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Saturday, October 23, 2021 at 16:45

This explanation article is for beginners in The Free Software and GNU/Linux Community. You will certainly meet terms like amd64, i386, and ppc64el as choices when getting copy of a software or an operating system. In short, these terms refer to choices of computer's CPU products (also known as processors) which would determine choices of software and operating systems that you can run on it. In practice, knowing these terms may benefit you to select correctly software and operating systems for your computer. Now let's start learning!

(Debian is the best example of choices between i386, amd64 and ppc64el for computer users)
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What is my computer?

Most PCs and laptops today are amd64. Most PCs and laptops produced in 1990's and before 2011 are i386. Several latest technology computers aimed for the future and could be replacing amd64 and i386 produced as ppc64el. For example, PCs with Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Althlon Classic are all i386 (also known as PC 32-bit) while today PCs with Intel Core 2 Duo and AMD Phenom onwards are all amd64 (also known as PC 64-bit).


What is Central Processing Unit?

CPU or Central Processing Unit is the most crucial part of a computer that represents computer itself. All talk about architectures, including amd64 and i386 and ppc64el, is about CPU. It is produced as a small, lightweight, thin rectangle silicon chip equipped with many downwards-pins attached to computer's internal motherboard and not visible by end-users unless by disassembling the computer.

Intel i386, the first CPU of i386 architecture.
Picture linked from Wikipedia Page, Wikimedia Commons.

AMD Opteron, the first CPU of amd64 architecture.
Picture linked from Wikipedia Page, Wikimedia Commons.

What is computer architecture? What's the examples?

Computer architecture (also known as Instruction Set Architecture) is the generic design of a CPU in form of a technical document written by computer architects in which the implementation is the CPU product itself. A computer architecture determines its implementations and later determines end-users' choices of software and operating systems. Examples of architectures including x86 and POWER. These two architectures might be divided into several more, namely amd64 and i386, and ppc64el. There are other architectures, like ARM and MIPS, not discussed in this article.


What's 32-bit and 64-bit?

A computer architecture is based on mathematics of the power of 2. This means 2 power 0, 2 power 1, 2 power 3 and goes next to 2 power 32 (called 32-bit) and goes further to 2 power 64 (called 64-bit) today. Every computer architecture in this modern age is generally divided into two technology generations, 32-bit generation and 64-bit generation, showing difference in how much information the processor can process at a time. Today, 64-bit computers are the norm and sold everywhere; while the 32-bit ones are not produced anymore but still around us and considered legacy technology.

In practice, this means

  • by hardware, Personal Computers sold since 1980's to date are generally divided into two generations, the 32-bit ones, and the 64-bit ones; while 
  • by software, the operating systems for that computers are also divided into two generations, 32-bit and 64-bit.
  • by history, in general all computers produced between 1980 to 2010 are 32-bit while those produced 2011 afterwards are 64-bit.

What is i386? What's the examples?

i386 (also known as IA-32, x86, x86_32, and PC 32-bit) is a choice of computers from the family of Personal Computer which is based on 32-bit technology. This architecture was first invented by Intel hence the name i386, and AMD later adopted it, resulting in availability of both i386 processors in the market. Historically, all 1990's produced computers are i386 hence the examples of i386 processors are Intel Pentium and AMD Athlon.

There are general rules of i386 computers: an i386 computer can run any i386 software and any i386 OS. No amd64 software, no amd64 OS either, can run on an i386 computer. This is its difference to amd64.

What is amd64? What's the examples?

amd64 (also known as x86_64, x64, PC 64 bit, and 64-bit) is a choice of computers produced by both AMD and Intel from the family of Personal Computers which is based on 64-bit technology. This architecture was first invented by AMD, hence the name amd64, and later adopted by Intel, resulting in both processors availability in the market. In practice, end-users might buy an amd64 CPU from either AMD or Intel. Examples of amd64 processors are AMD APU and Intel Core

There are general rules of amd64 computers: an amd64 computer can run any  amd64 software and can also run any amd64 OS with an exception that is, it can also run any i386 software and OS. This exception is one among benefits of amd64 over i386.


What is ppc64el? What's the examples?

ppc64el (not to be confused with PowerPC or ppc64) also known as IBM POWER Little Endian is a choice of computer from OpenPOWER Foundation starting with its POWER8 generation of architecture. CPU examples of ppc64el are IBM POWER8, POWER9 and Power10 while computer example of it is Raptor Talos II (that is a PC preloaded with Debian ppc64el). Today, this computing choice is new and still very expensive.

There are general rules of ppc64el computers: a ppc64el computer can run any ppc64el software and any ppc64el OS. No any i386 nor amd64 software and OS can run on ppc64el.

To know more about ppc64el, please refer to OpenPOWER Foundation and IBM.

Where to find examples of amd64, i386, and ppc64el?

All computer operating systems today offered as amd64. In practice, Windows and Ubuntu today are amd64 only (meaning, no i386 version anymore).

All GNU/Linux operating systems in the past were offered as i386, while now only a few remaining to be available as i386. For example, in the past, Windows 95 and 98 were all i386, while 10 onwards are all amd64 only. Several distros which still offer i386 versions are among others Debian, Devuan, MX and Trisquel.

Many major GNU/Linux operating systems today also offered as ppc64el. For example, see Debian, Devuan, Fedora, openSUSE, Red Hat, and Ubuntu.

IMPORTANT NOTE: in fact, the reason why all major operating systems (Windows, MacOS, GNU/Linux) discontinued their i386 versions is that because i386 computers themselves were no longer produced since a long time (10 years ago at the moment we publish this article) so they gradually switched and focused to amd64 instead. Please note that in the future, all operating systems and software developers might discontinue i386 completely.

Relationship between software, OS, and architecture choices

Your hardware choice determines your operating system choice and later determines your software choice. The general rule is that an architecture runs operating systems matched that architecture and runs software matched that architecture as well, otherwise, the operating systems and/or the software will not run. In practice, this means generally if your computer is i386, you should run an i386 OS, and later run i386 software on it. You should not run an amd64 OS on that computer, as it will not run. Likewise, you should not run an amd64 software on that computer, as it will not run as well. Generally, same practice applies to i386, amd64, and ppc64el as well as any other architecture.

What to do with these three choices?

Finally, what you should do when seeing choices of amd64, i386, and ppc64el?

  • If your computer is amd64, choose operating system that is for amd64, and choose software that is for amd64 as well. 
  • If your computer is i386, choose operating system that is for i386, and choose software that is for i386 as well. 
  • If your computer is ppc64el, choose operating system that is for ppc64el, and choose software that is for ppc64el as well.

This article is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.