Dell Technologies World 2023 highlighted some of the complex issues technology companies face in trying to address sustainability.
An overwhelming 98% of midsize and large organizations acknowledge that environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors influence the selection of potential IT suppliers, according to research presented by TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group at the technology conference in Las Vegas. Dell is among the 97% of organizations identified in the Enterprise Strategy Group research that said internal ESG programs affect business strategy.
"Sustainability is no longer about style points," said Chuck Whitten, co-COO at Dell, headquartered in Round Rock, Texas. He highlighted some of Dell's initiatives and progress on the topic during his keynote speech.
But attendees at the show expressed concern that the lack of standards and often conflicting metrics in carbon measurement and accounting standards can hamper their own ability to track the true carbon effects of their IT operations accurately.
Here are insights from the conference that underscore the complexity of sustainability progress.
AI sustainability challenges
Sessions on sustainable IT were well attended, but the prospect of enormous power consumption to support generative AI models and training was an undercurrent that permeated many of the discussions.
With announcements of new on-premises AI, workload-optimized power consumption -- already responsible for roughly 80% of a server's lifetime carbon footprint -- was clearly top of mind.
Dell is committed to a 30% overall reduction in carbon emissions from products sold by Dell, according to Cassandra Garber, Dell's VP of ESG.
Against that backdrop, there was some skepticism as to whether the goals of enabling organizations to create private artificial intelligence environments on premises to protect critical data are at odds with ESG goals.
For now, the emphasis seems to be on delivering raw power, with efficiency taking a temporary back seat at this early stage of AI model enablement.
Laptop for a circular economy
My hands-on experience with the prototypes proved that the Concept Luna laptops could be disassembled for recycling or repair without tools and, in only five or six steps, could scale well in a mass recycling situation.
Greater repairability may extend the life of these laptops, ultimately reducing the number of built laptops. Roughly 80% of the environmental impact of laptops comes from their manufacture. The environmental effects could be reduced by making fewer laptops that last longer and that incorporate recyclable materials.
Greener data center
Other areas where attendees could witness progress on sustainability were on display in modular data centers -- where air cooling could result in a power usage effectiveness (PUE) at or near 1.1, well below the 1.55 average for the year 2022.
From a sustainability perspective, that amounts to a 29% increase in PUE -- a 29% decrease in power not making it to the compute devices -- which is material, especially to firms that might be subject to high local power costs or forced to use legacy, polluting power sources in remote locations.
Using as little "dirty" power as possible can help an organization meet its carbon footprint goals more easily by requiring fewer carbon offsets -- a benefit that translates directly to the bottom line.