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 removing support for the Intel 486 processor. The move would come long after most users have moved on to newer processor architectures.
Torvalds: 486 Chips “Museum Pieces”
In a message to the Linux Kernel Mailing List, the main center 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 important anymore,” wrote Torvalds.
Kernel development in the future will be more focused on modern hardware if Torvalds’ answer is any indication.
Torvalds seems unsentimental about hardware. The kernel development team has already dropped support for the 486’s predecessor, the 386, which Torvalds himself used to write his original kernel. “Once people have them as museum pieces,” he said. “They might as well run museum cores.”
Still Some 486 Linux Holdouts
The Intel i486 architecture was launched in 1989, two years before Linus Torvalds announced his kernel. The 486 was the advanced standard bearer for Computers until the introduction of the Pentium in 1993. While the Pentium replaced the 486 in Computers in the mid-1990s, it remained popular in embedded systems.
It seems that even Intel has moved on, discontinuing the 486 in 2007. Despite this, there still seem to be some holdouts. Some minimal Linux distributions like Tiny Core Linux support the 486 as a minimum requirement. The capabilities of Linux on such old hardware are limited compared to what is possible on newer architectures.
It is also possible to get new 486-based hardware. Taiwan-based DMP Electronics manufactures 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 hinting that the days of Linux on the 486 may be numbered, what will the rest of the users do? They have a number of options 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 motto of the project.
There is also FreeDOS, an MS-DOS clone that runs on the 486. Both of these OSes are likely to 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 computers that no longer receive OS updates from Microsoft but are not old enough to have 486 processors.