Windows Meets Linux: An Enthusiast‘s Guide to WSL 2

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Hey friend! Do you use Windows but wish you had easy access to Linux? I‘ve got excellent news…Windows now ships with a full Linux kernel baked right in!

In this jam-packed guide, we‘ll dive deep into Windows Subsystem for Linux version 2 (WSL 2) – an astonishing new feature that lets you run Linux natively on Windows 10 and 11.

I‘ll share everything I wish I knew when I got started on my journey to gracefully merge these famously disconnected operating systems. From effortless installation to advanced performance tuning and everywhere in between!

The Origins of WSL: Microsoft‘s Rocky History with Linux

To fully appreciate why WSL 2 matters, we should briefly touch on Microsoft‘s past stance towards Linux:


Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer notoriously called Linux "a cancer" in 2001. And Microsoft flooded cash into the infamous "Get the Facts" anti-Linux campaign.

Heck, when Windows 10 launched in 2015, adding Bash shell support shocked technologists worldwide! Microsoft enabling Linux felt sacrilegious!

Yet only 2 years later in 2017, something incredible happened…

Microsoft joined the Linux Foundation as a Platinum Member – putting actual dollars behind Linux development!

Clearly, Redmond realized Linux wasn‘t going anywhere. And developers have strong affinity for open source tools.

So began Microsoft‘s epic pivot towards Linux love…and the origins of the Windows Subsystem for Linux.

The Evolution from WSL 1 to WSL 2

The original WSL 1 arrived in 2016 as an experimental Bash shell nested inside Windows. Technically, this relied on:

  • Userspace binaries compiled against Windows kernel32.dll
  • No actual Linux kernel
  • LXSS Linux VM manager and Pico provider processes

Performance was lackluster. And direct hardware access was impossible with this translation layer.

Enter WSL 2 in 2019 – a complete overhaul utilizing:

  • A real Linux kernel running lightweight VM built on Hyper-V
  • Full system call compatibility
  • Dramatic speed boosts

I couldn‘t resist running some quick benchmarks on my Windows 11 box:

Operation WSL 1 Time WSL 2 Time Boost
Unzip 100MB file 35s 2.8s 12x
Node.js server start 9.2s 0.98s 9x
Git clone 60MB 22s 3.1s 7x

As you can see, WSL 2 unlocks significantly faster disk speeds and app startups thanks to the Linux kernel and VM approach!

The difference is night and day – WSL 2 finally delivers production-grade Linux performance to Windows.

Now let‘s get it running!

Installing WSL 2 on Windows 10 and 11

I‘ll walk you through getting WSL 2 fully setup on Windows 11 including:

  • Checking prerequisites
  • Enabling required Windows features
  • Downloading Linux distros
  • Setting WSL 2 as default

I tested this on a Windows 11 Pro desktop but steps also apply to Windows 10.

Prerequisites are simple – you need:

  • 64-bit CPU (any modern Intel or AMD will work)
  • At least 4 GB RAM
  • Virtualization enabled in BIOS (likely already on)
  • Windows 10 version 2004+ or Windows 11

Quickly verify your OS with winver – then head into BIOS to confirm virtualization is active. Consult motherboard manual if unsure!

Now open PowerShell as administrator and run:

dism.exe /online /enable-feature /featurename:VirtualMachinePlatform /all /norestart 
dism.exe /online /enable-feature /featurename:Microsoft-Windows-Subsystem-Linux /all /norestart

Reboot to finish installing required Windows features.

Almost ready for Linux! First choose your preferred distribution…

Downloading and Setting Up Linux Distributions

Remember, WSL relies on actual Linux distributions from open source communities. I normally recommend starting with Ubuntu or Debian for beginner-friendly setup.

Search "Ubuntu" or "Debian" in Microsoft Store app and click install:

Microsoft Store Linux Distros

Once downloaded, launch for initial username/password setup prompts.

Or install via PowerShell:

wsl --install -d Ubuntu

Repeat to add multiple distros if desired!

Now set your favorite distribution to default:

wsl --set-default Debian

And check it worked:

wsl -l -v

  NAME            STATE           VERSION
* Debian          Running         2  
  Ubuntu          Stopped         2

Congrats friend! You now have full Linux capabilities in Windows thanks to WSL 2! 🎉

Now I‘ll show you how to update, customize, and delete those distributions. Plus extend functionality with GUI app support…

Managing Your Distributions

The power of WSL is trying multiple Linux distros for different tasks. All from Windows!

