At Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas, sustainability and an increasing need for processing power were both hot topics. I spoke with Alyson Freeman, sustainability product manager at Dell’s Infrastructure Solutions Group, to discover what Dell is doing in the field of sustainable data center management.
In addition, Freeman pointed me to Dell’s overall sustainability goals. By 2030, Dell aims to use 100% renewable packaging. By 2040, Dell plans that all of the electricity it uses will come from renewable sources. By 2050, Dell plans to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Scopes 1, 2 and 3.
The following is a transcript of my interview with Freeman. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Carbon footprint tracking in the data center
Megan Crouse: What is your overall philosophy when it comes to identifying sustainability action opportunities for Dell?
Alyson Freeman: Clearly, it is based on the carbon footprints of our products. This becomes a very easy way to prioritize among the initiatives because then you know which ones are going to have the most impact.
[In terms of] laptops and desktops, their biggest impact on the environment is in the manufacturing phase. That’s why you see a lot of innovation around recycled plastic, bio-rubber and reclaimed carbon fiber.
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On the data center side, we can take all those learnings from our Client Solutions Group (notebooks and peripherals) and apply them. But our biggest environmental impact is in the use phase — the energy it takes to run our equipment. The innovations you’ll see from us are around hardware and software for energy efficiency.
On the hardware side, we’re looking at more efficient air cooling, chassis configuration [and] liquid cooling options. Software [can] help manage that energy using Power Manager or CloudIQ to find under-utilized equipment in the data center. That is one of the biggest wastes of energy in a data center, and those are the types of things we work on.
Megan Crouse: A big issue in data centers is servers and cooling; this might be handled by chassis flow optimization and energy-efficient fans. What other developments from Dell reduce energy use in this area?
Alyson Freeman: For that, I would still answer software. It’s not all hardware for energy efficiency. You can’t improve what you can’t measure, so telemetry is very important. You need to understand where your power is going and how it’s being used. OpenManage Enterprise Power Manager is on our servers, and it allows you to find those under-utilized or “zombie” servers and place power caps. It’s a one-to-many management system, so you can measure an entire data center at a time, and it will also measure your carbon footprint. Similarly, CloudIQ is on the storage side. It’s our power management software that will also measure the carbon footprint.
Megan Crouse: What reduction comparison period is meaningful? Meaning, if you can show the data center uses less power today than yesterday but much more than three years ago, what is your corporate responsibility in regards to keeping track of that?
Alyson Freeman: I’m sure there’s a corporate responsibility, but our customers want it. They want to know when it makes the most sense to do a tech refresh and invest in a newer, more efficient technology and how much that’s going to change their energy bills over time. We have an assessment to help customers quickly understand — it’s not a super detailed calculation — that trade-off between the tech refresh and how much energy savings and carbon savings you’ll have over time. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. It really depends on the customer and which products and configurations they have.
More data, less energy
Megan Crouse: At the conference on Monday during the analyst Q&A, Michael Dell talked about how organizations want to crunch a massive amount of data while using less energy. How is Dell working on that?
Alyson Freeman: We know that the world is going to need more and more data, especially with all of the generative AI, and our responsibility is to do that as efficiently as possible. AI can help us solve some of these energy issues. There isn’t an off-the-shelf solution today since generative AI is so new …
What can new data insights tell you about how to be more efficient and how to ensure you’re using renewable energy at the right time and putting workloads in the right place? You’re always going to need the latest products. You need the best processors to run AI. But that doesn’t mean your old server isn’t useful anymore.
Megan Crouse: Is that connected to the concept of “zombie servers?”
Alyson Freeman: Exactly. You want to make sure that if it’s plugged into the wall, you’re getting compute benefit from it.
Megan Crouse: Dell has pitched the idea of as-a-service as a replacement for the “buy and replace” model. How does this reduce energy consumption?
Alyson Freeman: There are a lot of ways the as-a-service model can be more sustainable. One is that we can take care of the end-of-life for you. We can take back the old equipment. There isn’t a burden on every individual buyer to figure out what to do with their old equipment. Another is that we can help control where your products are being used. For example, if they’re in a co-located data center powered by renewable energy, we can make sure that is more sustainable.
What else businesses should consider around energy use
Megan Crouse: What other decisions should organizations consider around replenishment and modernization?
Alyson Freeman: You look at the return on investment. How much is this more efficient product going to cost me? How much am I going to save on energy bills over time? How much am I not going to spend on carbon offsets because I’m using this?
Data centers are a rare area where you don’t have a trade-off between your business cost and your sustainability decisions. Sometimes, the more sustainable option might cost a little bit more. In the data center, we’re lucky because the more sustainable option does cost less in your energy bills every month.
Dell’s recycling measures
Megan Crouse: What is the state of renewables in Dell’s infrastructure manufacturing supply chain such as in the PowerEdge servers with their minimal use of paint?
Alyson Freeman: You have to design with the end in mind. If you want to recycle a server, ultimately, you can’t do it if there’s glue on it or if the plastic is mixed with the aluminum. We’re learning from our take-back programs about what’s most important to be able to recycle the largest amount of material, and we have to design it in from the very beginning or else it won’t happen at the end of its life. That’s why it’s critical.
The impact of artificial intelligence on sustainability
Megan Crouse: Some studies have found that large natural-language processing artificial intelligence takes massive amounts of energy. What do you see customers talking about in terms of the sustainability of AI, and how does that impact the way Dell makes and works with AI?
Alyson Freeman: I don’t get a lot of large-language model questions, but I think the world is going to need more data, and we have to do it as sustainably and as efficiently as we possibly can.
Dell’s sustainability wins
Megan Crouse: What are you especially proud of in terms of Dell sustainability right now?
Alyson Freeman: Real-time telemetry measurement of carbon footprints. That is something that none of the large competitors do, and it takes a lot of work behind the scenes to get that into our products. I think it’s one of the things that will make a huge difference because we’re empowering all of our customers to have knowledge about their carbon footprint that they didn’t have before, and that will drive a lot of change. It’s a multiplicative effect.
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Disclaimer: Dell paid for my airfare, accommodations and some meals for the Dell Technologies World event held May 22-25 in Las Vegas.