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Linux’izing your Windows PC into a dev machine – Part 1

February 10, 2018

(Hey, just finished Part 2, have a look here: https://cepa.io/2018/02/20/linuxizing-your-windows-pc-part2/)


On 30th of March 2016 hell officially froze. Microsoft, the eternal rival of the open source movement, has officially announced that form now on you can run Linux apps on Windows! Just like that.

Those of you who are in IT for years may recall a famous sentence Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, said in 2001. He called Linux a “cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches”.
Well, times have changed, and so have the large companies.

Yeah, but who cares about some new geeky stuff in Windows?

For those of you who are reading this and aren’t techies, let me give you some background.

Nowadays, when you create a project, build an application or a startup, you likely run it in a cloud and your customers use it either on desktops in a web browser or as an application on theirs smartphones, tablets, etc. More and more stuff is being moved to cloud and used via Internet.

Now, to build all these amazing and often useless apps you need tools, and it happened that vast majority of these tools are open source and primarily built for Linux in mind. Simply speaking, trying to build web or cloud based applications on Windows was either no go or at least a serious pain in the a** till 30th of March 2016.

From business perspective, it means that you or your employees no longer need to buy shiny yet overpriced Mac because “you need a terminal and SSHand “ability to run MS Office”, neither you need to sacrifice lots of productivity software like Photoshop and work exclusively on Linux that doesn’t support most of it.

You can now have it all on your Windows PC and so this post is about how you can actually do it.

Having years of mileage on Linux, I’ve spent last couple of months working primarily from a Windows 10 laptop, ThinkPad T460, using Bash on Windows and can share some experience here – what works, what almost works, and what doesn’t – from a developer perspective, and I tell you, what Microsoft did is pretty awesome.

This is going to be a rather lengthy post so here is the table of contents, you can freely skip to whatever interests you the most.

Part I

Part II




Well, you’ll need Windows, but not just any Windows but Windows 10 and precisely build 1709, the Fall Creators Update.
You can try on earlier versions like 1703 The Anniversary Update but it might not work. I’m using Windows 10 Pro 64bit build 1709 which you can get here

How can you check what Windows version are you on?

Type winver in the start menu and hit enter, a popup should appear with details about your Windows build.


Installing Bash on Windows (WSL)

Once you’re on the right Windows 10 build, you can install Bash on Windows aka Windows Subsystem for Linux.

  1. Run Powershell as Admin and run the following
    Enable-WindowsOptionalFeature -Online -FeatureName Microsoft-Windows-Subsystem-Linux

  2. Go to Windows store and search for Ubuntu and install it
    (commands in next sections will work on Ubuntu but won’t on other Linux distros)

  3. Type cmd in the start menu and run bash to create your WSL Username and Password
  4. Start bash by typing cmd in the start menu, next bash, hit enter and next and update Linux packages by typing
    sudo apt-get update
  5. Install screenfetch (optional) and enjoy (must have)
    sudo apt install screenfetch



Getting a decent terminal

People say there are no good terminal emulators for Windows, bulls**t!

There are! You have a bunch of options:

My personal favourite is Hyper, presented above, since it offers the most seamless and Linux-like experience from the list above. Okay, it is an Electron based app and it’s a bit sluggish but works well, scales well and looks like it’s 2018. It’s worth mentioning that the default Windows builtin cmd supports rendering of terminal applications including these written in ncurses like htop or mc.

However, you can also use a real terminal emulator from Linux, like Xfce4 Terminal app… keep reading 😉



Running Linux desktop apps with X server on Windows

Most likely, you’ll never need this, but if you really want to show off to your colleagues at work or wherever, here it goes.

First, how does Linux desktop work?

Long story short, displaying a graphical interface on Linux is based on a networking protocol called the X. There is the X server and X clients. The X client is any application that connects to the X server to display a window, a button, an image, etc… Because it is based on a network protocol it means your app can run on one computer and be displayed on a monitor connected to another computer, and that’s precisely what we’re gonna do now 😉

Second, get yourself an X server.

There are a few options for Windows:

Let’s use the first one, VcXsrv, as it is the least hassle. You can download it here and simply install it on your Windows box just like any other program.
Once installed simply run it, a small icon in your taskbar with an ugly X letter should appear, that’s all.

Third, tell your WSL where the X server is.

Linux apps use environmental variable DISPLAY to connect to the so called active X session, the simplest way to use it is to set DISPLAY=:0 which means the X server runs on the local computer, type this in bash:

export DISPLAY=:0

You can also do this to get this variable loaded everytime you start bash.

echo "export DISPLAY=:0" >> ~/.bashrc

It will append to the .bashrc file to set that environmental variable for you and this file is loaded everytime you run bash.

