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CIO interview: Charles Ewen, Met Office

The Met Office’s CIO is working on a new, digital approach, using supercomputers, establishing pioneering partnerships and creating change

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: The Met Office storms ahead on data analytics

When it comes to the challenges and opportunities associated to the management of big data, Charles Ewen has more expertise than most.

As CIO of the Met Office, Ewen is accountable for all aspects of technology within the Met Office and manages a dedicated engineering team of 350 people.   

The Met Office team runs an extensive scientific research programme that relies on a high-performance computing (HPC) estate. The organisation’s technology platform uses operational predictions and simulations to produce more than four million discrete forecast products every day. These forecasts are distributed to a range of expert users and systems. 

Ewen joined the Met Office more than ten years ago, eventually moving into the CIO position in 2013. “I love it,” he says. “My job is all about building value-generating infrastructure. That might seem like old-school IT, but we’re doing some cutting-edge things.” 

Grabbing the opportunity to lead change 

Ewen says the biggest challenge he has faced while being CIO is presenting a digital alternative to a world-class organisation that has long and established processes and principles. “It’s a really hard thing to present the counterfactual approach and to articulate new ways of doing things in a way that can be used to drive change,” he says. 

Yet Ewen has risen to the challenge – and the creation of that new, digital approach is well under way. As part of a wider business transformation, the Met Office commissioned three new supercomputers, which have helped sponsor a step change in forecasting and the amount of information processed.   

The project means the organisation now runs three of the world’s 50 largest supercomputers. The technology was implemented three months ahead of schedule in 2017. The Cray XC40 supercomputers are capable of processing more than 14,000 trillion arithmetic operations per second.  

“My job is all about building value-generating infrastructure. That might seem like old-school IT, but we’re doing some cutting-edge things”

Charles Ewen, Met Office 

While the project has been funded with a capital grant investment from the public purse, it is expected to enable an additional £2bn to the estimated £30bn of socio-economic benefits that the Met Office delivers across the UK. “We’re now producing 2TB [terabytes] of operational weather data every hour, which is the equivalent of streaming about 640 high-definition video streams,” says Ewen. 

“Managing scale is a constant challenge. And while we’re dealing with scale in practical terms, we’ve also got to manage scale in terms of trying to do big things to release value. That often means diverting people away from day-to-day cabling concerns and towards areas that are going to deliver the biggest bang for buck in the short term.” 

Providing world-class IT 

Ewen says his key priority right now is to deliver what he refers to as a hybrid model. The Met Office IT is characterised by three key features: the science estate, including supercomputers; the enterprise technology estate, which includes highly resilient and high-scale technologies; and the last mile of digital, which includes front-end apps and application programming interfaces (APIs)

The first feature, which centres on supercomputers, is what Ewen refers to as the “home element” of his hybrid model. Supercomputer facilities must remain as an internal asset. “I do not believe it’s feasible in the long term to build a hybrid cloud that can scale and that will keep up with what’s going to happen in the outside world,” he says. 

He says supercomputers, unlike enterprise and technology characteristics, cannot be delivered more efficiently or effectively by outside specialists. “There isn’t a viable cloud-based supercomputing alternative out there at the moment; that will change in time, but right now it’s a key part of the IT estate that is most effectively and efficiently delivered internally,” he says. 

Uncoupling information from assets 

Ewen says he is working hard to untangle and uncouple information relating to the Met Office’s supercomputers and enterprise technology systems. This initiative is helping the organisation create useful data for scientists and external partners. 

“It’s a world-first initiative, where we’re taking all the information that comes out of the supercomputer and stripping out anything that isn’t needed for exploitation,” he says. “The supercomputers produce 2TB of data, but most of that information is useless unless you also have domain-aware professionals who are skilled at making use of that knowledge. The aim is to derive something useful from those simulations.” 

“Our supercomputers produce 2TB of data, but most of that information is useless unless you also have domain-aware professionals who are skilled at making use of that knowledge. The aim is to derive something useful from those simulations” 
Charles Ewen, Met Office

Ewen says there are many examples where the Met Office is trying to help external organisations make smarter decisions through the information it holds. He says contextually aware information might, for example, include data on whether it’s safe to fly and land at major international airports. 

