Debian preps ground to drop 32-bit x86 as separate edition

Bad news for several downstream distros, but good news for NetBSD

After a recent meetup in Cambridge, Debian developers are discussing how to start gradually dropping 32-bit x86 support.

At the end of November, some of the Debian development team met at a mini-DebConf in Cambridge (not any of the Cambridges in Canada, Australasia, the Caribbean, the USA, or any of those other copycat Cambridges).

One immediately visible result is a message entitled "Bits from the Release Team" on the debian-devel-announce mailing list, with significant news: The end of the line for Debian as a 32-bit distro is approaching. Note, though, this doesn't mean that 32-bit support is going away altogether. Not yet anyway.

The news is in a section titled "A future for the i386 architecture":

Insofar as they still do, we anticipate that the kernel, d-i and images teams will cease to support i386 in the near future.

There is a bit of internal project jargon here which we suspect bears clarifying. First, i386 is the Debian project's term for what we'll call x86-32. If x86-64 is 64-bit x86, aka x64, then x86-32 is 32-bit x86. Simple. Also, this i386 doesn't mean the actual 80386 from the 1980s: the Linux kernel dropped support for that way back in 2012. Most OS projects now talk about i686, which is generally taken to mean 32-bit Intel chips from the original Pentium Pro or Pentium II onward.

We suspect that "kernel" is fairly self-explanatory, although you may not know that the Debian project includes a number of kernels of which the Linux kernel is only one. The abbreviation "d-i" means the Debian Installer, and "images" is the project's term for installable CD and DVD media.

It continues:

Following that, there are two routes into running i386:

  1. as a multi-arch option on an otherwise amd64 system
  2. as an i386 chroot on another architecture system

To paraphrase, Debian will continue to support the x86-32 architecture for a while yet, but the developers plan to stop building 32-bit x86 kernels, as well as installation media and a version of the Debian installation program for 32-bit x86 machines (this is only about x86: Debian still supports a number of other 32-bit architectures, including Arm and MIPS).

Debian users will still be able to install a 32-bit userland, run 32-bit Debian inside various types of container, and build applications for x86-32… but you can expect that the x86 version of Debian 13 "Trixie", which is planned for 2025, will only support 64-bit hardware.

This doesn't prevent someone else building a kernel and their own installation media, of course. Quite a few of Debian's supported architectures have "unofficial" status, and i386 could join them.

One of Debian's major roles is as a basis for others to build their own distributions. Distrowatch lists 125 of these and there may be more. Not many of those still offer 32-bit editions, but a handful do, including a version of Slax as well as Peppermint OS, plus antiX, recent Reg FOSS desk favorite MX Linux, and many others. This is going to make life quite a lot more difficult for the downstream disties, and we suspect that most will respond by just dropping x86-32 versions.

There are also some non-Debian based distros that still offer 32-bit editions, including openSUSE Tumbleweed, Alpine Linux, Mageia, Gentoo, and Void Linux… and we suspect that NetBSD isn't going to drop i386 any time soon either. ®

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