"Main console" by "Steve Parker" on Flickr

Running services (like SSH, nginx, etc) on Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL1) on boot

I recently got a new laptop, and for various reasons, I’m going to be primarily running Windows on that laptop. However, I still like having a working SSH server, running in the context of my Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) environment.

Initially, trying to run service ssh start failed with an error, because you need to re-execute the ssh configuration steps which are missed in a WSL environment. To fix that, run sudo apt install --reinstall openssh-server.

Once you know your service runs OK, you start digging around to find out how to start it on boot, and you’ll see lots of people saying things like “Just run a shell script that starts your first service, and then another shell script for the next service.”

Well, the frustration for me is that Linux already has this capability – the current popular version is called SystemD, but a slightly older variant is still knocking around in modern linux distributions, and it’s called SystemV Init, often referred to as just “sysv” or “init.d”.

The way that those services work is that you have an “init” file in /etc/init.d and then those files have a symbolic link into a “runlevel” directory, for example /etc/rc3.d. Each symbolic link is named S##service or K##service, where the ## represents the order in which it’s to be launched. The SSH Daemon, for example, that I want to run is created in there as /etc/rc3.d/S01ssh.

So, how do I make this work in the grander scheme of WSL? I can’t use SystemD, where I could say systemctl enable --now ssh, instead I need to add a (yes, I know) shell script, which looks in my desired runlevel directory. Runlevel 3 is the level at which network services have started, hence using that one. If I was trying to set up a graphical desktop, I’d instead be looking to use Runlevel 5, but the X Windows system isn’t ported to Windows like that yet… Anyway.

Because the rc#.d directory already has this structure for ordering and naming services to load, I can just step over this directory looking for files which match or do not match the naming convention, and I do that with this script:

#! /bin/bash
function run_rc() {
  base="$(basename "$1")"
  if [[ ${base:0:1} == "S" ]]
    "$1" start
    "$1" stop

if [ "$1" != "" ] && [ -e "$1" ]
  run_rc "$1"
  if [ "$1" != "" ] && [ -e "/etc/rc${$1}.d/" ]
  for digit1 in {0..9}
    for digit2 in {0..9}
      find "/etc/rc${rc}.d/" -name "[SK]${digit1}${digit2}*" -exec "$0" '{}' \; 2>/dev/null

I’ve put this script in /opt/wsl_init.sh

This does a bit of trickery, but basically runs the bottom block first. It loops over the digits 0 to 9 twice (giving you 00, 01, 02 and so on up to 99) and looks in /etc/rc3.d for any file containing the filename starting S or K and then with the two digits you’ve looped to by that point. Finally, it runs itself again, passing the name of the file it just found, and this is where the top block comes in.

In the top block we look at the “basename” – the part of the path supplied, without any prefixed directories attached, and then extract just the first character (that’s the ${base:0:1} part) to see whether it’s an “S” or anything else. If it’s an S (which everything there is likely to be), it executes the task like this: /etc/rc3.d/S01ssh start and this works because it’s how that script is designed! You can run one of the following instances of this command: service ssh start, /etc/init.d/ssh start or /etc/rc3.d/S01ssh start. There are other options, notably “stop” or “status”, but these aren’t really useful here.

Now, how do we make Windows execute this on boot? I’m using NSSM, the “Non-sucking service manager” to add a line to the Windows System services. I placed the NSSM executable in C:\Program Files\nssm\nssm.exe, and then from a command line, ran C:\Program Files\nssm\nssm.exe install WSL_Init.

I configured it with the Application Path: C:\Windows\System32\wsl.exe and the Arguments: -d ubuntu -e sudo /opt/wsl_init.sh. Note that this only works because I’ve also got Sudo setup to execute this command without prompting for a password.

Here I invoke C:\Windows\System32\wsl.exe -d ubuntu -e sudo /opt/wsl_init.sh
I define the name of the service, as Services will see it, and also the description of the service.
I put in MY username and My Windows Password here, otherwise I’m not running WSL in my user context, but another one.

And then I rebooted. SSH was running as I needed it.

Featured image is “Main console” by “Steve Parker” on Flickr and is released under a CC-BY license.

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