The myth of Arch Linux and the i586

Jared asked the right question yesterday, when I proclaimed I had Arch Linux running on a Pentium MMX machine. How does a distro cut to fit the i686 generation downscale to an i586? After all, the two architectures are different, and software compiled for the newer, as a general rule, can’t run on the older.

Well, never let anyone tell you that Arch Linux won’t run on an i586 machine. It’s not true. It’s not intended to run on an i586 machine, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. It just means it’s a bit more work.

Arch has always won points — and will always win points — for being easy to customize to the machine you use. That is why many people use it: You can achieve almost any result with Arch, and get there via the path of least resistance.

At the same time, Arch saves you an immense amount of time by allowing you to avoid building software from scratch. I will be the first person to acknowledge that yes, while I enjoy working with Crux, the wait for system updates is directly proportional to the age of the machine. And sometimes, it gets scary.

But there have been many attempts to share Arch’s ease of use with other, outside architectures, but sadly they always seem to sputter. There was the Lowarch project from a few years ago, which I still seed the torrent for. And about a year and a half ago I mentioned the archi586 repos, which you could use to hopscotch up to then-current.

Around the same time an archlinux-i586 effort popped up on Google Code … and seems to have slipped away as well. Most recently (perhaps) is the site, but its repos are now offline too. (Although there are some updates at github, where the project seems to have been hosted.)

I don’t hold out any hope for a sudden upsurge in the demand for an i586 version of Arch Linux; I have seen enough of them come and go to know that they’re unlikely to take hold. On the other hand though, any one of those should at least get you started, and give you the chance to put a version of Arch into place and work your way up.

But what about updates? How do you move from, for example, the last available Arch Linux ISO tailored to an i586 machine to current?

Well, unfortunately, you’re probably going to have to get your hands dirty. The aforementioned ease of installation that comes with Arch on an i686 machine is sometimes, occasionally also available for i586s, but even without it, you can get the job done. If you compile by yourself.

Now I don’t like to build software on machines as old as this, and generally speaking if I have to make updates to it in Crux, I yank the drive and chroot via another computer. I can borrow the processor on this machine, for example, and update in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

Arch, on the other hand, has some nifty tools for building your own versions of software, and transporting them across international boundaries.

The most obvious, and among Arch’s Greatest Hits, is the abs tool, which will mirror the current Arch build scripts onto your local system. From there, almost anything is possible, so long as you’re willing to take the time to build things yourself.

Personally I suggest doing this on a faster machine, if you have one you can spare. Sync with the abs tree, then rsync that into your home directory, in something like /home/kmandla/i586/abs. From there you’ll need to make a custom makepkg.conf and abs.conf file; I suggest

cp /etc/makepkg.conf ~/.makepkg.conf
cp /etc/abs.conf ~/.abs.conf

Edit one or both of those to match your architecture (here’s the Gentoo wiki page on safe CFLAGS, which you’ll want to check), and from there you can build packages as a non-root user, for an architecture other than the host.

If you like, you can tell makepkg and makeworld to dump the results into a destination folder (i586/pkg in my case), and then build a portable repo to move between machines. Once all your packages are in place, use the repo-add command to create a database file for all those packages. And you can shuttle that entire business between machines to install. Of course, you’ll need to tell your target machine where to find the database file; try adding a file:///-style entry to /etc/pacman.conf, or inside /etc/pacman.d/.

There are much better instructions on the Arch wiki pages for Installing to i586 and Custom Repos. In most cases, the flags and configurations listed there worked perfectly for me.

I can offer a few tips though: For one thing, if you build a custom repository for updates, make sure the name of the database you create matches the name of the database the original packages came from. For example, if you’re building an updated version of udev (just as an example), make sure you put it in a repository called “core,” because it was installed from the category “core.” If you don’t then your system won’t update properly, and you’ll have to upgrade packages one-by-one. 😦

Additionally you have logs about package build results, but for my case, the log was filled with “failed” builds (which were actually fine). The only way I could see if there was a truly failed package was to compare the build log with the contents of my pkg folder; if a package was missing, it didn’t get built.

The only things that have failed spectacularly with this heart-transplant system are the kernel structure. That makes sense though, since you should probably build and package a kernel in another fashion, rather than by trying to rebuild the stock PKGBUILD with just a different architecture.

Oh, and makeworld for the core repository only on this machine took over 400 minutes to complete. 😯 So be aware.

I should finish by saying that I didn’t bother installing X or anything even remotely graphical on the Mebius, mostly because I have no interest in laboring a machine of that era with a graphical desktop. Or do I … ? 😈

P.S.: Sorry this post was so long. And whether or not the same stunt is possible with Ubuntu after Meerkat remains to be seen. But probably not by me. The idea is so unattractive as to be laughable.

7 thoughts on “The myth of Arch Linux and the i586

  1. DePingus

    Great LONG post. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. As I mentioned in yesterday’s comments, I plan to run an Arch variant on an ARM cpu [insert ominous music here]. Therefore, I’ll probably be compiling a whole lot of stuff on my own! Thanks for this.

  2. SapientIdiot

    This post reminds me that i still have an iBook G4 that awaits a reinstallation of ArchLinuxPPC after i finally upgraded it to a 60GB hard drive.

    If you ever end up with a PPC ArchlinuxPPC is about the best distro i’ve found for them. Its not quite as tricky to install these days, but i’ve had to do my share of tricks to get it up and running (like making my own CORE ISO becuase the FTP wasnt accessable over wireless during install).

  3. gullars

    That’s really an interesting read, even though it was going over my head at this moment, it might be something that I go back to if I need it and see, no matter what it was a really good read 🙂 No need to apologize for writing a long one, I don’t know how many times I’ve been reading through the posts about different console tools, and gotten so much good out of them. So nothing to be apologizing about 😉

  4. Ninad


    Great read although a long post

    You see the benefits of Arch once you start using it

    One question after reading the post (as compiling a distro from scratch like LFS or gentoo is my aim some day but always falls short due to lack of time)
    Can Arch be compiled from scratch ?

  5. kokakoda

    Actually, the archlinux-i586 repos are still up, if not exactly current. I used them a couple of weeks ago to rebuild an old Sony Vaio machine I had in for repair. Unfortunately, it was a K6 sans the ‘cmov’ instruction, so regular Arch was out.

    After the machine was up and running, it didn’t take too long to compile some extra apps from the AUR. I even shoehorned and LXDE onto it from [extra], since the machine was for a Windows user who would’ve choked at the sight of the CLI.

    The results were surprising. Other than the need to add ‘i586’ to the PKGBUILDs, pretty much everything worked without issues.

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