If you work with rpm-based systems you will probably have seen content like this in the repo config files:

[base]
name=CentOS-$releasever - Base
mirrorlist=http://mirrorlist.centos.org/?release=$releasever&arch=$basearch&repo=os&infra=$infra
#baseurl=http://mirror.centos.org/centos/$releasever/os/$basearch/
gpgcheck=1
gpgkey=file:///etc/pki/rpm-gpg/RPM-GPG-KEY-CentOS-7

The items in bold are yum variables.

Today, I needed to install i386 packages on a system running an x86_64 kernel (don't ask!).

Here's how I did it:

echo i386 > /etc/yum/vars/basearch

Documentation here: https://access.redhat.com/documentation/en-us/red_hat_enterprise_linux/6/html/deployment_guide/sec-using_yum_variables

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