VBoxHeadless - Running Virtual Machines With VirtualBox 3.1.x On A Headless Debian Lenny Server

Version 1.0
Author: Falko Timme
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This guide explains how you can run virtual machines with Sun xVM VirtualBox 3.1.x on a headless Debian Lenny 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 a Debian Lenny 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.

If you only have a root account, but no normal user account, create one as follows (user administrator, group administrator)...

# groupadd administrator
# useradd -d /home/administrator -m -g administrator -s /bin/bash administrator

... create a password for the new user...

# passwd administrator

... and log in as that user.


2 Installing VirtualBox

To install VirtualBox 2 on our Debian Lenny server, we need root privileges, therefore we run

$ su

Then we add the VirtualBox repository to our apt configuration:

# echo "deb http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/debian lenny non-free" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/virtualbox.list

Then we download Sun's public key...

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

... and update our package database:

# aptitude update

Now we bring our system up to date:

# aptitude safe-upgrade

(It is possible that the kernel gets updated. If this is the case, reboot the system...

# reboot

... log in as the normal user again and become root:

$ su


Afterwards, we install VirtualBox 3.1.x as follows:

# aptitude install linux-headers-$(uname -r) build-essential virtualbox-3.1 dkms

(The dkms package ensures that the VirtualBox host kernel modules are properly updated if the Linux kernel version changes.)

Creating group 'vboxusers'
Users of VirtualBox must be members of that group. Host network interfaces will be assigned to that group.
<-- 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:

# adduser administrator vboxusers

VirtualBox is now installed and ready to be used.


# exit

to leave the root account and become a normal user (administrator) again.


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 http://www.virtualbox.org/manual/UserManual.html#vboxmanage.

I will now create a Debian Lenny Server VM with 256MB memory and a 10GB hard drive from the Debian Lenny Netinstall iso image (which I have stored in /home/debian-500-i386-netinst.iso):

$ VBoxManage createvm --name "Debian Lenny Server" --register
$ VBoxManage modifyvm "Debian Lenny Server" --memory 256 --acpi on --boot1 dvd --nic1 bridged --bridgeadapter1 eth0
$ VBoxManage createhd --filename Debian_Lenny_Server.vdi --size 10000 --register
$ VBoxManage storagectl "Debian Lenny Server" --name "IDE Controller" --add ide
$ VBoxManage storageattach "Debian Lenny Server" --storagectl "IDE Controller" --port 0 --device 0 --type hdd --medium Debian_Lenny_Server.vdi
$ VBoxManage storageattach "Debian Lenny Server" --storagectl "IDE Controller" --port 1 --device 0 --type dvddrive --medium /home/debian-500-i386-netinst.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 "Debian Lenny Server"

(Replace Debian Lenny 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 stop a VM, run

$ VBoxManage controlvm "Debian Lenny Server" poweroff

To pause a VM, run

$ VBoxManage controlvm "Debian Lenny Server" pause

To reset a VM, run

$ VBoxManage controlvm "Debian Lenny Server" reset

To learn more about VBoxHeadless, take a look at

$ VBoxHeadless --help

and at http://www.virtualbox.org/manual/UserManual.html.

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