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Microsoft Offers New Tool to Grow Linux in Windows

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Apr 2, 2018 4:00 AM PT
New Microsoft tool helps devs run linux on windows 10

Microsoft has released an open source tool that makes it easier for programmers and developers to run Linux on Windows 10.

The new tool, released last week, also helps Linux distribution maintainers bring their distros to the Windows Store to run on Windows 10's Windows Subsystem for Linux. Microsoft developed the project for distribution maintainers and for developers who want to create custom Linux distributions to run on WSL.

The development team hopes open-sourcing this project will help increase community engagement through bringing more distros to the Microsoft Store. The goal is to bring WSL closer to the open source software community, according to Tara Raj of Microsoft's WSL team.

WSL enables programmers to build a full Linux development environment for testing production code on a Windows machine. It also lets them run Linux shell tools and popular open source programming languages, the Apache Web server, and Oracle MySQL.

WSL should help Microsoft retain developers and related communities' interest and enthusiasm, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"More tangibly, the WSL could result in an increase in the number and variety of compatible Linux distros and apps available in the Windows Store. That's no small thing," he told LinuxInsider.

Linux Limited

The release of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update lets anyone use WSL to install and run command-line interface tools for several Linux distributions. Canonical's Ubuntu Linux distro was the first to run on WSL, followed by Suse, Fedora, Kali Linux, Debian and others.

One key advantage of distributing through the Windows Store is the ability to install multiple Linux distributions and run them side by side. However, WSL does not support Linux graphical user interfaces. Microsoft's open source tool provides developers only with Linux alternative command-line interfaces.

Developers cannot distribute custom Linux distributions on the Windows Store. However, they can use the new tool to create custom Linux distribution packages that can be side-loaded onto a machine running Windows 10 in developer mode.

To publish their distros on the Microsoft Store, Linux distribution maintainers must work with Microsoft's WSL team. Only distro maintainers can submit custom Linux distro packages.

The new tool has plenty of pros for distro developers, noted Ian McClarty, president of PhoenixNAP Global IT Services.

One is that it makes it easier for them to reach a new community of end users.

"Being able to package and promote within the Microsoft ecosystem to a new generation is a major plus," McClarty told LinuxInsider.

How WSL Works

Microsoft's Windows Subsystem for Linux tool provides a connection between Windows and the Linux distribution. It controls the process of communicating between the two systems. It regulates processes such as performing initial setup for user creation and customizing message displays when the Linux distribution starts.

WSL is a work in progress. Microsoft plans to add more capabilities in the next major update to Windows version 1803. One new feature will be limited support for background tasks. So far, WSL installations do not use initd or systemd.

Other additions will make Unix domain sockets available for Windows and Linux apps, and provide better filesystem interoperability between the Windows and Linux OSes.

This sample reference implementation for a Windows Subsystem for Linux distribution installer application helps users get started creating a Linux distribution application for submitting to the Microsoft Store or to side-load on a dev machine.

The project, which is written in C++, is maintained by the WSL engineering team at Microsoft.

"This move helps Microsoft's platform remain relevant to a new generation of born-in-the-cloud users that has no loyalty to the Microsoft brand," said McClarty.

Pros and Cons

Linux is the platform of choice for many developers, noted Pund-IT's King. Most of their employers live and work in heterogeneous IT environments where Microsoft products have a significant footprint.

"So most any effort to improve the compatibility and integration of Linux distros and Windows environments can be beneficial," he said, "and hopefully reduce development time and complexity requirements."

The only downside would relate to the WSL constituting a sort of dead end for Linux developers or projects, according to King.

However, that seems unlikely under Microsoft's current leadership, he added.

The negative side may be lack of enthusiasm from a small subset of users who are open source purists -- the crowd who helped build the Linux legacy, added McClarty.

"Microsoft stands to benefit from this by having a response back to Amazon's involvement in the open source community," he said. "Amazon has embraced open source since the start of the platform's inception, and continues to advance open source distributions."


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.


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