Dell showcases hybrid AI approach, merging cloud and on-premises solutions

Forward-looking: Getting companies interested in deploying generative AI applications is no longer a challenge for tech suppliers. Figuring out how to best use the technology, however, is still difficult for many of these business customers. One new technique that Dell discussed at its Dell Tech World event in Las Vegas is the concept of hybrid AI, where some of the work happens in the cloud, but some is done on premises within an organization’s data centers.

Because businesses still have most of their data stored within their own IT facilities (83% according to Dell), it makes sense to bring the AI to the data as opposed to moving their data to the cloud.

To do that, Dell talked about the idea of an AI factory, where enterprises can put together the various components they need to execute AI projects. For Dell, an AI factory can be understood as a GenAI-enabled infrastructure designed to power fine-tuning of foundation models, data inferencing workloads, and the creation of custom applications leveraging those customized models.

In addition, Dell’s AI factory vision brings together services and even client devices that can all be part of an organization’s AI strategy.

In the early stages of the GenAI revolution, the ability to run foundation models within an enterprise data center wasn’t possible because tools like GPT-3 and GPT-4 were only accessible via the cloud. Recently, however, more and more companies are taking advantage of open-source foundation models, such as Meta’s Llama 3 and many options from the open-source AI marketplace Hugging Face.

These models can be run within corporate data centers, making it easier and more cost-effective for companies to fine-tune them with their own data and then build custom applications around these self-tuned models.

Of course, to do that, you need the right kind of computing hardware, storage, and networking capabilities, along with software tools and, most importantly, services packaged to help organizations make the GenAI journey successfully.

And that’s what Dell introduced at this year’s Tech World. Building on the exclusive announcements made with Nvidia at last year’s event, Dell debuted a broader range of products and services that allow companies to pick from a wider range of core component and software suppliers to build their own GenAI-capable infrastructure. At the same time, Dell also extended its Nvidia-specific offerings, integrating the new Blackwell architecture GPUs, system designs, and new software that Nvidia announced at GTC.

On the infrastructure side, Dell unveiled several new servers, including a liquid-cooled version of its XE9680 compact chassis, appropriately named the XE9680L, which can hold up to 8 Nvidia GPUs.

It also introduced the PowerScale F910, an all-flash storage array optimized to speed access to the large data sets necessary for GenAI workloads. Additionally, the company previewed Project Lightning, a parallel file system optimized for PowerScale. The PowerSwitch Z9864F-ON is a network switch with twice the throughput speeds on GenAI workloads compared to its previous offerings. Similarly, Dell announced new Broadcom-powered 400G PCIe Gen 5.0 Ethernet adapters for its PowerEdge XE9680 servers. Even more interesting was the announcement of a new Dell Enterprise Hub on Hugging Face, designed to simplify the process of selecting the right LLMs and other software tools for building custom GenAI applications.

Dell also announced further work with Meta on its Llama 3 models and with Microsoft on offering a Dell Solution for Microsoft Azure AI Services. Related to all these was a comprehensive set of new service offerings to help organizations make sense of how to best use all these new tools.

Beyond just traditional AI infrastructure, Dell also talked about bringing AI capabilities on prem via both workstations and PCs. On the PC front, Dell unveiled 5 new Copilot+ AI-accelerated PCs – the most of any PC OEM – as part of Microsoft’s big event.

The company unveiled its first ever XPS 13 without an Intel CPU, as well as two new Inspirons and two new Latitudes. This large number of systems highlights the fact that the company is making a big bet on the Arm-powered Qualcomm Snapdragon X Elite and X Plus SoCs that are powering these devices.

Like others in the PC industry, Dell believes the combination of a powerful new NPU for accelerating AI workloads, as well as huge battery life improvements will prove to be compelling to many users.

For business PC buyers, the idea is that even if they don’t initially intend to leverage the NPU and AI acceleration for much, there are other important benefits. Specifically, the slim designs, impressive compute performance and 24+-hour battery life of these Snapdragon-based machines will provide a solid alternative to end users who have been asking for the latest MacBooks or who are just frustrated with the short battery life of some existing x86-based PCs.

For those who are interested in the AI capabilities, things get even more interesting. While initial software support for NPU acceleration is expected to be limited, it will grow over time. In other words, the capabilities of these new PCs will improve with age – not something we’ve heard for a long time.

The question of app compatibility and emulation performance – two issues that sank the first two iterations of Windows on Arm – still remains. However, early reports suggest that the new Prism emulation layer built into Windows is showing promising results, even for enterprise applications.

In addition to PCs, one of the more intriguing but overlooked announcements from Dell centered around workstations. Specifically, their work to enable enterprises to fine-tune their open-source models with RAG (Retrieval Augmented Generation) on the company’s Precision AI Workstations. RAG is one of the hottest areas in GenAI, and many organizations are very interested in leveraging it for their own use.

All told, Dell put together a compelling set of announcements providing a fresh perspective on where the world of GenAI in the enterprise is headed. While there’s little doubt that most companies will be leveraging the cloud for much of their initial GenAI applications, as the hybrid cloud becomes a standard way for companies to leverage computing, hybrid AI is poised to become a mainstream option as well. Dell sees an opportunity to be a first mover in this market, and these latest developments show they are moving aggressively in that direction.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech

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