Why Windows Shipping the Linux Kernel Changes Everything
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Microsoft is changing. Once a closed, monolithic organization with open hostility towards open sourced software, they now appear to be embracing it.

Along with some recent changes in attitude, including open sourcing Visual Studio Code, Windows are starting to embrace Linux. The Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) was an integrated virtual version of Linux within Windows.

A new version of WSL is on the way, and for some people, it’s going to change everything!

Why Would I Want Linux?

Linux Logo

At first glance, a Linux kernel within the Windows operating system might not seem too important. After all, if you already use Windows, why bother with Linux?

It turns out there are many reasons you might want to use Linux. Its stability and customizable nature makes it widely used across all forms of software development. Almost everything you see online and every app you use has a Linux server as its backbone.

If you are interested in open source projects and software, Linux as an operating system embodies this philosophy fully. There are free Linux equivalents of most pieces of software. If you are interested in development, open source projects are always looking for more contributors.

Is a particular piece of software not working the way you want it to? Then contribute to the project to make it better!

Doesn’t Windows Already Have Linux?

Linux in the windows app store

Microsoft introduced the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) with the 2018 Windows 10 Anniversary Update as a way to run Linux software in the Windows operating system.

Since then, installing a Linux distribution has been simple. Just head to the Microsoft Store, and choose from a selection of distributions.

Once installed, you can run the Linux command line straight from the start menu. This first iteration is now known as WSL 1.

Why Not Use a Virtual Machine?

Running other operating systems within Windows is nothing new. You can run almost any operating system with a Virtual Machine (VM), so why bother with WSL?

The difference an integrated system makes is speed and convenience. VMs typically run slower than native operating systems.

Since Linux operates natively within Windows, you can launch a Bash terminal from the start menu, and access your Linux subsystem in a matter of moments.

Compare this to the time it takes to spin up a VM or a dual boot of Linux and Windows, and you will see a real difference.

Still, WSL 1 has some caveats. Despite working faster than a typical VM, it remains a virtual operating system. WSL 2 changes this.

How Is WSL 2 Different?

Windows Subsystem for Linux

Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 (WSL 2) comes with an actual Linux kernel. Previously, Windows created an emulation of what the kernel does, and while it was highly optimized, it still wasn’t as good as the real thing.

The difference the kernel is going to make will be huge. According to Microsoft, there is a 20x increase in speed between WSL 1 and 2. Even if this turns out to be somewhat exaggerated, it will still be an incredible difference.

The idea of Windows shipping a Linux kernel to run within the Windows operating system is a big deal. It signifies the ongoing attitude changes at Microsoft towards open source software and operating systems.

Why Is the Kernel Important?

The kernel is the lowest level of software on an operating system. It is responsible for almost every way you interact with your computer. For example, every time you use the software on your computer, it is the kernel which translates your input into data the CPU can understand, and feeds you the output back.

Shipping the Linux kernel changes everything, as it means that any Linux specific tasks you are performing will be interacting with the Linux kernel. This level of compatibility pulls WSL 2 away from the concept of a typical VM.

Explaining what the kernel is What Is a Kernel in Linux and How Do You Check Your Version? What Is a Kernel in Linux and How Do You Check Your Version? Linux is an operating system, right? Well, not exactly! It's actually a kernel. But what is the Linux kernel? Read More and what it can do is all well and good, but it still doesn’t answer the question: why is this such a game changer?

Things You Can Do With a Kernel That You Couldn’t Before

Logo for the popular Docker platform

Any file-intensive operations were a bottleneck for WSL 1, as Windows and Linux run different file systems.

Rather than making direct system calls, WSL 1 has to translate these calls into data Windows can understand.

With the Linux kernel in place, starting WSL 2 is significantly faster (demos show it booting in under two seconds). All of the previously mentioned speed issues are gone, as the operating system is running directly on the kernel.

Practical applications for this include running server solutions like Docker in a native Linux environment. This is a great benefit when developing for a remote Linux server.

Moreover, anything you would have typically used a full Linux system for will be possible within WSL 2, at near-native speeds.

Windows Terminal

WSL 2 will work hand-in-hand with another highly anticipated Microsoft project: the new Windows Terminal.

Designed as a complete reboot of using the command line on windows, Terminal’s design is cross-platform by nature.

As well as running hybrid tasks within a single terminal window, the ability to use Powershell for Windows and Bash for Linux in different tabs of the same terminal window will change everything for cross-platform developers.

Should I Switch to Windows?

So far, we’ve looked at this from a Windows perspective, but what if you already run Linux? Should you make the switch?

In all likelihood, the answer is no. If you are already running Linux, then you won’t see any benefits from switching now. Many Linux users prefer the fully open nature of the operating system.

Historically Microsoft hasn’t been kind to open source projects, and that history is well remembered by many.

If you use both operating systems, WSL 2 will be a great addition to the Windows side of your daily use, and for developers using both platforms daily, it’ll change everything about the way you can organize your workspace.

