When Hogan Lovells associate Lauren Bruce embarked on the firm’s mandate to support the UK Meteorological Office in delivering a huge upgrade to its supercomputing capability, she had no idea she was destined to become lead associate on the deal.
Starting as it did in February 2020, the project would coincide with the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and all the uncertainty that brought with it. “My role on this project was increased significantly due to the relocation of the original senior associate to be near his family in Australia,” Bruce explains.
“The team and our client had to decide quickly whether I would be able to step up and fulfil the senior associate role in his absence, and I am very grateful that they gave me the opportunity and support to prove that I could rise to the challenge.”
This was, by all measures, a considerable challenge. The Met Office set an ambitious goal: to improve its forecasting and data analysis capabilities six-fold. To achieve this, it had to explore innovative integrator/cloud-based models for supercomputing which had never been used before. It had to be ambitious – ultimately, the Met Office needed this new structure to be able to invest in a system to keep it among the world’s elite forecasting organisations and retain the many associated socio-economic benefits.
Buying a supercomputer is no small task. Also, with Moore’s Law – the prediction, accurate since the 1960s, that semiconductors would double in efficiency, capacity and power roughly every two years – tailing off, it could not be assumed that replacing the boxes would deliver the uplift in performance necessary to meet the scientific needs. Therefore, a traditional approach to procuring the supercomputer was a high-risk option, and the Met Office had to explore innovative models to extract more power for the spend.
Bruce joined Hogan Lovells as a trainee in 2015, having completed a vacation scheme in her final year of university. She qualified into the Infrastructure, Energy, Resources and Projects team in 2017.
“Since qualifying I have worked on a variety of projects in the construction and projects sector. I have worked on matters in the technology sector including the financing of the Virtus data centres, as well as working with real estate developers such as Argent on its Brent Cross and Kings Cross developments and British Land on its Euston Tower refurbishment,” she recalls.
“The most inspiring project I have worked on was with mining company Kenmare Resources. Kenmare relocated its 1,700-tonne floating mining dredge and 7,100-tonne plant, measuring 80m long, 24m high and 60m wide to a new location in Mozambique via a 23km newly constructed road. The sight of such a huge piece of equipment being transported and then floated into its new position was awe-inspiring and reignited my interest in large-scale projects,” she adds.
The Met Office project was led by partners Jeremy Brittenden and Ciara Kennedy-Loest. Such was their success that Hogan Lovells claims Storm Ciara, which hit the UK just over a week before this deal was completed, was in fact named after Kennedy-Loest. They were supported in their endeavours by fellow London-based partner Adrian Walker, senior associate Malcolm Parry, and associates Bruce, Emily Davis, Myrto Tagara and Joe Beautridge.
“As well as working with Jeremy on the Met Office Supercomputer 2020+ project, I regularly work with Gillian Thomas on all UK construction matters and Adrian Walker on international projects and mining matters,” Bruce explains.
“Since the Supercomputer 2020+ project closed, I have continued to provide operational support to the Met Office team alongside regular UK construction projects building, amongst others, a shopping centre, an office tower and various residential developments.”
The Met Office supercomputer project
The Supercomputer project required Hogan Lovells to develop a process that would deliver the computing capabilities it wanted within its budget, conduct the entire process with a focus on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG), and create an entirely new approach to procurements for this new shape and size of government work.
With a budget of approximately £1.2bn, more than ten times the amount of its previous largest technology investment, there was huge pressure to create a successful and transparent process. Hogan Lovells had to find a way to not only make the process and the huge investment work but do it in a way that would be true to the Met Office’s mission and answerable to the public and Parliament.
“The complexity of completing this procurement remotely in a global pandemic was enough to ensure the Supercomputer 2020+ project will always stand out in my memory and in-between negotiations with tenderers we had fun with the Met Office team experimenting with novelty Teams backgrounds!” jokes Bruce.
“Aside from the logistical challenge brought on by Covid-19, the project was truly market leading in the infrastructure as a service space, it was the first supercomputer project to be planning a longer-term model and the first to outsource the integration risk to the private sector and so it was incredibly rewarding and challenging to work on a project that will be used as a precedent for future procurements.”
