Fedora 31 to drop 32-bit kernel, retain support for 32-bit programs

Proposed changes to a future version of the popular Linux distribution will decrease maintenance overhead while retaining support for 32-bit programs.

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Future versions of the popular Red Hat-backed Fedora Linux distribution are likely to drop the 32-bit (i686) kernel—and therefore, 32-bit installation images—in favor of focusing on support for the 64-bit (x86-84) kernel.

The change, proposed by kernel maintainer Justin Forbes, will be in effect for the Fedora 31 release slated for October, if approved by a committee. Plans to drop 32-bit, x86 kernel support were previously discussed in 2017 for the Fedora 27 release, though was deferred, as a special interest group was founded to handle x86-related issues. With that group now dormant, the time appears right for Fedora to end support for x86-only hardware.

"The i686 kernel is of limited use as most x86 hardware supports 64-bit these days," the proposal states, adding, "When issues are found, it is often a long time before they are fixed because they are considered low priority by most developers upstream. This can leave other architectures waiting for important updates, and provides a less than desirable experience for people choosing to run a 32-bit kernel. With this proposal, the i686 kernel will no longer be built. A kernel headers package will still exist, and all 32-bit packages should continue to build as normal. The main difference is there would no longer be bootable 32-bit images."

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This course of action will preserve compatibility with 32-bit drivers and applications, which are necessary for using older printers without 64-bit drivers, WINE compatibility, and some closed-source software—most notably, games delivered through the Steam platform.

This was a point of controversy when Canonical announced their intent to stop production of all 32-bit packages, which they later walked back, pledging to "...build selected 32-bit i386 packages for Ubuntu 19.10 and 20.04 LTS. We will put in place a community process to determine which 32-bit packages are needed to support legacy software, and can add to that list post-release if we miss something that is needed."

As mentioned in coverage of this transition for Ubuntu, the first x86-64 processors will be 16 years old when Ubuntu 19.10 and Fedora 31 are released. This is a reckoning that other Linux distributions—as well as Windows and Mac OS—will eventually face, as the amount of engineering time needed to protract legacy platform support is approaching the negative end of a cost-benefit analysis.

For more, check out "Lenovo shipping Ubuntu Linux on 2019 ThinkPad P-series models" and "Fedora 30 brings immense quality of life improvements to Linux on the desktop" on TechRepublic.

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By James Sanders

James Sanders is a staff technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI/ML, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on ...