The End Of 32-Bit?
Linux Format|June 2020
Working from his fortress of solitude,  Jonni Bidwell investigates the options for 32-bit users now  that future versions of Ubuntu won’t be  supporting them.

Ubuntu 20.04, the longawaited Long Term Support (LTS) edition of one of the world’s most popular distros, is coming, and you can’t install it on a 32-bit PC. Neither can you upgrade 32-bit Ubuntu 18.04 to this edition. And all those distros that get rebased off the new LTS? You can’t run those either.

So does this mean the end  of 32-bit Linux? Not at all. Are  we then guilty of misleading  headlines? Maybe a little bit.  For one thing, there are lots of  32-bit platforms that aren’t  going away – Ubuntu is only  dropping support for the 32-bit  x86 architecture – 32-bit ARM  devices (including Raspberry Pis) for  example are still supported.

Debian (and plenty of other  distributions) will continue to support 32-bit x86 machines until at least 2024.  The previous Ubuntu release (and its  derivatives, such as Mint 19) will be  supported until 2023, so there’s no need  to panic just yet. Most importantly,  nothing is going to happen to 32-bit  support in the kernel any time soon. 

That being said, such hardware isn’t  really suited to running modern  applications. A single CPU core and a hard  4GB memory limit do not make for a  pleasant Firefox experience, no matter  how lightweight you make the underlying  desktop. But there are other ways to  browse the web, and there are other use  cases beyond the desktop where modest  hardware can still be useful.

So if you are running 32-bit machinery,  or contemplating resurrecting  your old dusty tower, we’ll give  you some helpful ideas. We’ll  go in depth with the Linux Mint  Debian Edition, which is the  natural place for Mint users  (and anyone else seeking a  user-friendly, reliable distro) to  seek refuge. And we’ll talk  about some even more  lightweight offerings that are  out there. We’ll also look at  how Linux does support old hardware for  as long as it’s reasonable to do so, and  we’ll take a look at where 32-bit code is  still required.

Reasons and recourse

Why would Ubuntu stop supporting 32-bit? Which gentle distros will take in the exiled users? Let’s find out…

In 1991 Linus Torvalds took to the newsgroups to announce a free hobbyist operating system, which would later come to be known as Linux.

The humble machine that he used to make this toy OS was a 33MHz 386 with four megabytes of memory. Indeed, that famous Usenet posting says that Linux was for 386 and 486 AT clones, and that it was categorically not portable to other architectures because of the 386-specific processor features it exploited.

However, by 1995 Linux was running on DEC and Sparc platforms, and others soon followed. In 1997 Linus was awarded his master’s degree for a thesis entitled “Linux: A Portable Operating System”. The architecture-specific bits of the kernel had been largely separated from code that would be common across platforms. Linux had acquired the portability that would be key to its subsequent taking over of the world.

Fast forward to 2012 and the release of kernel 3.8, and we see Linus wishing “good riddance” to the 386 as it is summarily dropped from the kernel. Linux had outgrown its humble beginnings, and that particular 32-bit architecture was no longer being made and was barely being used. Letting the 386 code go made parts of the kernel a little simpler, and meant that the remaining architectures could be treated more uniformly going forward. Occasionally, archaic or barely maintained architectures are dropped from the kernel, and you can get an insight into that process by studying Jonathan Corbet’s write-up at https://lwn.net/ Articles/769468.

We don’t want you to worry that 32-bit x86 code will go the same way. Because it won’t, not anytime soon anyway – hardware from this era doesn’t really require any special treatment in the same sense that the 386 did. The main reason Ubuntu is dropping support for it is purely pragmatic. Since 2004 they’ve maintained two desktop editions, and the vast majority of people (some 98% according to https://ubuntu.com/desktop/ statistics) are using the 64-bit edition. The effort to maintain what is in effect a whole separate distro, and in particular to test the 40,000 packages found in the Ubuntu repositories, is simply not tenable. Plenty of applications now depend on 64-bit instructions (e.g. virtualisation), and plenty need more than the 4GB a processor running on a 32-bit system can address.

Ubuntu isn’t alone in dropping 32-bit support. Fedora let it go officially in version 27, released in November 2017, although a 32-bit netinstall was available up until version 30, released in April 2019. Arch Linux has been 64-bit only since 2018, but a community-driven Arch Linux 32 port is available. Debian will continue to support 32-bit Buster until 2024, and we’ll hear nearer the time whether its successor (codenamed Bullseye) will support the older architecture. Mint 20 won’t have a 32-bit edition, but Mint fans wanting to keep their 32-bit systems minty should check out Linux Mint Debian Edition. As chance would have it, the next two pages cover just that.

Linux Mint Debian Edition

We’re keenly aware of how popular Linux Mint is, so here’s an edition you can keep running till 2024 even on ancient 32-bit kit.

Debian’s stability and reliability is a matter of public record, yet other distributions have, perhaps unfairly, proven more popular for desktop use. If you don’t mind older versions of packages and can do without the latest trends in desktop frippery, then you’ll have no problems running the GUI of your choice on Debian Stable. If you’re gaming, running newer hardware, or just want newer versions of everything and don’t mind occasional breakage, then try Debian Testing. If you absolutely must have the very latest versions of everything and enjoy picking up pieces, then try the Unstable branch (referred to as Sid). All Debian packages start off in Sid, then they move to Testing, whence, after being very thoroughly tested (and the branch getting a codename from Toy Story), they move to Stable. Ubuntu packages all originate in Debian Sid, and there are distros based off the other branches too. The current Stable branch of Debian, “Buster”, was released in June 2019 and will support 32-bit architecture until 2024.

Mint brew

Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) started out as a project “in case Ubuntu ever went away”. It’s more rough and ready than its flagship Ubuntu edition, but if you’re running that on 32-bit hardware you should at least give it a try. Ubuntu 18.04 will continue to support 32-bit systems until at least April 2023 and there may be access to paid-for maintenance after this. So Mint 19 may still be updated (and other Ubuntu-based distro) for another three years, but you’ll miss out on all the innovations that appear in Mint 20. You may instead migrate without delay to the Buster-based LMDE4, which we’ve helpfully included on our virtual DVD this month (it’s the thought that counts – Ed).

LMDE isn’t the most lightweight of distros, but neither is it a bloated, resource-hungry monster. The official minimum requirements say it will run with 1GB of RAM and that at least 15GB of disk space is required. In our experiments a clean boot to the desktop used about 450MB of RAM, so you probably wouldn’t want to try and second-guess the Mint team’s guidance here. We’ve got some suggestions for diehards intent on running Linux on really old hardware later on. Any machine capable of running Windows 7 will run LMDE, so now’s a good time to breathe new life into devices still running that unsupported OS. In fact, you should have done this a few issues ago with our Escape Windows 7 feature in LXF259. Cinnamon is a largely traditional desktop, which makes it intuitive for people coming from Windows 7.

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