Windows shops, take note! You can continue to run your supported
platform of choice–Windows–and fairly easily run that useful Linux service
you’ve been eyeing as a possible solution to one of your nagging problems. Perhaps
you want to run Linux as your DHCP server for some reason. Go ahead! Even better, run it as a Linux service on one
of your Windows servers using coLinux.

What is coLinux and how does it work?

coLinux–short for “cooperative
Linux”–is a port of the Linux kernel modified to allow it to run
simultaneously with another operating system’s kernel. Sure, you could use a
program like VMware to achieve something similar, but by using coLinux, you can
cheaply and quickly get a Linux installation up and running on a Windows server
without the need for third party software at all. In doing so, you avoid the
overhead created by VMware’s own processes as well.

coLinux works fairly in a fairly unique way. Basically, coLinux
runs as any other Windows process and creates a virtual network between the physical
computer and the Linux kernel process. By working in this way, it makes the
Linux server act like a real Linux server that can run network-accessed
services in the expected way.

System requirements

coLinux requires Windows 2000, XP, or Windows Server 2003 in order
to work, although I was unsuccessful at getting it to work under Windows Server
2003. I have yet to find out why. These NT-based operating systems include
support for asynchronous operations and include security features not found in
DOS-based versions of Windows. “Asynchronous operations” is just a
fancy way of saying that the computer can work on new tasks while waiting for other
tasks to complete rather than queuing tasks up.

coLinux also requires the use of the TAP-Win32 virtual Ethernet
adapter driver. TAP-Win32 allows processes running under a Windows server to
access that Windows server as if it were accessing it over the network and
vice-versa. This probably brings some insight into how coLinux achieves its
capability of appearing to run as a separate computer. The version of the
coLinux installer I used for this article installed the TAP-Win32 driver as a
part of the installation.

You also need the Winpcap utility. Winpcap is a utility for Windows that provides packet
capture and analysis functions and is offers programmers a way to directly
access a packet driver independent of Microsoft’s APIs.

That said, you can also configure
coLinux to be bridged to a specific physical network adapter in your host
computer if you like. Accomplish this by making changes to the coLinux
configuration file, as discussed later. For this article, I’ll be using the
TAP-Win32 driver, which is installed automatically as a part of the coLinux
installation. I will, however, mention how to use a bridged connection in a
little while.

As far as RAM and disk space go, this is where things get a
little hairy with coLinux. Depending on how things
work out, coLinux can use anywhere from 16MB to 64MB of RAM. In the docs, the
authors use the phrase “It used to default to 29MB which was sufficient
for most things, now it seems to default to 64MB”, which probably doesn’t
inspire a whole lot of confidence. I tend to think that whoever wrote that part
of the documentation just chose a poorly worded sentence and didn’t intend to
imply that they have no idea how much RAM coLinux really uses.

This doesn’t mean that a system with a total of 128MB of RAM
will cut it. Bear in mind that you still need to run the operating system and
other required processes, so be sure to have sufficient physical RAM to
accommodate everything. Shoot for a minimum of 512MB, which, these days,
shouldn’t be much of a problem.

For disk space, you should have a partition with a few gigs
available, just like you would for a normal Linux server. Since coLinux works using disk images you can download, you can
check the size of the image you want to use to determine exact requirements. Officially
supported distributions include Gentoo, Debian, and Fedora Core in the 2.4
series kernel and just Gentoo and Debian if you prefer to use a kernel based on
Linux 2.6. You can modify other
kernels to work with coLinux, if you want, but I won’t be going over that in
this article.

Whatever you decide to download, it’s a root file system
image that you use to boot your coLinux process. I’ll go over this more in a

Scope of this article

This article isn’t intended to be
a complete replacement for the coLinux FAQ site. By the end of this article, you’ll
have a working coLinux installation and network connectivity between the host
computer on which coLinux is installed and the coLinux-based Linux server. You’ll
even be able to get to the Internet with your coLinux system, which takes a few
extra steps.

Further, coLinux does not include
a GUI–it’s a command line only affair. However, you can use a remote VNC
session to get a desktop. I’ll also go over that in this article. It is
possible to get an X desktop, but that requires a Cygwin installation and, in
the interest of simplicity, I use the VNC option.


