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Fedora inches closer to dropping x86-32 support

Fall is coming: Devs encouraged to prune 'leaf packages'

Following discussion on the mailing list, the Fedora team is taking another small step away from x86-32 support, with developers urged to stop building i686 versions of "leaf packages" – in other words, packages that nothing else depends upon.

This means building applications for 32-bit chips, not the Linux distribution itself. That's long gone. Various distros started to discuss dropping 32-bit support in 2016. Ubuntu stopped offering an i386 desktop installation image after version 17.04 and a server image after 17.10. (For the especially pedantic: there was a netboot image for 18.04 if you wanted to roll your own, and Lubuntu offered a 32-bit desktop of 18.10.)

Fedora hung on for a little longer: it only dropped support for 32-bit x86 PCs after Fedora 30, released in April 2019.

What is slowly staggering towards the one-way exit door is support for 32-bit apps. Canonical discussed dropping 32-bit app support in mid-2019, but due to an outcry, it was forced to backtrack. For now, all the mainstream distros still support installing 32-bit libraries, which then allow 32-bit apps to be installed and run.

What is being discouraged is building on the i686 architecture. If the OS and all of its various subcomponents are 64-bit, then 32-bit support is only needed for running external, third-party apps – ones not provided with the OS. With this move, the Fedora Project is encouraging its contributors not to put in the extra work of checking that software works on x86-32 machines – describing such efforts as potentially being a "significant investment of time or resources, for no benefit."

If they no longer build for i686, then the theory is that they will no longer need to fix problems that only affect 32-bit machines.

Some companies shipping closed-source Linux apps made this call years ago – for example, Google dropped the 32-bit version of Chrome in 2015.

However, 32-bit support is still necessary for other closed-source apps, notably WINE and Steam. As we noted in January, WINE 7 now has native 32-bit support – meaning that 64-bit WINE is able to install and run 32-bit Windows programs without needing 32-bit support in the underlying OS. Many games on Valve's Steam platform are still 32-bit, though.

This will in time have knock-on effects on Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which derives from Fedora. It may affect other distros, too, if they use packages which are principally built or maintained by Red Hat contributors. Debian, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Mageia, and Alpine, plus many smaller distros, still offer x86-32 editions.

For clarity, note that there are different flavours of x86-32. The i686 label means a P6-level chip: in Intel terms, from the 1995 Pentium Pro up to the original 32-bit Intel Core series in 2006. This is not the same as 80386, the original 1980s 32-bit x86 processor, which was dropped from the Linux kernel way back in 2012. ®

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