Atos sues Met Office over supercomputer procurement process

The case, Atos IT Services UK Ltd. v. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy and another, was first reported by Law360.

Atos says it was in a “competitive dialog process” with the Met Office over the course of 2020 and submitted its final bid in November, which the claim says tackled more than 450 technical questions. The company claims it was told in January that its submission had been a "non-compliant final tender" and the contract had instead been awarded to Microsoft.

“The defendant is proposing to proceed instead with the tender which scored lower in quality, transferred more commercial risk to the defendant and is more expensive,” the claim says.

Atos claims it was unfairly marked on questions about its choice of processors, and received poor scores on its proposals despite the tender documents containing no specifications around hardware. Atos alleges that the Met Office decided what the requirements were after seeing the submitted bids.

The claim also says the Met Office chose “the most draconian course of rejecting tender as non-Compliant rather than exercising its lawful power to issue or seek clarifications,” Atos claims.

“The Met Office is aware of a legal challenge regarding its decision to award the contract for its next supercomputer and are now in the process of defending its decision,” a Met spokesperson told Law360. “This is a reasonably common step in any extensive and rigorous procurement of this scale, and we are confident that any issues can be worked through.”

The Mail on Sunday recently claimed the large power requirements of the new high-performance computing (HPC) system meant Met Office officials are considering northern Europe as a possible hosting option for part of the new system. According to procurement documents, at least 50 percent of the new system's capacity to be located in the United Kingdom in order to “protect essential public interests,” while the rest can be hosted abroad provided it meets regulatory compliance requirements.

While Microsoft doesn’t have a dedicated supercomputer business, it does offer cloud-based HPC-as-a-service solutions through Azure, and has a Norwegian cloud region.

A Met Office spokesperson told DCD that the Court has lifted the injunction, allowing it to proceed with its supercomputer procurement.

“We will continue to robustly defend our selection decision at any future hearings and remain confident that any issues can be worked through,” said the spokesperson.

Microsoft wouldn't confirm or deny whether it had won the tender, only advising DCD to contact the Met Office.

Update 22/04/2021: The Met Office has confirmed Microsoft and HPE-Cray will be installing a 60 petaflops supercomputer.