Getting and installing winpcap

Remember, before you get coLinux,
download and install winpcap from
It’s a very straightforward installation. There are not gotchas to watch for.

Getting and installing coLinux

For this article, I downloaded
coLinux 0.6.2, which provides support for Linux 2.6 series kernels, from
coLinux’s SourceForge site. When you look at the download
size and realize it’s just under 5 MB, you might start
to wonder how small coLinux’s kernel really is. Actually, the downloadable
installer doesn’t include a full kernel. Instead, during the installation, you’re
asked to decide which kernel you want to use. You’ll see more of that soon.

Once downloaded, execute the
installer file. I saved everything to c:\colinux, which is also the location I’ll
ultimately use for my full coLinux install.

One of the first screens, shown in Figure A, asks you which components you’d like to install. Notice that winpcap is listed as a component, but when I failed to
install winpcap before coLinux, I was greeted with a friendly error message
asking me to install winpcap. Short story: I don’t
know if the coLinux installer really installs winpcap, so to play it safe, I
just canceled the coLinux install, installed winpcap and then continued on with
the coLinux install. It seemed to be the safest route to make sure that winpcap
did really make its way onto my server.

Figure A

For a standard install, pick everything and hit

Note that the last item on the
list is the “Root Filesystem Image Download”. If you’ve opted to
build your own coLinux-compatible kernel, you can deselect this option. For
this article, I won’t be building a custom kernel, so I kept the last option

Next, decide where you want the coLinux files to reside. The
default configuration, which you can change if you want, looks for everything
to be located in c:\colinux, so that’s where I installed coLinux, as shown in
Figure B.

Figure B

Choose an installation location for coLinux.

After deciding where you want
coLinux, decide which Linux distribution–Debian or Gentoo–you want to use
for your coLinux installation. Whatever you choose will be downloaded and
installed during the coLinux installation. I chose the Debian option for one
installation and the Gentoo install for another, and eventually stuck with the
Debian choice.

Figure C

Pick a Linux distribution, or none at all.

The next part takes a little time,
depending on the speed of your connection to the Internet. This part of the
installation downloads your selected distribution and then performs the actual
coLinux installation. During this, you’ll get a hardware installation warning
for TAP-Win32 indicating that it’s not certified by Microsoft. Continue the
installation from there.

Using coLinux

Before you get started using
coLinux, you need to expand the .bz2 (compressed) distribution image downloaded
during the coLinux installation. Winzip supports bz2
files. Expanding the Debian image I downloaded
resulted in a root file image around 1GB in size. Make sure you have a lot of
disk space available!

Next. copy
the default configuration file so you can preserve it in case you make a
mistake. For me, I copied the default.colinux.xml configuration file to “debian.xml”
in c:\colinux. I only made a couple of changes to the configuration file to
make coLinux work on my server. I had to change the file so that it pointed to
the Debian root file image that I downloaded. The following configuration line
achieved this:

<block_device index="0"
enabled="true" />

Make networking work

Right out of the box, the Linux
machine will run as a Windows application, but it’s “disconnected”–that
is, it doesn’t have a way to use the network yet. To get browsing, you have to
do a few things first.

First, enable Internet Connection
Sharing on your host system’s primary adapter. Later, the TAP driver you
installed will use this connection to let your Linux machine access the rest of
the network and the Internet. To enable Internet Connection Sharing, go to the Properties
page for the network connection that connects your host system to the network
and choose the Advanced tab. From that tab, enable the
Internet Connection Sharing checkbox.

Bear in mind that ICS is not
available on domain controllers at all, so you might have to mess around with
bridging adapter interfaces on your Windows system. If at all possible, avoid
this. It can result in unanticipated problems. Just try to use ICS wherever
possible. In the “Home networking connection” option box, choose the
TAP interface from the list.

Figure D

Choose the TAP interface as the home networking connection

Next, make sure that the IP
address for your TAP interface is set to The file system images
provided by the coLinux folks default to Also, rename your TAP
interface to TAP. It’s probably called something along the lines of “Local
Area Connection 2” before you rename it.