The key to success, says Ewen, is that the Met Office’s enterprise systems will continue to turn the data from supercomputers into useful business insight. “When our scientists run simulations, they need a lot of data to either verify the accuracy or test an experiment use case,” he says. 

“At the same time, someone trying to work out whether a plane can land at Barcelona isn’t going to find that data useful. So, we’re putting everything into a single standard – and that standard allows me to have an operational data flow that I can move to other places as the business demand arises.”

Moving data around the globe

Ewen is developing pioneering partnerships to help ensure information is passed securely to key projects. The Met Office was one of the first organisations in the UK to use Amazon Direct Connect. Ewen says the service provides a high-security, high-capacity and low-latency link between his datacentres and Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud.

Ewen says embracing the cloud through the AWS network is a way for a range of individuals, both in other public sector organisations and in commercial enterprises, to make use of the Met Office’s rich data sources. He says the Met Office releases more open data into government by volume than any other public agency, and that staying on-premise would make it difficult to push the value of this data to partner organisations. 

“By putting information into the cloud, our workers and other organisations can use our insight,” he says. “We’re working very closely with firms like AWS, which are helping us make the most of the value we hold. I’m sure other cloud providers will also help in due course, once we’ve got a bridgehead in place and its established.” 

Solving big problems 

Ewen’s long-term programme of decoupling systems, extrapolating useful information and pushing data to various partners represents a new, digital way of working.

“We’re not moving to the cloud, we’re becoming the cloud. Our hybrid model delivers performance for all our highly skilled professionals, so scientists and developers can access the data they need”
Charles Ewen, Met Office

“We’re not moving to the cloud, we’re becoming the cloud,” he says. “Our hybrid model delivers performance for all our highly skilled professionals, so that scientists can access the data they need and then developers can exploit the data they need to create front-end services.” 

Yet there are challenges, particularly regarding complexity. By using the cloud, the Met Office must move large, binary objects up and down network pipes. Ewen’s team is currently testing the performance characteristics of Direct Connect. “We’re working in a way that’s new to AWS, too,” he says. 

“It is genuinely a privilege to work in such a pioneering area. It’s a challenge, but we’re trying to solve big problems – and that's what we all want to do as engineers; we want to try and be Brunel. It’s just great to work for a genuinely world-leading organisation where we’re trying to solve these concerns.” 

Creating change that sticks 

The focus on problem-solving leads Ewen to question the short-term nature of many IT leadership roles. Average CIO tenures are less than four years, and two-year stints are not uncommon. Ewen questions whether true digital transformation can be achieved in such a short time frame. 

“You don’t solve big problems in two years,” he says. “I like to think I’ve made a difference over the nine years that I’ve been in the Met Office. Big problems take decades to solve – that’s just the way it is. I’m not belying the need to be agile in terms of the digital proposition and value of IT leadership, but big problems don’t get solved overnight.” 

Ewen fears that the focus on change in a digital era could mean hard-to-do elements of traditional IT, such as infrastructure, get left behind. That lack of attention could lead to the rise of legacy concerns. “Before you know it, you’re trying to patch together something that’s fundamentally broken,” he says. 

As a pioneering CIO, Ewen always looks for ways to use technology in innovative ways, such as through machine learning. The Met Office is developing a chatbot that not only tells people what the weather is like today or tomorrow, but which also provides contextual information relating to previous years. The answers to these queries are drawn from a sophisticated analysis of historical datasets in the cloud. 

“This kind of development means we have to do a lot of work around natural language processing,” he says. “In a difficult domain, like weather forecasting, people want simple answers to challenging questions. The developments we’re undertaking can help overcome some of the challenges that members of the public face.” 

Looking for long-term benefits 

Ewen’s work on digital transformation leads him to offer best-practice advice to his other IT leadership peers. “Set big goals but look at things as a system. Step back, understand what your value systems are and concentrate on the areas that matter,” he says. 

He advises other IT chiefs to analyse the work they do – in terms of technology and data – as a value-generation platform for the rest of the business. CIOs are under more pressure to make the most of the IT the business purchases than ever before. Ewen, who sits on the Met Office executive board, says IT leaders must show how an investment in technology pays long-term business dividends. 

“CIOs who are working for a CEO or CFO [chief financial officer], where technology is a cost line, need to think very carefully about their role,” he says. “Managing costs in my organisation is tricky, but actually technology is seen as a crucial element in the value-generating part of the business.” 

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