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“Do I Want To Use Windows Subsystem For Linux?”

jacoby profile image Dave Jacoby Originally published at jacoby.github.io on ・6 min read

“Do I Want To Use Windows Subsystem For Linux?”

I dunno. Maybe.

Yeah, that might not be helpful.

“What is Windows Subsystem For Linux?”

Consider, for example Debian.

The Debian Project is an association of individuals who have made common cause to create a free operating system. This operating system that we have created is called Debian.

An operating system is the set of basic programs and utilities that make your computer run. At the core of an operating system is the kernel. The kernel is the most fundamental program on the computer and does all the basic housekeeping and lets you start other programs.

The reason I chose Debian is not that it’s available with WSL, but that the Debian system uses GNU tools on top of the Linux kernel. Or the FreeBSD kernel.

Similarly, if things are done right, you can have that userland stuff talking to the Windows kernel.

This isn’t like VirtualBox, where you have a fully virtualized computer running an operating system within your computer, taking up a lot of your resources.

It isn’t like Docker, which combines containers (I don’t understand enough to explain, but see as packages but more so) with chroot. Bryan Cantrill gave a talk on Jails and Solaris Zones as precursers to Docker to Papers We Love in 2016, so I’ll link and handwave.

It’s a parallel way to the Windows kernel, one which allows you to install Linux ELF binaries via apt or yum in addition to installing Windows PE binaries via msi and chocolatey or nuget.

Which is very weird. But kinda cool.

“So, what do I need to do to get that going?”

First, install the Fall Creators Update. I started by going on the Windows Insider “Fast Track”, which at times felt very abusive in it’s rate of change.

Then you need to enable WSL within PowerShell, reboot, then choose Ubuntu or a variety of SUSE from the Windows Store.

I am told that Fedora or CentOS is coming, but they are not here.

If the machine is not yours to control (Admin access), you likely cannot do this.

I would point out that you don’t have a windowing system yet. It’s generally Kernel -> userland -> pretty pictures, and Windows is already monopolizing the pretty pictures part. You can use an X server like VcXserv or Xming.

I don’t have those installed. It has been years since I’ve felt the need to redirect X. (Last time I did was to help debug an issue that could’ve been sshfs and fuse, samba, sublime text, OR gpfs. And it turned out to be gpfs on a large system I don’t control.) If you can get to your files as either C:\Users\jacoby\Development or /mnt/c/Users/jacoby/Development, and the makers of your WIMP tools (Chrome, Firefox, VS Code, etc.) pretty much develop for Windows and macOS first and Linux later, why do X forwarding to use the secondary versions.

I have an aside here, but I don’t want to go into it right now. Remind me about Unicode later.

So, I’ll say WSL is the way to go if you have that level of control over your system, and desire the ability to use all the cool stuff you use on Linux systems. I’m a Ubuntu guy, so I’d start with the following commands.

sudo apt-get install build-essential
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

From there, it really depends what you need. It isn’t all there yet, but Microsoft is using GitHub for bug tracking, so definitely start there.

Also, blogs and social media will help you keep track of coming changes and fixes. WSL came from Windows Insider, which is Microsoft’s beta track, so it is good to know what’s going on. Here’s Windows Insider on Twitter, and Rich Turner is a Senior PM on the Console and WSL.

“That might be more than I need.”

I often think so, too. If you mostly just need to be able to ssh or scp or rm 2016-10-*.log or the like, there are two choices that are one.

Git for Windows or Cygwin.

History Lesson: The GNU Project started, code was released, and it was as-is. Lots of people wanted to use the capabilities but didn’t know how, and CYGNUS , meaning CYGNUS, Your GNU Support, was formed. Eventually, people wanted those tools on Windows, so they created Cygwin. This gives you GNU tools that are compiled in PE and set to run in Windows environment.

The Git project wanted users to be able to use git on Windows machines, so they built Git for Windows on top of Cygwin. I think. It feels that way.

In my experience, the way to update Cygwin and Git for Windows is to reinstall, and they don’t play well with ActivePerl and Strawberry Perl. (I identify as a Perl guy, so this is a crucial thing for me.) But, if the paths are right, you can call Windows executables from a bash prompt, and seeing that I like to do things like sublime ~/web/lib/*/*-0*.js, this is crucial to me.

“I don’t do much development on my Windows computer.”

If your Windows machine is a “window” to your greater computing world (Yes, pun intended), then you don’t really need the awesome power of WSL, or even Cygwin.

I would point out that PowerShell is much more powerful shell (Yes, pun intended) than CMD and behaves in a very bash-y fashion. The piping, I am told, works more on the object level than the string level, which makes for a learning curve. Which they want to help you climb.

If you’ve ever wanted to work with Linux computers from Windows, I am sure you’re familiar with PuTTY, which gives you putty, pscp, psftp and puttygen. This is good and wonderful, but you probably want to use ssh and scp like you do elsewhere.

