3 minute read

If, like me, you’re moving between a number of environments for development, you may not always have access to Docker Desktop.

Well, don’t panic! It is still possible to get up and running in Windows without Docker Desktop. Why? Because we’re developers with super powers and there is nothing we cannot do when we’re given the time to solve a problem.

Notice I said ‘given the time’ - just because we can, doesn’t mean we should all of the time. It’s complicated and comes with an ongoing commitment to maintaining it all - not ideal for productivity, and your security team won’t be pleased if you don’t keep everything patched.

That said, there have been occasions when Docker Desktop has not been available to me and it has been useful to know how to use Docker in Windows, nonetheless.

In this article I’ll walk you through the process that I follow with Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL) 2 that lives in a small executable, wsl.exe, in c:\windows\system32. It will allow us to run Linux containers natively on Windows, without emulation.


These are shared with Docker Desktop so, if you had previously setup Docker Desktop, you may not need to complete these.

  1. Install Windows 10 version 1903 or higher or Windows 11.
  2. Enable the WSL 2 feature on Windows.
  3. Download and install the Linux kernel update package.

Creating a WSL 2 Distribution

1. First, install a Linux distro on WSL 2 - either from the Microsoft Store or from the command line. I’m using Ubuntu in this example.

wsl --install -d Ubuntu

2. When the installation completes, an automatic process to create a non-root user begins. Other distros may require you to configure a non-root user and sudo access yourself.

3. You should also confirm the command installed WSL 2 (not v1):

wsl --list --verbose

4. And if it did not, run the following command to upgrade it to v2:

wsl --set-version Ubuntu 2

5. Remember, you will be managing this VM yourself, so now is a good time to update the Ubuntu distro. Switch to your Ubuntu distro’s WSL 2 Bash shell:

wsl --distribution Ubuntu

And run:

sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade

Next, install Docker manually by setting up Docker Engine and launching dockerd. Refer to the complete official guide for Ubuntu if you get stuck, but the steps below should get you started.

Setting up the Docker Repository

Continue in your VM Bash shell.

1. Install packages to allow apt to use a repository over HTTPS:

sudo apt-get install \
    ca-certificates \
    curl \
    gnupg \

2. Add Docker’s official GPG key:

curl -fsSL https://download.docker.com/linux/ubuntu/gpg | sudo gpg --dearmor -o /usr/share/keyrings/docker-archive-keyring.gpg

3. Use the stable repository:

echo \
  "deb [arch=$(dpkg --print-architecture) signed-by=/usr/share/keyrings/docker-archive-keyring.gpg] https://download.docker.com/linux/ubuntu \
  $(lsb_release -cs) stable" | sudo tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/docker.list > /dev/null

Installing Docker Engine on the WSL 2 VM

Continue in your VM Bash shell.

1. Update the apt package index next:

sudo apt-get update

2. For this example, install the latest version of Docker Engine and containerd with the following command:

sudo apt-get install docker-ce docker-ce-cli containerd.io

3. Test it with the following command:

sudo docker run hello-world

You have now manually installed the Docker Engine on an Ubuntu WSL 2 VM. However, since you’re managing it yourself, there’s still more to do.

Additional Setup and Challenges

To manage Docker as a non-root user, rather than using sudo to run Docker commands, you must create a group, add a user, and possibly modify some file permissions. I won’t go through the details here, but you can follow the post-installation steps for Linux if you’ve got the time to do a proper job.

The post-installation steps also offer guidance on other challenges you might face while managing your own Docker VM, such as:

  • Configuring Docker to start on boot
  • Logging
  • Accepting connections to Docker daemon from remote hosts
  • Configuring remote access
  • Enabling IPv6
  • Fixing IP forwarding problems

Troubleshooting: Cannot Connect to the Docker Daemon

You were warned - Docker Engine and WSL 2 VM setup is a complex operation to take on. You’re now the admin of a Linux system and responsible for solving any problems. For example, you may have received the following error when you tried to run hello-world:

Cannot connect to the Docker daemon

You received this error because you are not working with a Debian-based distribution and must start the Docker service manually using systemctl or the service command. You probably won’t have systemctl out-of-the-box with the Ubuntu WSL distro, so use the service command:

sudo service docker start

When you rerun the hello-world test, you should now get a “Hello from Docker!”.