Toward the end of your configuration file, look for the line
that starts with <network index=”0″ | add a name=”TAP”
parameter to the end of that line. I found that it was easier to get coLinux
working properly when this parameter was added. When you’re done, the line
should read:

<network index="0"
type="tap" name="TAP" />

If you haven’t renamed your interface, replace name=TP”
with name=”name of your interface” instead. If the network adapter
you use to connect to the Internet or to your network is wireless, you should
add another parameter to this line to make sure networking eventually works;
namely add a mac=”xx:xx:xx:xx:xx:xx”
parameter right after the name parameter. In place of the XXs,
of course, provide the MAC address for your wireless adapter. This fools your
wireless access point into thinking that any traffic originating from your
coLinux machine is actually originating from your host.

Add a swap partition

Every good server needs space to
swap RAM to and from the disk. Your coLinux installation is no exception. Adding
a swap partition is pretty easy, though. First, you need a disk image for the
swap file. A number of pre-made swap file images in varying sizes are available
from I
selected a 256MB swap file for my installation and modified the swap file line
in my xml configuration file to read:

<block_device index="1"
path="\DosDevices\c:\coLinux\swap_256Mb" enabled="true"

The rest of the configuration can be
left alone, assuming you installed coLinux to c:\colinux. If you didn’t, make
the appropriate changes in the configuration file before continuing.

Run coLinux

By default, coLinux is allocated
64MB of RAM. My machine has 2GB, which is more than enough for coLinux and Windows
to coexist nicely. To run coLinux, from c:\colinux, execute

colinux-daemon -c debian.xml

If you’ve used Linux before, you’ll
see the familiar text scrolling by as disks are checked and services started,
as shown in Figure E. Notice that the console is wrapped up inside a Windows

Figure E

Debian Linux under coLinux is starting up.

Test host networking by pinging,
from the coLinux window,, the IP address of the host machine’s TAP
interface. Next, from the host machine, ping, the default IP
address for the distributions available from the coLinux site. In both cases,
you should have success, as I did for my installation.

Want a display?

I know: I said earlier that coLinux doesn’t provide a GUI. That’s
not entirely true since you can load
the X-windows packages and a window manager and then use them remotely over a
VNC connection.

First, you need the core X-windows packages, conveniently
available by using Debian’s apt-get. Of course, if you’re using a different
root file system such as Fedora or Gentoo, these instructions won’t work for

To get the X-windows core system
files, from the command line, execute:

apt-get install

eventually come to a configuration, which asks you a few questions regarding
your overall X configuration. With the exception of the questions listed below,
choose the defaults. Figures F and G show samples from my lab configuration.

Figure F

Choose the defaults for the overall X configuration

Figure G

These are the options I modified
and used in my sample configuration:

  • Color depth -16 bits
  • Resolution -800×600
  • X-server driver -VGA
  • Monitor type -LCD

X-windows in place, now you just need a window manager, such as KDE, to really
be able to use your system. Further, you’ll need to install the VNC server on
your system so that you can connect to your coLinux desktop using a VNC client
such as RealVNC, which is the client I
used for this example. Use the following two commands to install KDE and the
VNC server:

apt-get install kde

apt-get install vncserver

Before trying to connect to your shiny new coLinux
server, configure the VNC server side information that is executed when you
connect to an X session on your coLinux server. To do so, create a directory
name “.vnc” (with a leading period) in your home directory. For this
example, I used the root user, although in a production environment, this
probably isn’t a good idea. My VNC directory is created in /root/.vnc.

Next, create a
file called xstartup inside this new directory and add the following lines:


startkde &

This is a shell script that starts
KDE in the background when a VNC connection is established.

Next, provide a password for your VNC server by typing “vnc
server password” at the command prompt. Upon doing so, your coLinux
machine asks you to provide a password and then asks you to verify what you’ve

Finally, start the VNC server. I wanted to start up in
800×600 with 160bit color, so I used the following command:

vncserver :1 -geometry
800x600 -depth 16

might want different options, so make changes were appropriate. The result for
my installation is shown in Figure H.

Figure H

A VNC session to my coLinux

coLinux makes Linux and Windows
cohabitate nicely

Sure, VMware
could have done a lot of this with a little less hassle, but if you’re just looking for a test Linux system,
coLinux is starting to look like an interesting and viable option. With a few
problems–I was unable to get coLinux to work under Windows Server 2003 SP1,
for example–this beta of coLinux is looking really good and could conceivably
be used to satiate that web developer that needs a Linux system to test
different browsers, or just to dip your toes into the Linux world.