Bruce says the project taught her about UK and international meteorological science and how integral the Met Office is within the UK’s defence strategy and economy. “I found it particularly incredible that, without Met Office forecasting, all UK flights could be grounded,” she says. “Following the Supercomputer 2020+ project I will be looking to take on more complex long-term projects. It was incredibly satisfying to be so involved in understanding and shaping the client’s requirements early on in the project, from the early market engagement and government approvals process all the way through to the final contract close. I also hope to be involved in the Supercomputer 2020+ mid-term refresh process in five years’ time.”
Due to the sheer size and scope of this investment, Hogan Lovells had to overcome a variety of security and IP rights issues, as well as deliver on a hugely ambitious timetable, going from the Official Journal of the European Union (where tenders were invited for the work) to Preferred Bidder in less than 12 months, something not previously achieved on a complex project in the UK. The client also needed guidance in creating KPIs, a payment mechanism, a procurement strategy, and a bidding process that would ensure competition in a very rarefied supercomputer market. Finally, as if that were not enough challenges for the team, this was all done amid the final months of the Brexit transition.
The firm created a framework that would allow the Met Office to invest in a first-of-its-kind, multi-stage cloud-based supercomputer. Taking the supercomputer on to the cloud enabled the firm to bypass issues regarding Moore’s Law and allowed for far greater flexibility and maintenance going forward. This is the first time supercomputing of this nature and size has been developed on the cloud.
In addition, Hogan Lovells embedded an innovative Social Value and Innovation Board into the project governance to oversee the delivery of positive social and environment outcome throughout entire process, thus maintaining the commitment to and the ability to deliver on ESG principles.
Working closely with the Met Office, several innovations led to the successful completion of the project, including a new structure to ensure strict compliance with six UK public sector organisations, while simultaneously giving the project’s hardware and software providers the space to innovate in IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service), cloud and/or hybrid solutions to delivering supercomputing and the first UK government supercomputer contract financed to cover not just hardware and installation but also running costs over the 10-12 years, £1.2bn life of the project. Running costs are usually a variable picked up in future budgets.
“The Supercomputer 2020+ project completely moved away from the Met Office’s previous purchase-only five-year investment cycle. The deal will see the private sector provide the Met Office with a new supercomputer and ancillary items as a PPP and manage and maintain it for 10 years. Given that the life of a supercomputer is no more than five years, there is a requirement in the contract for the private partner to provide a new supercomputer halfway through the contract which is completely new for the client,” Bruce says.
The mid-term refresh will guarantee the Met Office’s investment lasts twice as long as previous supercomputers and doubles the number of years over which the cost can be spread. Finally, the deal included a flexible, market-driven approach that shares risk and costs (through milestone payments based on the computer’s evolving capabilities and including those associated with the physical space such large computers require) and shifts the Met Office onto a new futureproof platform for supercomputer procurement.
“It was clear from the outset that the biggest challenge for the Supercomputer 2020+ project was going to be the time pressure. The tight timings were dictated by the fact that there could be no continuity gap between the current supercomputer going offline and the newly procured one coming online and meant we had to be very well organised, alternating between tenderers in the negotiation phase to allow them to progress their submissions in the background and then re-join negotiations with our team to raise inquiries that arose while we were speaking with the other tenderers. We believe we now hold the record for the fastest OJEU to financial close on such a complex deal, spanning just 14 months,” Bruce explains.
It was confirmed in April 2021 that Microsoft Azure had won the tender to work with the Met Office to build and maintain the supercomputer. As part of this agreement and continuing to address the ESG element of the project, the supercomputing capability will be powered using 100 per cent renewable energy and energy efficiency, saving 7,415 tonnes of CO2 in the first year of operational service alone. This project illustrates once again how collaboration between government, academia and the private sector can solve some of the greatest challenges we face.
“The pandemic massively changed how we approached this deal, and I don’t think we could have completed the negotiations on time without moving to remote negotiations. We started the early market engagement and discussions with Met Office in person at their Exeter base, but we quickly, and mostly successfully, moved online just before the pandemic restrictions were put into place,” Bruce says. “The benefits were speed and not having to regularly commute from London to Exeter, but on the negative side we did have to work through some early technical issues with home wi-fi connections which led to some difficulties in clearly communicating complex issues.”
About Lauren Bruce
2017-present: Associate, Hogan Lovells
2015-17: Trainee solicitor, Hogan Lovells
Who’s Who: the Hogan Lovells team
- Partners: Jeremy Brittenden, Ciara Kennedy-Loest, Adrian Walker
- Senior associate: Malcolm Parry
- Associates: Emily Davis, Lauren Bruce, Myrto Tagara and Joe Beautridge