Fourth, install some native X applications.

For example you can run Xfce4 Terminal, which also is a decent alternative for handling bash on Windows:

sudo apt-get install xfce4-terminal
xfce4-terminal &


Displaying Linux apps from remote servers

Interestingly, since you can run X server locally on Windows, you can easily use it to display graphical apps from remote Linux servers.
To do so simply use good ol’ SSH X forwarding, however, I had to change the DISPLAY variable to make it work, use your Windows host IP address.

export DISPLAY=
ssh -X user@some.server
xterm &

You should quickly get something like this displayed:



Docker with WSL

What’s the point of Linux’izing Windows if you can’t run one of the most popular development and devops tools, Docker?

Sadly, Docker is not natively supported on WSL, at least not yet. You can install Docker software on WSL but the daemon running containers simply will not start as WSL is not real Linux.

Fortunately, you can easily use Docker on Windows and command it from bash (WSL), that includes the docker program and docker-compose. There are some tradeoffs though. Docker on Windows runs in a virtual machine hosted in Hyper-V hypervisor built into Windows. Unfortunately, Hyper-V doesn’t go well along with other virtualization software like VirtualBox or VMware. So if you plan to use Docker only it’s fine, but if you want to run other virtualization software you’ll need to find a workaround.

So, Docker with WSL:

  1. Install Docker CE on Windows first.
    You can get it here https://www.docker.com/community-edition
    It will cause your computer to restart a couple of times and will enable Hyper-V so bear that in mind.
  2. Start Docker on Windows and enable listening on http://localhost:2375
    It will disable Docker’s TLS security so be aware of that!
  3. Install Docker in WSL.
    Go to https://docs.docker.com/install/linux/docker-ce/ubuntu/ for a detailed instruction, simplified version is here:

    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install apt-transport-https ca-certificates curl software-properties-common
    curl -fsSL https://download.docker.com/linux/ubuntu/gpg | sudo apt-key add -
    sudo add-apt-repository \
    "deb [arch=amd64] https://download.docker.com/linux/ubuntu \
    $(lsb_release -cs) \
    sudo apt-get update
    sudo apt-get install docker-ce
  4. Test if docker command works (it won’t)
     docker ps
  5. Configure Docker in WSL to use Docker on Windows host
     export DOCKER_HOST=tcp://
  6. Set the same in your .bashrc
     echo "export DOCKER_HOST=tcp://" >> ~/.bashrc
  7. Run docker command again (should work now)
     docker ps
  8. Start a container, let’s try with Nginx web server
     docker run --name nginx -p 8080:80 -d nginx

  9. Open http://localhost:8080 on your Windows browser

Now, if you need Docker Compose you can easily install it in WSL this way:

sudo apt-get install python python-dev python-setuptools
sudo easy_install pip
sudo pip install docker-compose

With regards to the Docker virtualization workaround, you might try with running a custom VirtualBox or VMware virtual machine with Docker daemon on it in the host-only network, that should work similarly to the default MobyLinuxVM on Hyper-V.



Vagrant with WSL

Vagrant is an amazingly useful automation tool for running a project specific virtual machines directly in your project’s folder. Basically, it allows to build and run software in an isolated virtual machine.

(Before you start playing with Vagrant on WSL you should turn of Hyper-V if you had installed Docker previously)

But, why run Vagrant if you have WSL?

Again, isolation, with Vagrant you get a real Linux and it works on most operating systems so you can have your entire development environment completely isolated from your host environment and that resembles real production environment.

Detailed instruction how to install Vagrant is there https://www.vagrantup.com/docs/other/wsl.html

Quick one:

  1. Install VirtualBox on Windows
    Download VirtualBox for Windows from https://www.virtualbox.org/wiki/Downloads
  2. You need to add the VBoxManage.exe location from your VirtualBox installation folder to the global PATH variable.
    Do to so, go to the My Computer -> Settings -> Advanced System Settings -> Advanced -> Environment Variables and add the folder path to the PATH variable, usually C:\Program Files\Oracle\VirtualBox
  3. Make sure the path works, open a new bash prompt and run:

    It should print out the default list of parameters, etc.

  4. Install Vagrant in WSL
    Go to the Vagrant download page https://www.vagrantup.com/downloads.html and select Debian 64-bit, download it to a folder available in WSL and install by running:

     sudo dpkg -i vagrant_2.0.2_x86_64.deb
    Vagrant requires this variable to be set to 1 in order to work in WSL. You can add it to your .bashrc file to get it loaded everytime you start bash, run the following and restart your bash:

    export "VAGRANT_WSL_ENABLE_WINDOWS_ACCESS=1" >> ~/.bashrc
  6. Try to boot a sample vagrant project.
    You can use this one: https://github.com/cepa/wordpress-boilerplate

    git clone https://github.com/cepa/wordpress-boilerplate
    cd wordpress-boilerplate
    vagrant plugin install vagrant-hostsupdater
    vagrant up

    Once built you should get a WordPress installation page here:

There are some quirks with running Vagrant in WSL though.

