Linus Torvalds considers 486 chips “museum pieces” but they still have some users. Where will they go without Linux?
Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, is considering dropping support for the Intel 486 processor. The move would come long after most users had moved on to newer processor architectures.
Torvalds: 486 Chips “Museum Pieces”
In a message to the Linux Kernel Mailing List, the main hub of Linux kernel development, Torvalds said that despite small pockets of use, he considered the 486 architecture obsolete.
“I really don’t think i486 class hardware is relevant anymore,” Torvalds wrote.
Kernel development will focus more on modern hardware in the future if Torvalds’ response is any indication.
Torvalds seems unsentimental about hardware. The kernel development team had already dropped support for the 486’s predecessor, the 386, which Torvalds himself had used to write his original kernel. “At some point, people have them as museum pieces,” he said. “They might as well run museum kernels.”
Still Some 486 Linux Holdouts
The Intel i486 architecture was introduced in 1989, two years before Linus Torvalds announced his kernel. The 486 was the high-end standard-bearer for PCs until the introduction of the Pentium in 1993. While the Pentium superseded the 486 in PCs in the mid-1990s, it remained popular in embedded systems.
It seems even Intel has moved on, discontinuing the 486 in 2007. Despite this, there still seem to be some holdouts. Some minimal Linux distros like Tiny Core Linux support the 486 as a minimum requirement. The capabilities of Linux on such old hardware are limited compared to what’s possible on newer architectures.
It’s also possible to obtain new 486-based hardware. Taiwan-based DMP Electronics produces the Vortex86 line of System-on-a-Chip (SoC) processors for embedded use based on the 486 architecture.
Where Will Linux 486 Users Go?
With Torvalds’ hint that the days of Linux on the 486 may be numbered, what will the remaining users do? They have a couple of choices in terms of open-source operating systems.
Those who still want a Unix-like operating system on their machines can still use NetBSD. NetBSD is known for supporting older, out-of-production systems, including Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX line of minicomputers. “Of course, it runs NetBSD” is the project’s motto.
There’s also FreeDOS, a clone of MS-DOS that runs on the 486. Both of these OSes will likely be popular choices for embedded development.
Apparently, Some Chips Are Just Too Old for Linux
While users tout the ability for Linux to run on older computers, there are still some limits to how far this will go. Lightweight Linux distributions are still popular for reviving older PCs that no longer get OS updates from Microsoft but aren’t so old as to have 486 processors.