At least three Linux distros have already quit releasing 32-bit versions, and Ubuntu seems to be standing in line to do the same. Is the end at hand for 32-bit mainstream distros?
We have three computers that see regular duty here at FOSS Force. Two are 64-bit laptops, one which is primarily reserved for out-of-the-office trips and the other used exclusively to test distros and software for reviews. The heavy lifting is done by our old 32-bit HP desktop.
In a month or so, when the Xfce edition of Linux Mint 18, otherwise known as “Sarah,” is released, we’ll be backing up our data and doing a clean install on the desktop. This will probably be the last operating system upgrade this computer will ever see. Sarah will be supported until 2021, and by then, this old computer will most likely have already given up the ghost. Even if it’s still running, however, it’s doubtful there will be a 32-bit version of Mint to run on it, as Canonical will probably have ceased development of the 32-bit version of its distro by then.
I say “probably,” because so far dropping 32-bit support is only a suggestion that was made by Ubuntu developer Dimitri Ledkov in a mailing list post on June 28. In the email, Ledkov points out that maintaining a 32-bit version isn’t cheap.
“Building i386 images is not ‘for free’,” he wrote, “it comes at the cost of utilizing our build farm, QA and validation time. Whilst we have scalable build-farms, i386 still requires all packages, autopackage tests, and ISOs to be revalidated across our infrastructure.”
The email was the most recent in an exchange between Ledkov and Bryan Quigley on the subject that began in February. In the emails, Ledkov makes it clear that his advocacy for quitting 32-bit support isn’t because of a lack of 32-bit hardware. There are security issues at play, and independent software vendors, including Google for it’s Chrome browser, have been dropping support for 32-bit Linux.
“The key point here is lack of upstream software support and upstream security support on i386, rather than actual hardware being out of stock and/or old.”
I suspect that this will happen and that other major distros will follow suit. Already there are no 32-bit versions of openSUSE, SLES and RHEL, although all three distros offer methods by which 32-bit legacy applications can be used.
There is no need for owners of 32-bit machines to panic, however. Although Ledkov’s proposed timeline calls for doing away with 32-bit iso images with the release of 16.10 in October, Ubuntu 16.04, the latest LTS release, will be supported until 2021. For those who hope to find usefulness for 32-bit hardware past that date, there will doubtlessly be many distros that will continue to offer 32-bit versions well into the future.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if 32-bit versions of some independent Ubuntu based distros continue to be released if Canonical quits 32-bit, perhaps by basing 32-bit versions on Debian, Ubuntu’s upstream source.
FOSS Force asked Jeff Hoogland, founder and lead developer of Bodhi Linux, an independent Ubuntu based distro that offers a special “Legacy” edition for older hardware, if Ubuntu dropping 32-bit support would result in Bodhi being released in only a 64-bit version.
“We will cross that bridge when we get there,” he said. “Bodhi’s next major release will be built on 16.04 which supports 32-bit. When we start building Bodhi 5.0.0 in another two years, we will see where everything is at.”
Now is probably as good a time as any for Ubuntu to drop 32-bit support for versions going forward. By 2021, when support will eventually go away for existing releases, most remaining 32-bit hardware won’t be much good as full-fledged desktops and will have been repurposed as servers, firewalls and the like. No doubt, there will be plenty of 32-bit distros still around for those purposes.