  • Plugins like vagrant-hostsupdater editing /etc/hosts don’t affect Windows hosts file thus you’ll need to edit them manually.
  • Plugin vagrant-disksize doesn’t work with WSL, need to fix command changing disk size.



So that’s it for now, I’ll describe the rest of the bullet points over next weeks, hope you like it and thanks in advance for any feedback.

If you see any issues please let me know!


Jump to the Part 2 of Linux’izing Windows.


WOW! This article has made its way to the Hacker News front page, thanks all for upvoting! 🙂
Here is the following discussion on HN https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16351716

Comments (21)

  1. Ilya says:

    Why do i need to buy windows and spend my time to run linux apps with several layers of abstractions if i can just install fedora?
    This way is too complicated.

  2. Mahesh says:

    How about speed? I tried and found to be slower as I tried for ruby apps.

  3. monk says:

    I like your article as it is clear and straight to the point, I am also an avid user of WSL as finally I can have the best of the two “worlds” and increase my productivity.


  4. Roberto Sanchez says:

    WSL has completely changed my work flow on my windows machine. Goodbye virtual box. It’s way more convenient and uses way less resources than virtual box. Definitely recommend.

  5. Blake Frederick says:

    Hey thank you so much for taking the time to write this, especially the Displaying Linux apps from remote servers section

  6. Steve says:

    Thanks for this great article. Last line of the Prerequisites section has a typo:
    Type vinwerin the start menu
    should be
    Type winver in the start menu

    Thank you again!

  7. Mark says:

    This is really involved, and has no advantages over simply using a linux distro. Worse, it comes with mandatory updates with random system restarts, 30 years of OS cruft for backwards compatibility, an opaque registry with a million settings that eventually rot and become inconsistent, and a new user interface that preserves none of my fluency vs. prior versions of windows.

  8. Dub Dublin says:

    FYI, one of the better terminal options for WSL is the terminal that’s built into VScode – there’s an option to make it the default, and it handles all of the new color terminal support and UTF-8 characters beautifully. It “just works” and the WSL team should make sure more people know it’s there. It’s also considerably less fiddly than most of the ones you mention.

    WSL and Linux distros running directly on the Windows kernel have made my life much, much, easier – this is a superior solution to alternatives such as dual boot, VMs, etc. in nearly every way. I used to use VirtualBox extensively, but it’s never even been installed on my newest Surface Pro. The only downside is the PITA running native Linux X programs (or anything that uses dbus) – but on a Win10 machine, there are generally far better options, so this is a capability I’ve hardly missed yet.

    Contra to what Mark says above, this has all kinds of advantages, and is without question the best environment I’ve ever had to work in – it really does bring together the best parts of Windows and Linux, with very little downside.

  9. SomeoneSomeone says:

    Well, the fact it works doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit. Sorry mate it still a piece of !@$5t. Just check the performance of ubu on windows. That makes it not really an alternative to dual boot.


  10. Steve Soutar says:

    In the company I work for, everyone is given a Windows 7 laptop – as standard.

    The only way I can use a linux desktop with all the familar tools and stuff TODAY is to run one in VirtualBox – it’s not ideal, but our corporate IS teams only understand 1 sort of desktop. Mac users are not even allowed on our LAN, because it “aint windows” so how can we make sure it is secure (so you can see what luddites we are faced with !! )

    I think because they can’t run anti-virus, control everything through Group Policy, so they don’t allow any nasty foreign OS’s on their network – despite us having Linux and Unix servers alongside the farm of Windows Servers and VMware VMs

    There are mutterings about pushing out a Windows 10 desktop image – sounds horrible to me, but maybe they will accidentally select the Build 1709 release – if they do I will only have to use the Windows desktop fur running Visio and ???? What else ?

  11. Sebastien Diot says:

    For all those here who complain, you probably get given a choice. Many people don’t like me (and Steve Soutar). My company policy is everyone uses Windows PCs (and Outlook for email). And for the devs, they justify it by saying the clients will use Windows, so you have to run the app you code in Windows yourself, so you get see the client experience. If this does not apply to you, count yourself lucky.

  12. Dave says:

    I haven’t tried it (Docker, unfortunately, is just starting to be something I play with), but Docker on WSL might work if you `sudo /etc/init.d/docker start` when you open it. It’s how I handle cron.

  13. Golden says:

    Cepa, thanks for taking the time to write this. I have been working under the “poke and hope” distro of WSL.

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