Iliad’s Supercomputer: Reshaping European AI Landscape or Costly Gamble?

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The France-based telecom operator, Iliad, has unveiled an ambitious Phase to tap into the buzz around artificial intelligence (AI). Central to this initiative is the acquisition and deployment of an AI supercomputer. The company is now the proud owner of an Nvidia DGX SuperPOD, a leading, turnkey AI data centre solution from Nvidia. This top-tier model is equipped with Nvidia’s H100 GPUs, custom-made to handle some of the most demanding AI tasks, including the training of large language models (LLMs).

This new piece of AI technology will find its home in one of Iliad’s data centres near Paris, earning the title of the most powerful AI supercomputer in Europe, according to Iliad. The primary user of this technology will be Iliad’s cloud services division, Scaleway. It will provide the backbone for a series of cloud-native AI services offered to businesses. Companies looking to develop their own LLM can use this supercomputer for training purposes. For those with less demanding needs, Scaleway will offer access to smaller portions of its AI supercomputer resources for the development of more targeted AI models.

The statement from Iliad highlights their ongoing investment in pioneering a leading European AI infrastructure, with a focus on augmenting their computational power in the near future. The surge of telecom operators jumping on the generative AI wagon this year puts pressure on operators like Iliad to differentiate themselves both from rival telcos and large-scale providers.

The approach taken by Iliad, aiming to hold the title of the ‘most powerful to-date’, certainly elicits attention. However, it may come at a significant cost if they aim to maintain that technological advantage in the coming years. It may, however, allow Iliad to distinguish itself from larger providers without entering into a full-fledged competition over the breadth of coverage.

Another competitive advantage Iliad can leverage is its proximity and local expertise. This will likely resonate with France’s home-grown megacorporations across a range of sectors. In an age where data sovereignty and regulator oversight are increasingly important, French enterprises may desire LLMs trained on infrastructure located domestically.

This significant step by Iliad into the generative AI space is another considerable win for Nvidia. The US-based chip maker, which has already experienced significant growth, is placing a hefty wager on the tailwind of AI taking the company to new heights. They recently announced the production of their new AI superchip, Grace Hopper, that will power their latest supercomputer solution, the DGX GH200.

Continuing their AI-centred strategy, Iliad also announced this week the opening of a €100 million AI excellence lab, chaired by Iliad CEO Xavier Niel. The lab aims to foster a new wave of AI researchers and contribute to the AI ecosystem with publicly available research. The lab will also have access to Iliad’s new high-powered supercomputer. Additionally, Iliad has plans to host an AI conference at Paris-based start-up campus, Station F, this November to showcase recent advancements in AI and facilitate discussions on their business impact.

While some companies seem to be merely riding the crest of AI wave for positive PR, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Iliad. They are putting considerable investment into their AI initiative. It will certainly be interesting to see, in due course, how open Iliad will be about the return on this investment.

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