Build Microsoft's Build 2020 appears to mark the long-awaited Year Of Linux on the Desktop thanks to incoming Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) improvements, including GUI support.
WSL2 was quite the star of 2019's Build event and brought with it a tweaked Linux kernel, full system compatibility, and considerably snappier file performance. While its predecessor, effectively a translation layer, was the technological tour de force, WSL2 did the previously unthinkable and dropped a Linux kernel into Windows.
Sadly, developers restricted to production machinery are still waiting to see the fruits of Microsoft's efforts. After last year's fanfare, the update was added to Windows 10 20H1 for Insiders to test. Alas, the ongoing delays in actually getting 20H1 out of preview and into general availability has left the new toys out of reach for many.
Not in 20H1 but announced at this year's Build is the arrival of GUI support for Linux apps running in WSL2 thanks to Wayland and RDP painting the app on the Windows desktop. Access to GPUs from Linux is also on the way.
The two features regularly top the list of "wants" from developers and will be welcomed by the community, even if the thought of a graphical Linux app nestling among the Windows might cause some long-time Microsoft watchers to pass coffee through their noses.
Users prepared to jump through a few hoops have been able to coax WSL into displaying graphical Linux apps for some time. Back in 2018, open-source startup Whitewater Foundry released a distro preconfigured for graphical shenanigans in the form of Debian-based WLinux, which required the addition of a Windows X server to make the magic happen.
Now, according to Microsoft, "support for Linux graphical user interface (GUI) apps will enable you to open a WSL instance and run a Linux GUI app directly without the need for a third-party X server."
Hayden Barnes, Canonical senior developer advocate, told us the company had been looking at including an X Server in its own Microsoft Store distro but instead elected to collaborate with the Windows giant on its preferred path: "Both opened up a handful of edge cases, and it's just better to work together on these than try to do it on our own."
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Canonical is no stranger to collaborating with the former Linux-loathing (and now Penguin-petting) behemoth, having seen Ubuntu 18.04 LTS elevated to a first-class citizen of Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor in 2018.
In terms of what Windows users might actually use this graphical Linux support for, Microsoft suggested that developers might have a Linux IDE they'd prefer to use. Barnes agreed, putting forward KDevelop or GNOME Builder as use cases. "You don't want to torture some people with Emacs," he laughed.
While the GUI support may be the most eye-catching (when it arrives in Windows 10 – it took a few weeks after 2019's Build for WSL2 to arrive in the hands of Insiders), it is GPU support that has many excited. It will accelerate GUI applications and "it also unlocks GPU accelerated workflows," explained Barnes, "things like TensorFlow on MicroK8s on WSL."
The arrival of GPU acceleration for WSL2 will indeed remove a few roadblocks for users, particularly those wishing to experiment on-premises ahead of a transition to dedicated Linux machinery or a full-on Hyper-V session.
Getting those GUI Linux apps running will still require diving into the command line (although we have no doubt that some enterprising users will soon have seamless links up and running on their Windows desktops). However, Microsoft also announced that WSL would be receiving a simplified install experience, "which will make it easier than ever to start using Linux apps on Windows."
The Year of the Linux Desktop appears to be upon us. We're just a bit surprised that it seems to have turned out to be Windows. ®