VBoxHeadless - Running Virtual Machines With VirtualBox 2.0 On A Headless Ubuntu 8.04 Server

Version 1.0
Author: Falko Timme

This guide explains how you can run virtual machines with Sun xVM VirtualBox 2.0 on a headless Ubuntu 8.04 server. Normally you use the VirtualBox GUI to manage your virtual machines, but a server does not have a desktop environment. Fortunately, VirtualBox comes with a tool called VBoxHeadless that allows you to connect to the virtual machines over a remote desktop connection, so there's no need for the VirtualBox GUI.

I do not issue any guarantee that this will work for you!


1 Preliminary Note

I have tested this on an Ubuntu 8.04 server (host system) with the IP address where I'm logged in as a normal user (user name administrator in this example) instead of as root.


2 Installing VirtualBox

To install VirtualBox 2.0 on our Ubuntu 8.04 server, we open /etc/apt/sources.list...

sudo vi /etc/apt/sources.list

... and add the following line to it:

deb http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/debian hardy non-free

Then we download Sun's public key...

sudo wget -q http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/debian/sun_vbox.asc -O- | sudo apt-key add -

... and update our package database:

sudo apt-get update

Now we bring our system up to date:

sudo apt-get upgrade

Afterwards, we install VirtualBox 2.0 as follows:

sudo apt-get install linux-headers-$(uname -r) build-essential virtualbox-2.0

Creating group 'vboxusers'
Users of VirtualBox must be member of that group in order to have write permissions to /dev/vboxdrv. Otherwise starting of VMs will not be possible.
<-- Ok

Unable to find a precompiled module for the current kernel! [...]
Should the vboxdrv kernel module be compiled now
? <-- Yes

Now we must add the user that will run VirtualBox (administrator in this example) to the vboxusers group:

sudo adduser administrator vboxusers

VirtualBox is now installed and ready to be used.


3 Using VirtualBox On The Command Line

3.1 Creating A VM

To create a VM on the command line, we can use the VBoxManage command. See

VBoxManage --help

for a list of available switches and (highly recommended!) take a look at chapter 8 (VBoxManage reference) in the VirtualBox 2.0 user manual.

I will now create an Ubuntu 8.04 Server VM with 256MB memory and a 10GB hard drive from the Ubuntu 8.04 Server iso image (which I have stored in /home/ubuntu-8.04.1-server-i386.iso):

VBoxManage createvm -name "Ubuntu 8.04 Server" -register
VBoxManage modifyvm "Ubuntu 8.04 Server" -memory "256MB" -acpi on -boot1 dvd -nic1 nat
VBoxManage createvdi -filename "Ubuntu_8_04_Server.vdi" -size 10000 -register
VBoxManage modifyvm "Ubuntu 8.04 Server" -hda "Ubuntu_8_04_Server.vdi"
VBoxManage registerimage dvd /home/ubuntu-8.04.1-server-i386.iso
VBoxManage modifyvm "Ubuntu 8.04 Server" -dvd /home/ubuntu-8.04.1-server-i386.iso


3.2 Importing An Existing VM

Let's assume you have a VM called examplevm that you want to reuse on this host. On the old host, you should have a directory Machines/examplevm in the VirtualBox directory; Machines/examplevm should contain the examplevm.xml file. Copy the examplevm directory (including the examplevm.xml file) to your new Machines directory (if your user name is administrator, this is /home/administrator/.VirtualBox/Machines - the result should be /home/administrator/.VirtualBox/Machines/examplevm/examplevm.xml).

In addition to that copy the examplevm.vdi file from the old VDI directory to the new one (e.g. /home/administrator/.VirtualBox/VDI/examplevm.vdi).

Afterwards, you must register the imported VM:

VBoxManage registervm Machines/examplevm/examplevm.xml 


3.3 Starting A VM With VBoxHeadless

Regardless of if you create a new VM or import and old one, you can start it with the command:

VBoxHeadless -startvm "Ubuntu 8.04 Server"

(Replace Ubuntu 8.04 Server with the name of your VM.)

VBoxHeadless will start the VM and a VRDP (VirtualBox Remote Desktop Protocol) server which allows you to see the VM's output remotely on another machine.