Operating the System

WSL isn’t new news, but these changes are significant enough to turn some heads. It was possible to load a Linux Desktop in WSL 1, so it seems highly likely it’ll be possible in WSL 2 also.

That said, if you don’t like Microsoft and want to stay open source, this isn’t for you. It would be understandable, and there are so many other great ways to stay open source Your Complete Guide to Living a 100% Free and Open Source Life Your Complete Guide to Living a 100% Free and Open Source Life Windows and macOS are commercial, proprietary, closed source operating systems. Linux, and its many applications, are free and open source. Want to use only free and open source software? Here's how. Read More !

Explore more about: Linux, Linux Kernel, Windows Subsystem for Linux.

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  1. Alex Angelou
    July 23, 2019 at 11:35 pm

    Basically, this is just a way Microsoft is trying to make its own product officially compatible with Linux. If you're already running only Linux by choice this won't be any reason to switch back. Windows will be the same cluttered mess for you. It is however for the user who were stuck using PuTTY, Cygwin or even VMs to run linux utilities like ssh or stuff. This might also bring the ability to run Linux programs inside Windows. Moreover, ext4 integration, lvm integration and others are possible. It's basically windows bending to the will of linux. And if you think this is just another way of MS trying to embrace, extend, extinguish, the extending part won't work very well with GPLv3 license. They will be forced to opensource changes effectively nullifying this strategy.

  2. Yannis
    July 17, 2019 at 4:28 pm

    I happen to use WSL 1 (with Ubuntu as the subsystem of choice) and have heard a little bit about this.

    Is there any word on how I can migrate from WSL 1 to 2? Will it be an automatic update through the Windows Store or do I need to do any extra work?

  3. CityguyUSA
    July 17, 2019 at 8:26 am

    I see massive layoffs at Microsoft.

    MS replaces the hardware abstraction layer (HAL) with a Linux Kernel and updates the Linux destop interface to be Windows or replaces the Linux desktop with Windows desktop something Linux hasn't been able to accomplish.

  4. Steven
    July 11, 2019 at 8:31 pm

    Windows is dying.
    END OF LINE.

  5. dragonmouth
    July 10, 2019 at 8:31 pm

    "Why Windows Shipping the Linux Kernel Changes Everything "
    It only "changes everything" in the minds of Microsoft brain trust.

    "Microsoft is changing. Once a closed, monolithic organization with open hostility towards open sourced software, they now appear to be embracing it."
    Another feeble attempt by MS to Embrace, Extend and Extinguish Linux. They failed before and they will fail now.

    Windows users have been whining for years that Linux is too hard, it is for geeks, it uses CLI, it does not look and feel like Windows, it can't run Windows saoftware, yada, yada, yada. So now, all of a sudden they will embrace Linux just because MS included a Linux kernel in Windows? OTOH, once MS gets done massaging the kernel and the distros in the MS Store, MS Linux probably will look, feel and work like Windows. It will harvest user data and call home with it just like Windows. It will cost just like Windows. It will have most of blemishes and warts that Windows has. MS will even make its Linux into SaaS product just like Windows.

    • epii
      July 23, 2019 at 7:45 pm

      Dragonmouth, I'm with you. I don't trust MS for one second. They have some sort of agenda here... don't know what it is but I find it difficult to believe they have developed a true love affair with Linux.

    • Alex Angelou
      July 23, 2019 at 11:39 pm

      Helloooo, the linux kernel is GPLv2 licensed. Microsoft cannot do anything on it without opensourcing their work.

    • Jim
      August 22, 2019 at 10:39 am

      Amen, Windoze Hates Linux, always has, always will.

  6. Amine
    July 10, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    Well ...we should have a Windows kernel for linux

    • dragonmouth
      July 10, 2019 at 8:05 pm

      WHY?!!!
      Most Linux users want(ed) to get away from Windows.

  7. Pedro Lopes
    July 10, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Clever way to kill Linux, slowly.
    As of this moment the majority of laptops and workstations run on Windows, a few on Chrome OS and there is still Apple, Linux comes at best in third place, ahead of Apple, on the statistics of use.
    Usually people who move to Linux are already using libreoffice, gimp, Inkscape and a miriad of other open-source software, and that is the big advantage of Linux, you can run all of those open-source programs better on Linux than on Microsoft, less crashes and errors, this programs were developed to run on Linux, the proof is that they use Linux libs that are not supported by Microsoft. The advantage of Linux was running programs smoothly on Linux over running software that is crashy on on windows, that advantage just dissappeared. if there is no advantage for having Linux, soon developers will start to move away and Linux will go back into obscurity and become something like Freebsd, people vaguely know it exist, but they don't use it or develop it.

    • Alex Angelou
      July 23, 2019 at 11:45 pm

      You haven't still seen the real use of Linux. Do you really think Linux is all about the desktop? I've got news for you - it isn't. What MS is doing is replacing legacy tools like PuTTY or Cygwin for a more official and modern solution. It's about letting the users who want to use windows use windows, even if they are stuck working with Linux. It's the long awaited integration we were waiting for - windows supporting officially ssh, ext4, and many more linux tools. You probably didn't have to use these extensively in your desktop, but that doesn't mean they are useless and scarce, in fact they are the face of linux to the dev world.