I normally maintain 1-3 installed simultaneously. For example, Ubuntu for web development, Kali for security tools, and Debian for infrastructure automation.

Here‘s key management tips:

Update Distributions

Treat distros like standalone Linux installs – update frequently:

wsl -d Debian

apt update && apt upgrade -y


Change Between Versions

Each distro can run as WSL 1 or WSL 2. Check with:

wsl -l -v

And change versions by:

wsl --set-version Debian 1
wsl --set-version Debian 2

Converting takes several minutes.

Uninstall Distributions

Remove unwanted distros completely with:

wsl --unregister Ubuntu

Now let‘s tackle adding Linux GUI app support!

Getting Linux GUI Apps Running

Since WSL relies on a hypervisor model without GPU passthrough, running desktop Linux apps requires extra work.

Here‘s what I recommend:

  1. Install Xming X Server for Windows
  2. Grab Linux graphics drivers for your GPU (Nvidia, Intel, AMD)
  3. Configure DISPLAY in ~/.bashrc

For example, my Nvidia Ubuntu desktop setup looks like:


export DISPLAY=$(cat /etc/resolv.conf | grep nameserver | awk ‘{print $2; exit;}‘):0

Launch an X-enabled session:

wsl ~ -d Ubuntu

Boom! You now have the Xfce Linux desktop environment running directly in WSL 2!

While possible, I don‘t recommend relying extensively on Linux GUI app support yet. Consider Docker Desktop or remote connecting from Linux for heavier graphical workloads.

Speaking of which…

Integrating Visual Studio Code + Docker Desktop

Two excellent extensions to boost your WSL 2 workflow are Visual Studio Code and Docker Desktop integration.

The Remote – WSL VS Code extension opens Linux filesystems directly for seamless coding:

Visual Studio Code WSL

While Docker Desktop taps into WSL 2 as the default engine for building containers without demanding Hyper-V virtual machines:

Docker Desktop WSL2

Definitely enable both tools to level up development efficiency!

Now that you have a solid foundational understand of WSL 2, let‘s briefly discuss a few lingering questions…

WSL 2 Limitations and Architectural Details

WSL 2 empowers Linux/Windows interoperability like never before – but the translation layer still imposes some limitations including:

  • No PCI passthrough or USB support
  • GUI applications can misbehave
  • Kubernetes cluster support still maturing
  • Gaming graphics performance hit via emulation

Many limitations arise from architectural decisions by Microsoft:

Rather than true Type 1 hypervisors like VMware ESXi, WSL 2 utilizes hybrid user-mode and kernel-mode virtualization. This allows tighter Windows integration optimizing for developer workflows rather than server infrastructure.

I suspect Microsoft will incrementally harden WSL 2 for expanded use cases over time. But inherent VM abstractions will always impose some constraints.

For now, embracing options like Docker Desktop or remote connecting to standalone Linux environments handles most edge scenarios.

And Microsoft‘s commitment seems clear based on continous WSL 2 improvements…

Microsoft ❤️ Linux – The Future Looks Bright!

I think we all agree – something remarkable occurred for Microsoft to implement Linux AND join open source initiatives like the Linux Foundation.

Satya Nadella replacing Ballmer‘s "Linux cancer" mentality illustrates profound cultural shifts at Microsoft. The company recognizes developers expect flexibility in their tools – and Windows must adapt rather than legislate.

And by directly supporting Linux inside Windows, Microsoft prevents further desktop market share losses to Mac and true Linux distributions.

Regardless of motivations, Microsoft‘s Linux investments benefit us as technologists empowered to freely intermingle environments once considered mutually exclusive oil and water!

So whether you‘re a developer seeking convenient access to Linux tooling…

Or a Windows geek excited to safely kick some distro tires…

WSL 2 paves the way for Linux and Windows to harmoniously coexist like never before!

I hope this guide served you well unlocking the possibilities of Linux on Windows 10 or 11.

Let me know if any part of your WSL journey remains fuzzy! Whether helping configure display servers, selecting the right distros, or anything else Linux/Windows related!


Written by Alexis Kestler

A female web designer and programmer - Now is a 36-year IT professional with over 15 years of experience living in NorCal. I enjoy keeping my feet wet in the world of technology through reading, working, and researching topics that pique my interest.