Michael Dell on AI factories and the information revolution

Editor’s note: Michael Dell wrote a book, Play Nice but Win, published in 2021, that covers the early days of Dell which were marked by rapid growth and portfolio expansions, its transition from public to private and back to public, and otherwise reflects on the state and pace of technological change, as well as the role Dell Technologies plays—which is significant and substantial. I read (and re-read) the book ahead of the company’s annual Las Vegas confab, and here I’m using some choice passages, in bold, to frame our coverage of this event. As an aside, there are a lot of this type of book out there, but this one is better than those others. It’s a compelling story that’s told in an authentic voice and with an interesting narrative structure to boot. You should pick up a copy. 

“The next decade of the information revolution, catalyzed by AI and big data, will impact every industry and every aspect of our lives. While the internet drove great changes and advances, this AI and data revolution will be bigger, and these changes will come faster, than most people expect.” 

LAS VEGAS—Dell Technologies Founder and CEO Michael Dell opened up the annual Dell Technologies World with a clear message regarding enterprise adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and attendant technologies—for those wondering when to start, “Our answer is pretty simple: here and now.” On the heels of Dell’s 40th anniversary, Dell reflected on how far the company has come since he was building customized IBM PCs from his dorm room at the University of Texas, to becoming one of the biggest, most impactful tech companies on the planet. Those four decades of innovation, he said, were really just the “pre-game show…We’re moving from computation towards cognition” with AI. 

This gets into Dell Technologies’ vision for AI factories but first, he looked back at factories of the past where the process was based on turning a mill using wind or water. That gave way to using electricity to turn the wheel, then, eventually, to bringing electricity deeper into manufacturing in order to automate tasks with purpose-built machines. “That’s kind of where we are now with AI,” Dell said, but he cautioned to avoid the temptation to use AI to simply turn the figurative wheel; rather, the goal should be reinvent the organization with AI at its center. “It’s a generational opportunity for productivity and growth.” 

Dell’s AI Factory offering is expansive, covering data, infrastructure, open ecosystems, services and use cases, all meant to help enterprises deftly navigate the inherent complexity, risk and cost that comes with embracing AI. One at time: 

  • Data across the cloud, the datacenter and the edge
  • Infrastructure, including client devices, computing, networking, storage, data protection and software
  • Open ecosystems that bring in the best apps, models, solutions, frameworks and tools
  • Services for strategy, data architecture and platforms, operationalization and scale out/up
  • Use cases like content and code generation, digital assistants, data creation, computer vision, digital twins and much, much more

Full details are available here. 

“This fourth revolution also merges the worlds of business and technology. The way I describe it when talking with businesspeople is that the domain of technology is no longer in the IT department; the whole company is technology. I’m talking about all companies.” 

“If you don’t have any data,” Dell said during a press and analyst Q&A following his keynote, “you don’t have any AI. Data is something we know a lot about because data is essentially storage. Then you have compute.” And networking. And ecosystems. And devices. “Put all that together and it’s an AI factory. While everybody’s data is unique, the problems they’re trying to solve…tend to be pretty common. We’re seeing a lot of repeatable things. How do you create the easy button so a customer can make this happen quickly inside their organization?” is the question and the goal. 

NVIDIA Founder and CEO Jensen Huang joined Dell onstage for part of the keynote programming. The big takeaway from their exchange was that there’s something like a $1 trillion base of datacenters that need to be modernized, and orders of magnitude more than that—the number $100 trillion was thrown out—in datacenters that need to be built to process AI workloads. 

As for the public cloud vs. on-prem non-debate debate, Dell said AI inferencing on premises, where 83% of the data already is, is 75% more cost-effective than relying on someone else’s public cloud. This is just another catalyst for the running trend of enterprise cloud repatriation. “You want to bring AI to your data, not the other way around…So let’s go where the data is.” 

Final thoughts from Dell: “The real question isn’t how big AI is going to be, but how much good is AI going to do? How much good can AI do for you? Well, that’s up to you. Reinventi[ng] and reimagining your organization is hard. It feels risky, even frightening. But the bigger risk and what’s even more frightening is what happens if you don’t do it.”

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