Environment Canada tests new supercomputer to forecast weather

Environment Canada's meteorological service has a powerful new supercomputer to help it more accurately forecast the weather — the government just doesn't want you to know about it yet.

$430M project replaces Canadian Meteorological Centre's 10-year-old IBM supercomputer

An image from an Environment Canada presentation shows the high-resolution results of a test of a Canada's new supercomputer for weather forecasting. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

Environment Canada's meteorological service has a powerful new supercomputer to help it more accurately forecast the weather — the government just doesn't want you to know about it yet.

CBC News has learned IBM Canada won the $430,421,404 contract, which has not yet been announced to the public. It was awarded on May 27, 2016, and scientists at Environment Canada have already started testing the supercomputer.

When the office of Public Procurement Minister Judy Foote was asked about the purchase, the response was apprehensive. A spokesperson requested CBC not to report on the contract, awarded six months ago, until the department was ready to hold a news conference.

CBC was asked how the information was gleaned. We responded that it was detailed in an 18-page presentation posted online.

"Would you agree to share the [presentation] deck that you mentioned yesterday? Wasn't able to find that info online," the spokesperson wrote back.

According to the documents, the federal government's information technology agency, Shared Services Canada, is leasing the supercomputer, as well as the global storage cloud, high-speed storage networks, processors and software, over 8½ years with an option to renew the contract for another 2½ years. The contract also includes two upgrades as well as maintenance and support.

The new supercomputer will replace the Canadian Meteorological Centre's 10-year-old IBM supercomputer, which is currently the largest in Canada and covers an area roughly the size of two tennis courts.

More accurate forecasts

The supercomputer gathers information from satellites, radar and other instruments about temperature and air pressure as well as wind speed and direction. It processes the information using special software and formulas to produce a forecast.

More accurate forecasts would help people prepare for emergencies and boost the Canadian economy by providing everyone from farmers and fishermen to truck drivers and emergency workers with more reliable information.

Details about the new supercomputer were presented to delegates on Oct. 25 at a workshop on high-performance computing in meteorology at Reading, U.K.

CBC News found two presentations online that were delivered by employees of Shared Services and Environment Canada. 

The first one, delivered by Shared Services employee Alain St-Denis, walked delegates through the supercomputer procurement process, which began in 2012. He explained that IBM won the contract based on its benchmark performance on a fixed budget.

"We're replacing everything. We've never done that before," he told the room.

In a frame from a video posted online, Alain St-Denis, of Shared Services Canada, explains how the federal government procured the new supercomputer to delegates at an October meteorology conference in Reading, England. (European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts)

"Before, we had a contract for a supercomputer, and then different contracts for the archive systems and then the storage, and our old pre/post processing clusters were homegrown solutions that we built over time. And so this time we had to go with a single vendor and a big solution which would simplify support and maintenance," said St-Denis in his presentation.

Powerful computing

The contract also includes 40 petabytes of disk storage and 230 petabytes of tape storage. A petabyte is one million gigabytes.

"If a byte is a grain of rice, a kilobyte is a cup of rice, a megabyte is eight bags of rice, a gigabyte is three semi-trucks, a terabyte is two container ships and a petabyte could blanket Manhattan," explained Gabrielle Giasson with the National Research Council.

According to St-Denis, the new supercomputer is or will be located at a site within 70 kilometres of the Canadian Meteorological Centre in Dorval, Que. 

Vivian Lee, an employee in Environment Canada's meteorological research unit, told the delegates how she had the opportunity to run a few tests on the new supercomputer at the end of August. She played a few videos illustrating how precisely the new supercomputer followed a fast-moving Alberta clipper snowstorm.

When someone in the room asked when the entire system would be up and running, St-Denis replied April 2017.

Early last week CBC News submitted requests to Shared Services for information about the new supercomputer. Despite assurances the department would provide answers, no one ever did. 

Once CBC found the online presentations, which confirmed that IBM had won the supercomputer contract, we asked about the value of the contract. We never received a response. In the end though, a department spokesperson was shocked to hear we also found the answer, $430.4 million, online — on Canada's Open Government website.


Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.