When I was temporarily without any Mac, but still had my Windows gaming PC, I wanted to continue coding on the latter. But Windows can be very clumsy for developers. To install e.g. node.js or PHP, you always have to go to a website and download an executable. Then you need to somehow get all in your PATH variable manually. Whereas on Linux or Mac you just fire a command on the Terminal to install the stuff you need and it is there, ready to run. Ultimately, when I needed an Apache webserver the hassle with Windows drove me deep into the thought of installing Linux on my PC.
The main question when installing Linux on a Windows PC is: Do you use a virtual machine, where one is the host of the other, or do you use dual boot? At least, those were the two go-to options I was aware of (stupid me). I tried an Ubuntu VM, which was very slow and its graphics did not work well. So I almost installed the dual boot – until I heard of Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL).
WSL allows you to install a GNU/Linux system into your existing Windows system – without any virtualization or dual boot setup. It integrates the respective kernel into the Windows system and you run all your Linux applications and (most importantly) all command-line tools directly in Windows. You can also run Linux applications with graphical interfaces using window forwarding. Sounds magical, right? It is a huge quality of life feature for developers. And lets me ask the question: How good is Windows if you need to integrate Linux to make it better? 😉
Installation of Linux with WSL
The WSL documentation for the installation is quite good. And the installation is very easy. All you need is Windows 10 version 2004 and higher or Windows 11. Then run a PowerShell or Windows Command Prompt as administrator and run the command
The command installs the default Linux distribution that is Ubuntu. You can install any custom distribution by importing a TAR file. There are a bunch of distributions you can install from the online store as listed by the command
wsl -l -o :
C:\Users\Daniel>wsl -l -o The following is a list of valid distributions that can be installed. Install using 'wsl --install -d <Distro>'. NAME FRIENDLY NAME Ubuntu Ubuntu Debian Debian GNU/Linux kali-linux Kali Linux Rolling openSUSE-42 openSUSE Leap 42 SLES-12 SUSE Linux Enterprise Server v12 Ubuntu-16.04 Ubuntu 16.04 LTS Ubuntu-18.04 Ubuntu 18.04 LTS Ubuntu-20.04 Ubuntu 20.04 LTS
You can install the respective distro with
wsl --install -d <Distro>
You can even install multiple Linux versions on the same Windows computer. For more details, see the Microsoft documentations.
Use Windows Terminal to access Linux
I never heard that before, but there is indeed a Windows Terminal, a Terminal application for Windows just like you know it from your beloved Linux or Mac system. Basically, the Terminal is an alternative to the Command Prompt (CMD) and the PowerShell. You will use the Terminal to access and control your Linux distribution.
You can install the Terminal from the Microsoft Store using the link https://aka.ms/terminal or manually, or you build it from the GitHub repository. For more installation options see the Microsoft documentation.
After installing and starting the Terminal, you can click the down-arrow in the menu bar to access your Linux instance (in my case Ubuntu).
You can also navigate to the settings and set the default profile to your Linux instance (still Ubuntu for me). That way, every time you start the Terminal it opens a new tab for your Linux instance and if the instance is not running already, start it up.
From the Terminal, you can now run your Linux commands. First thing you should do is update the package manager itself and all applications managed by it. For an Ubuntu instance use
sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade
Starting up the Linux system
The Linux system should start as soon as you launch your Windows Terminal with the respective profile. For me, it takes some seconds after I start the Terminal and then the Linux system is ready quite fast. After startup, the system shows a message with some status information.
Access the Linux file system
You can access all files of the Linux instance using the Windows Explorer. Inside the Terminal run the command
explorer.exe is very important as it tells the Explorer to open your current directory, i.e. your Linux home directory. If you skip the period, it will open your Windows home directory, not your Linux home directory.
If you click on the
wsl$ part in the directory bar in your Windows Explorer, then right-click on the Ubuntu folder and choose
Map network drive... (this opens a dialogue where you have to choose a letter for the drive) you can map the directory to a drive (e.g.
Z: ) so it is easily accessible from your Windows Explorer.
In other articles, I explain how to ideally setup local development environments using the WSL Linux instance and Windows together.
If you want to setup PHP, Apache web server, MySQL database and run WordPress on top of that check out my other article.