Jack Franklin

Software Development on Windows 10 with WSL2

Back in October 2019 I'd taken the plunge and tried Windows for my development work. It was largely a succesful experiment. By using the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), I was able to run most of my tools effectively in Linux, something I'm familiar with, and with VSCode's WSL Remote plugin, I could run VSCode in Windows connected to the Linux environment provided by WSL, and things felt very familiar.

Shortcomings of WSL

That said, there were some minor issues and frustrations with WSL and this workflow. The main one was that WSL 1 was known to be much slower at file reads and writes. You might think this isn't a huge deal - but if you're running a package manager like npm and installing a bunch of dependencies, those reads and writes add up to the point where it's noticably slow (and I'm running on a fairly beefy XPS laptop).

WSL 1 also had some holes in terms of application support, you couldn't use Docker - not something I do regularly, but something that's useful to be able to reach for - and at times I found the VSCode WSL integration to be slightly laggy. Not much, and not often, but everything wasn't quite as smooth as it would be on the MacBook I usually worked on.

Enter WSL 2

WSL 2 (see an intro video here) promised major improvements over WSL 1. I can't go into the details of the implementation, because frankly it's way over my head, but from the learnings of the successes and failures of WSl 1 Microsoft were able to make amazing improvements in WSL 2. This comparsion on the MS site shows all the differences, but the highlight for me was that file IO performance was drastically improved - the docs quote 2-5x faster for running tools such as git or npm. I haven't benchmarked, but running WSL 2 feels so much snappier and I don't feel a noticable delay when running a large npm install. Additionally, WSL 2's architectural changes enable it to run many, many more apps, so using tools like Docker is now possible.

And, you could upgrade a WSL 1 install to WSL 2, so the upgrade path was super smooth!

Starting fresh

Given all the experimenting I'd done when I first got the laptop to get WSL 1 installed (I had to install a Windows Insider build to get it, whereas now WSL is available on the regular build), and the fact that the laptop was a bit bogged down with various bits of software and accumulated "stuff", I decided last week to completely reformat the machine and start a fresh.

For my future reference, for when I do it again or get a new machine, and for others who may be interested in doing software development on Windows 10, I decided to document the steps I took. Spoiler: there actually aren't that many!

Reinstalling Windows 10

You can install Windows however you like; my XPS came with a recovery disk, which I got at via "Reset this PC" in System Settings. That let me do a factory reset of the machine and left me with it running the same version that it was when it first shipped to me. That was a super smooth process, but left me with a Windows that was over a year out of date, so the first thing I did was let the software updater do its thing. Many downloads and restarts later, I had a fresh, up to date Windows 10 all ready to go.

Browser and 1Password

I'm a big fan of 1Password for storing all my passwords and the main way I access it is via the Google Chrome extension, so my first port of call is to download Chrome and sign in so all my extensions, including 1Password, get synced.

WSL 2 and Ubuntu

I run the Ubuntu distro on WSL 2, but these steps should be the same regardless of which distro you'd like to run. I followed this guide on the Microsoft site. It's got a fair few steps - you first have to enable WSL 1, then upgrade to WSL 2 (I'm not sure if in time this will change), then download a kernel update (far less scary than it sounds), before setting the default version to WSL 2, and finally then installing Ubuntu.

The docs mention that if you're on the Windows Insiders build, you can use the experimental wsl --install command.

This process is a bit manual and takes a few minutes as some of the steps require a restart of your machine, but it's just a case of following the instructions carefully and you'll be up and running.

The Windows Terminal

One of my major sticking points for Windows was the lack of a good terminal application. On OS X / Linux there's a great choice between the built in defaults, iTerm 2 (Mac) or others such as Alacritty (cross platform).

Thankfully Microsoft are rectifying that with the Windows Terminal, which is looking great! Whilst it's still got a few rough edges (primarily a lack of a settings interface, so you configure it via a JSON file only) it's really come a long way and I highly recommend it. When you run it, it will load a Windows Powershell by default, but you can customise the default profile, so I've set it to load my Ubuntu WSL 2 environment by default.

VSCode

VSCode is my editor of choice and is really the best option on Windows for me because of the previously mentioned WSL integration. I donwload this onto Windows and then use the VSCode settings sync. This used to require an extension to VSCode but is now built-in, and I use this to sync settings between my machines. This means I can download VSCode, log in and sync, and then all my extensions and settings will be downloaded for me. If you use VSCode, I highly recommend syncing your settings. Even if you only use one machine at all times, it's a great way to back up your settings should you have to reformat your machine in the future.

Diving into Ubuntu

At this point I've now got everything set up on the Windows side, and I fire up the Windows Terminal to get the Ubuntu environment configured. These steps are largely personal preference, but the tools I reach for are:

  1. Fish as my shell, along with Fisher for managing the plugins. I use chsh -s (which fish) to change the default shell to Fish, so when I load up the terminal it loads into Fish by default.
  2. I use asdf to manage all my versions of various languages, such as Node. I like asdf because it works well, never conflicts with other tools, and can be used to manage loads of languages - so I don't have to have separate tools for Ruby, Node, etc, but just use asdf for everything. I then immediately install Node as that's the main language I rely on.
  3. I then install the GitHub CLI. I love using this to create and clone repositories (gh repo clone jackfranklin/dotfiles) and also gh pr create to create pull requests.
  4. I install my dotfiles which I've built up over the years and they have plenty of little snippets that I rely on, including my custom aliases which I have safely in muscle memory and help me go quicker through the terminal.
  5. I follow the GitHub guide to generate a new SSH key (I can never remember the steps!) and add that to my GitHub profile, so I'm ready to clone, push and pull against both my public and private repositories.

Conclusion

I find Windows 10 a great environment to be productive in; the improvements to WSL 2 along with the ability of VS Code to connect seamlessly to it to create an environment that is pretty close to the Linux environments I usually have set-up on the Mac machines I normally work on.

With WSL set to gain the ability to run Linux GUI apps it's exciting to see how Windows 10 and WSL progresses in the next few years.

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