    • Alex Angelou
      July 23, 2019 at 11:58 pm

      I see people here making this mistake over and over again: thinking Linux = Desktop only OS. What MS does will not have any implications on the Linux Desktop and minimal implications on the Windows Desktop (like easier packaging of linux programs into windows). This is all about the people who work inside the terminal, inside ssh, and have been using sorry tools like Cygwin or PuTTY. People saying it's embrace-extend-extinguish know that this is not gonna work - just like Microsoft does. People arguing that this is useless because Linux is all about freedom and stability and whatnot have probably never used Linux professionally. I personally want my ext4 usb stick working on Windows because NTFS and FAT32 are sorry excuses of Filesystems and so does most of the world who knows what ext4 mean. I want my app which I developed for GNOME to be easily portable to any OS and so does any developer out there who considers Linux as their main development platform. In fact we are the ones extending Windows right now - devs can now shift the focus to Linux first and then port to Windows.

      • James
        September 19, 2019 at 10:11 pm

        Hi, interesting your comment Alex. Do you really think that with this change, developers will focused first on Linux due to nature of windows having linux kernel?

  8. ULYSSES
    July 10, 2019 at 4:26 am

    Its the sirens from Odysseus dont be fooled all marketing no substance. Dont be fooled or youll crash on the rocks and drown. Tie yourself to the Linux mast and dont even listen put noise silencing earmuffs on.

  9. Ulysses
    July 10, 2019 at 4:15 am

    This is more compete marketing BS of which Microsoft is famous. Just ask yourself a couple of very simple questions. It will help you completely cut through the BS. If Microsoft is going to run a "full Linux Kernel" what does that make the OS ? LINUX LINUX LINUX with Micrograft's name on it . Like they have done on dam near every product they supposedly ever created ! They going to attempt it again but it aint gonna work...this time. Their timing is off the waited too long. Why are they doing this ? Winblows Tin is so bad they don't have a choice. Don't get taken in by the hype. They got a pig, they gonna put lipstick on it but in the end its still a pig. Don't be fooled keep using your own flavor of Linux and dont listen to sirens of odysseus.

    • Jim
      August 22, 2019 at 10:41 am

      Yes, and later will come the patent infringement lawsuits.

  10. Ivan Vol
    July 10, 2019 at 2:08 am

    I wonder if it will run in VM, as I run Windows in Linux/QEMu and use WSL occasionally.

  11. Pierre
    July 9, 2019 at 12:43 pm

    why should anyone have to Buy an Windows License ?
    - when most Linux Systems are Free ? ?
    that alone - defeats the whole point of running any Linux System.

    • Chad Bernier
      July 9, 2019 at 9:09 pm

      First, most people already have a license. They generally come with the laptop. You have to go out of your way to buy a laptop without windows.

      Also, most of our employers already own a license. Your work is paying for it, why do you care?

      Presumably there are small busnessss and contractors and other people who don't already have a license. In this case, it comes down to cost benefit analysis.

      A windows license is cheap in terms of developer time. You only need to save the developer a little bit of time in order for the license to pay for itself. Whether a windows license saves a developer time or not depends on the developer and their workflow and their luck etc.

      But this is why people in the professional world buy software. A $1000 software that saves you $10,000 worth of time is a good deal.

      You can code on pure Linux. But what about everything else in your job? Email, communication, reports, etc. It's not worth the trouble to try to make Microsoft Office work on Linux and it isn't worth the trouble to use an alternative.

      WSL solved this problem and WSL2 more so. You can use the Linux for the development part, and still use windows for the reporting and all other aspects of your job. You don't have to worry about weird Linux problems putting your entire work computer out of commission. It's just a much better more professional experience.

      • Jim
        August 22, 2019 at 10:46 am

        Wow, I had a lot of weird Microsoft problems, like failed updates, registry errors, inconvenient updates. updates that took a day to complete so my computer was unusable and a lot of time wasted on spyware and virus software installation updating and removal. Since I switched to Linux I have not had even ONE OF THOSE PROBLEMS. But hey, keep spreading FUD, we really do get a kick out of it.

      • James
        September 19, 2019 at 10:15 pm

        this comment is stupid. GNU/Linux is more stable than windows. Nobody needs Microsoft office to work in Linux, when Libreoffice offer the same, or when you have online options like Onedrive + office, or google docs. Did you really think than a system like windows make more productive an user? This means, that you never tested a real GNU/Linux distribution on your machine.

    • Anacronico
      July 10, 2019 at 7:48 am

      The purpose is to attract Linux users and the developer community and sell it within Windows

      • dragonmouth
        July 22, 2019 at 12:18 pm

        Do you really think that Linux user and developer community will be attracted to a Linux platform created, supported and controlled by Microsoft?! Linux is about freedom, actual and intellectual. Microsoft-type control is anathema to Linux users and developers.

        Would you want to use Linux software that might be spying on you and calling home to Redmond?