Good-Bye 386: Linux to drop support for i386 chips with next major release

Good-Bye 386: Linux to drop support for i386 chips with next major release

Summary: Linux got its start on a 386 processor, but 21-years later, the Linux kernel developers have decided its time to say good-bye to the venerable Intel processor in its next major Linux kernel release: 3.8.

SHARE:
220px-KL_Intel_i386DX
Linux bids its original chip, Intel's 386, adieu.

To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die and a time for Linux to discontinue support for Intel's 27-years old, 32-bit 386 CPU in its next major release of the Linux kernel: 3.8.

Ingo Molnár, a Red Hat engineer and Linux kernel developer, asked Linus Torvalds, Linux's founder on December 11th to "consider pulling the latest x86-nuke386-for-linus git tree. For those of us who haven't been Linux kernel enthusiasts since day one, Molnár explained, "This tree removes ancient-386-CPUs support and thus zaps quite a bit of complexity." He continued, "Unfortunately there's a nostalgic cost: your old original 386 DX33 system from early 1991 won't be able to boot modern Linux kernels anymore. Sniff."

Indeed, back in 1991, Torvalds sent out a Usenet posting saying, "I'm doing a (free) operating system. (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu [Gnu] was, and is, the free software collection of programs originated by Richard M. Stallman) for 386(486) AT clones." From that modest beginning Linux began.

Gallery: The 20 most significant events in Linux's 20-year history

Torvalds responded the next day, December 12th. I'm not sentimental. Good riddance." And, so long as the kernel team was thinking about cleaning out the code garage, Torvalds added "I think we should probably at least consider taking this one step further, and remove the dear old FPU [Floating Point Unit] emulation support too." Torvalds wondered though "Or do people still use the 486SX?"

The 486SX, an Intel chip without a FPU, dates back to 1991. While the 16MHz version is long gone except perhaps in some very dusty PCs in someone's basement, H. Peter Anvin, a Linux kernel programmer and Intel software engineer, thinks the 486SX may still be used in production systems. "There were a *bunch* of embedded 486 clones made, some still in production as far as I know, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them lacked FPU."

As it turns out, 486SX will run Linux without any special handling. So, Torvalds has decided "Ok. It sounds like the code actually works despite lack of testing,and it clearly hasn't been the same kind of maintenance pain and problem that the lack of cmpxchg [compare and exchange, an old and troublesome 386 instruction] and friends, so let's leave it alone."

So while the 486DX and SX will live on in Linux 3.8, the 386 has come to the end of the road in mainstream Linux.

Worry not, though, if you still have a 386 chugging along in your office. It will still be supported in older versions of the Linux kernel for years still to come. Just don't expect the latest and greatest Linux kernel, which will arrive sometime in early 2013, to run on it.

Related Stories:

Topics: Linux, Hardware, Intel, Open Source, Operating Systems

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

29 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Good-Bye 386: Linux to drop support for i386 chips with next major release

    Oh no, think of all those poor old machines that have now been marked as obsolete by linux. As you've told us over and over again linux only works on older machines and now they are cutting off support for that. Not a good day to be a linux user to find out in the middle of your compiling of the kernel that you no longer have support for your CPU. The community should be outraged over this lack of support.
    Loverock-Davidson
    • Huh?

      You do realize that the processor type in question hasn't even been made for a good six years, right? Even before then, it hadn't been used in consumer PCs for quite some time.
      Michael Alan Goff
      • But it was used in older PCs

        It was used in older PCs and that is linux's bread & butter. Now they cut that off essentially making their OS obsolete.
        Loverock-Davidson
        • makes sense

          But you can just go with the prev kernel.i mean what 386 system would need sata/iscsi, cpu hotplug, kvm, pcie support.
          Anthony E
        • Then

          Don't update to the newest kernel, stick with a prior version.
          Michael Alan Goff
        • Your point

          Do these older machines run Windows 8? :)
          danbi
        • And the older versions will get updates

          Stability and security patches will still come for 3.7 that still works on those CPU:s.
          Natanael_L
          • And the older versions will get updates

            For like 2 years after 3.7 goes stable it will get security updates and maybe some features backported from 3.8 and later kernels if they are applicable to 386 cpu's, so all you diehard 386'ers can still enjoy Linux :^)
            rcm0502
      • More like 15 years.

        Last Intel one was built in 2007.
        AMD's 386 DX 40 was the best one.
        martin_js
    • pity the poor fool trying to install windows??

      Windows has not supported the 386 for at least 10 years...
      jessepollard
    • Loverock's 4 votes

      are proof he/she/it has other accounts and gives him/her/itself votes. How sad.
      tek_heretik
      • Might not have been him

        Back when ZDNet was doing pluses and minuses, it appeared that someone was trying Sibyl attacks to make pro-MS Talkbacks look good and get anti-MS ones hidden, but it probably wasn't him (I think his own posts would have been rated higher), and it was ineffective because it was blatantly obvious what was going on.
        John L. Ries
    • No Flags for LR-D

      "As you've told us over and over again linux only works on older machines and now they are cutting off support for that."

      I've read over and over again that linux works on older machines, but never "ONLY on older machines." It will continue to work on older machines as long as an "old" kernel is in use. I use Linux on an "older" machine...circa 2005-2006. I doubt I'll still be using it when the Linux kernel "abandons" support for my hardware in say...20-30 years. But if they do, I could always keep using "Linux Mint 55"
      bunkport
    • Loverock-Davidson aka Micro$kunk Mole

      You are the most obvious Balmer Mole on earth!

      Tell me this: "Do you still run WindoZe on a i386 chip?
      ITJohnguru
  • Steven writes about something that might even

    be considered news worthy and no one cares.

    I didn't know anyone still had 386's - haven't seen one in years.
    Cynical99
    • "No one cares"

      Not even SJVN? Not even Linus Torvalds?

      "No one" means zero people, not "nobody that I care about", or "nobody that matters".
      John L. Ries
      • Such absolutes

        Maybe that's why the Linux community is considered so bizarre by the mainstream. Everything is so absolute. Microsoft is evil, you may never use a procuct that isn't open source or you are evil, Stallman is wonderful and may never be questioned, making money is evil.

        You taint the value of your opinions by such tripe.
        Cynical99
  • Still in production?

    "There were a *bunch* of embedded 486 clones made, some still in production as far as I know"

    STILL in production??

    Even for embedded, that's pretty out of date . . .

    Shouldn't embedded be using ARM by now?
    CobraA1
    • Qualifications

      I remember when it was a big deal when the space shuttles were getting an upgrade to 386 based systems starting in 2001. http://www.militaryaerospace.com/topics/device/mobile/t/43572112/it-s-not-your-father-s-space-shuttle-any-more.htm?m_n=true#

      How many satellites, space station systems, and other industrial control systems are there using close to 20 yr old technology?
      BorgX
    • Death to Y2K systems!

      As far as embedded 486 systems still being used, I would have thought that those systems would have gone bye-bye during the great Y2K die-off. Weren't the 486 systems the ones where 1 divided by 1 = 0.999999 (except for extremely large values of 1)?

      "665.99999 -- Intel calculated number of the beast"
      Muzhik1