To learn more about VBoxHeadless, take a look at

VBoxHeadless --help

and at chapter 7.4 (Remote virtual machines (VRDP support)) in the VirtualBox 2.0 user manual.

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16 Comment(s)

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By: Anonymous

How can I start VMs without logging in during bootup?

How could I write an init script to do this?




By: Richard Gomes

Insert these lines in your /etc/rc.local :

for vm in `ls /root/.VirtualBox/Machines` ;do
  VBoxManage startvm $vm -type vrdp

Obs: I have a .VirtualBox under my /root. See what applies to your environment.

Hope it helps

Richard Gomes

By: Richard Gomes

Insert these lines in your /etc/rc.local :

for vm in `ls /root/.VirtualBox/Machines` ;do
  VBoxManage startvm $vm -type vrdp

Obs: I have a .VirtualBox under my /root. See what applies to your environment.

Hope it helps

Richard Gomes

By: Brian


having tryed a few different ways, of starting a virtual machine from remote and then exiting the rsh connection to the remote host. the method below is the one that works for me in solaris.

VBoxManage startvm <session name> -type vrdp


By: Opieum


What you described could just as easily apply to VMware as well. VMware may not be FOSS but it is at least free in price.  And TBH I find it to be more rock solid in terms of quality with more robust Virtual hardware support. The new web interface can give you a very good opportunity at creating and managing VMs. Or you could use Vmware 1.0 and install the client portion on a remote machine to manage the server. Both products are free. Or if you have compatibile hardware install ESXi which would be the best option if you are going to run headless.  


By: a non-emouse

to do the same thing, you could run

screen  VBoxHeadless -startvm dev1

 then hit control A then D

 and it will run happily in the background, and even log out from the desktop or terminal session.

 screen -dr will happily bring it back to the foreground when you want it, even from a remote session.

By: Joseph Moreland

How about 

nohup VBoxHeadless -startvm dev1 &

 then logout without worry.


By: Shane watson

i  have  found this  article http://www.virtualizationteam.com/microsoft/hyper-v/important-information-about-hyper-v.html

about insatling VMWare on window platform. its sounds goods working on window i think linux would be the better platform.

By: markba

The VBoxHeadless command can also be issued like this:
VBoxManage startvm <session name> -type vrdp

It works flawlessly, it is not necessary to add a '&' after the command to regain console control.

For easy control of controlling VirtualBox sessions in a headless Linux environment, I'm currently developing a management framework: VBoxTool. As of now, it consist a script with which you can mass start, save, backup and configure (vrdp port) vbox sessions.

By: Sean Stoops

I use this everyday, thought I usually append an ampersand on the end so kick it into the background.

 VBoxHeadless -startvm dev1 &

Just make sure you don't go closing that terminal session or else your VM will go down with it.

By: Daniel

Excellent article! Is it possible to run VirtualBox as described in this article but access desktop VMs on the same machine instead of remotely? Servers I can see, but how would one invoke a VM running, say, Xubuntu? I want to have a good base server OS that never gets modified, and on top of it run a network of VMs (graphical and otherwise) to do my web development.

By: marmellat

it works perfectly on my debian lenny , thanks

By: 2iR0n

# For vms installed by a normal user (not root) this works on a Ubuntu 9.04 host machine.

for vm in `ls /home/USER/.VirtualBox/Machines`


/bin/su -l USER -c "nohup /usr/bin/VBoxManage startvm $vm --type vrdp"


# If more than one vm is to be started you will need to set different ports for vrdp to work. Eg...

VBoxManage modifyvm VMNAME --vrdpport 3390

rdesktop xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx:3390

# for Windows TS client you have to edit the freakin' registry... LOL


By: Anonymous

Thanks for this script.  Suitably modified, it was exactly what I was looking for.

By: Limey

This is exactly what I'm trying to do, but won't...

sudo apt-get install linux-headers-$(uname -r) build-essential virtualbox-2.0

...install all the dependencies of Virtual Box as well, i.e. all the X (GUI) stuff which you don't want on the server?

By: Anonymous

Dont forget to set your bridge Interface:

VBoxManage modifyvm "WindowsXP" --nic1 bridged --bridgeadapter1 eth0