Good news! They needed a way to get packages into Visual Studio for .NET development, and they created Nuget. But that’s not the only place you want packages, so for general packages, there’s Chocolatey.

choco install openssh gives you an SSH suite that behaves like one anywhere else. Well, because PowerShell, I can’t get scp *.png linuxbox:. to work, but I just started, so I’m sure there’s a way.

And there are a lot of other things you can install via choco. Well worth looking into.

“You mentioned Unicode?”

Yes. Yes I did.

I like to tweak my prompt, giving me information about my environment. Here’s one.

🔥 ✔ jacoby@oz 12:46 25°F ☕ ☕ ~/Downloads

You’ll notice that there’s the degree symbol telling me it’s cold outside, a check mark saying I have no near-due or overdue tasks in TaskWarrior, a flame indicating that I need to reboot, and two coffee cups. I track my coffee and that tells me I’ve had two cups today.

Using Linux and gnome-terminal, this displays fine.

Using the terminal used by Git bash, I can get the degree, the flame and checkmark, but the coffee cup doesn’t display.

Using the terminal for WSL Ubuntu and PowerShell, you can’t get the flame and checkmark.

From the WSL issue tracker, I see this quote from Rich Turner.

Alas, because the Console’s text renderer is GDI-based, we’re unable to support features like font-fallback which would allow us to support fonts that contain a specific set of symbols (e.g. Emoji, Klingon), but gradually fall-back on a more expansive font sets for other chars.
We have a goal to replace our renderer with a more modern DirectWrite renderer at some point in the (increasingly near) future.
When we do, we’ll be able to do A LOT of very cool, modern, fancy things with text that we’re simply unable to do right now.

Like I said, follow Rich Turner and search the issues if you’re looking into these issues.

But, I do want to have a pretty terminal that does what I put in the $PS1, so I am thinking that Xming and gnome-terminal might be the way to get that. Or there may be simpler choices.

If you have any questions or comments, I would be glad to hear it. Ask me on Twitter or make an issue on my blog repo.

Posted on by:

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Dave Jacoby

@jacoby

Long time computer user. Long time programmer.

Discussion

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The biggest problem to work WSL in my opinion is that your FS stay NFS. There's no symbolic link possible with Windows FS and that's really annoying. Most of modern web tools like npm, composer or framework (Symfony cache, assets) will not work.
That said, it's not possible to use WSL for serious work.

Maybe one day if Windows's FS change, but not today..

 

I keep bin/ and lib/ in Dropbox, using symbolic links to make Dropbox/bin into bin.

jacoby@Lion 10:58 ~
$ ls -l
total 240
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacoby jacoby     31 Jun 16 16:15 bin -> /mnt/c/Users/jacoby/Dropbox/bin
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacoby jacoby     31 Aug 10 14:22 dev -> /mnt/c/Users/jacoby/Dropbox/dev
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacoby jacoby     27 Jun 16 16:15 Dropbox -> /mnt/c/Users/jacoby/Dropbox
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacoby jacoby     31 Aug 10 14:22 lib -> /mnt/c/Users/jacoby/Dropbox/lib
lrwxrwxrwx 1 jacoby jacoby     19 Jun 16 16:15 win -> /mnt/c/Users/jacoby

I swear and affirm that this works. WSL is a work in progress.

Being said, I do my work on a Linux box and use the Windows for testing.

 

I was using Docker in my WSL and Postgres, the impossiblity of symlink made my persistent storage unable..

It's maybe something new but my biggest problem was the PostGres docker persistent storage..

 

I used Windows Subsystem for Linux (like you, via the Insider Preview) after getting a new machine for development a few months back.

I found that while it was better in terms of performance compared to using a virtual machine, the experience wasn’t really up to it for me running it natively.

To be fair, I shouldn’t expect the performance to ever surpass running Linux by itself, but it might be important to others.

Using Ubuntu, one of the things I ran across was the fact that services don’t start up automatically—you have to run them manually or set them up to run on login. There were also a few different quirks I had while trying to work with it, including when trying to install Node.js dependencies.

That’s not to say you can’t do good things with it—I’ve been able to set up Apache, Nginx, MariaDB, and PHP for web development, and it works great!

If you’re still looking for a native terminal for WSL, I’d suggest wsltty, which is basically a modified version of mintty. I think it might do a better job of rendering Unicode characters.

 

1) Thanks for "one of the things I ran across was the fact that services don’t start up automatically". I've been thinking "I wish I had cron" without thinking sudo /etc/init.d/cron start for a while now, but now it's going. I hate-hate-hate needing to Admin-up for task scheduling on Windows, and grumped on that without making that mental jump.

2) Other-OS-on-slower-OS is never going to be as fast as faster-OS. You are correct there. I use a lot of self-written command-line tools, and wanted to have them and be able to play Steam games and every other perk of running Windows on my personal laptop. Other people's performance algebra will not come up with the same answers.

3) Will look into wsltty. Thanks for that.