High performance computing (HPC) is revolutionising the problem-solving capabilities of engineers, data scientists and other IT specialists across a range of industries, worldwide.

By Tony Bartlett, director of data centre compute at Dell Technologies South Africa

It provides the computational muscle needed to process and analyse large datasets, while artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms offer the intelligence to extract meaningful insights from the data.

Although HPC and AI are fundamentally different from each other, how they work together is vital to the future of computing as they enable organisations to tackle complex problems, make data-driven decisions, and develop advanced AI applications.

To achieve this, however, HPC consumes considerable amounts of energy, presenting another barrier to adoption for many businesses. In the face of intensifying climate concerns and rising energy costs, the technology providers who make up the HPC industry are shifting focus to include energy efficiency along with price and performance to align with their customers’ sustainability commitments.

A report we launched in 2023 revealed that 58% of HPC data centres surveyed recognised the impact of energy costs on business operations, indicating that optimising energy consumption without compromising performance is important for businesses as well as the environment.

And it doesn’t have to be an either/or approach. The good news is that the HPC industry is rising to this challenge, optimising software to deliver better energy efficiency and ensuring that HPC is contributing to the circular economy.

Energy efficient solutions for HPC that are already changing the landscape

One of the key challenges from an energy use perspective is cooling the servers that power HPC. This is an area where the industry has targeted innovation that drives more economical usage.

Creating better efficiencies is often not a one-size-fits-all solution, which means businesses should partner with technology providers which also have built-in analytics that highlight energy usage patterns, enabling enable them to take steps to create a personalised energy-efficiency plan that suits their needs.

Finding the right cooling solution is also important. Novel cooling solutions are being explored to reduce the heat generated by these machines, with liquid cooling gaining traction for its ability to dissipate heat with greater efficiency than traditional air-cooling systems.

According to a report by Allied Market Research, the global liquid cooling market is expected to reach $6,15-billion by 2027.

Advancements in software are playing their own pivotal role in making HPC more sustainable. Intelligent workload management and optimisation algorithms are being used to distribute computing tasks effectively, reducing power consumption and extending the lifespan of hardware.

Ensuring infrastructure is consolidated and set up for optimal performance is also key to accelerating sustainability initiatives.

Integrating renewable energy sources into data centres is more than just a nice-to-have – it’s an urgent requirement for achieving a greener future. The European Environment Agency has recognised sustainability within HPC as playing a crucial role in the European Union’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 – a goal shared by South Africa.

By embracing solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, these computational powerhouses can offset their energy demands.

Turning electronic waste into an accelerant for the circular economy

While HPC systems typically have a long lifespan, upgrades and system enhancements can lead to potential electronic waste (e-waste).

It’s essential that we handle this responsibly, securely, and safely as, every year, 53,6-million tons of electronics become e-waste. This equates to 16 pounds for every person on the planet, every year, making it the fastest growing domestic waste stream with only 17,4% of it being recycled. In South Africa, only 14% of mainstream e-waste is recycled – the lowest rate of any waste stream in the country.

Managing this e-waste responsibly is crucial for cutting down on the industry’s carbon footprint.

Recycling and refurbishing initiatives are gaining traction, with companies exploring ways to repurpose and recycle otherwise obsolete hardware and extracting valuable materials.

Our recovery and recycling services support e-waste reduction by providing a valuable stream of materials that can be repurposed or recycled for use in new products, recovering more than 1,1-billion kilograms of used electronics since 2007. This commitment to responsible e-waste management aligns with global efforts to create a more circular approach to technology consumption.

Sustainable AI is a key factor in achieving sustainable HPC

Sustainable solutions for HPC must extend beyond hardware and infrastructure to include the very algorithms that power them. Machine learning (ML) and AI algorithms often require extensive computational resources, leading researchers to explore techniques such as model compression to reduce the computational requirements of AI models without compromising their accuracy.

Initiatives promoting the use of AI for general environmental sustainability are on the rise, too. From optimising energy grids to monitoring and managing natural resources, AI-powered applications are being leveraged to address pressing environmental challenges.

The convergence of global environmental concerns, increasing energy costs, regulatory imperatives and technological advancements is reshaping the HPC industry and what it prioritises.

Achieving sustainability and energy efficiency in HPC is not only transforming the industry; it’s laying the foundation for a more resilient future for computing, which will fuel innovation for decades to come.