VBoxHeadless - Running Virtual Machines With VirtualBox 4.0 On A Headless Ubuntu 10.10 Server

Version 1.0
Author: Falko Timme
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This guide explains how you can run virtual machines with VirtualBox 4.0 on a headless Ubuntu 10.10 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 10.10 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 4.0 on our Ubuntu 10.10 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 maverick contrib

Then we download the VirtualBox public key...

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

... and update our package database:

sudo apt-get update

Afterwards, we install VirtualBox 4.0 as follows:

sudo apt-get install linux-headers-$(uname -r) build-essential virtualbox-4.0 dkms

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

Starting with version 4.0, VirtualBox has introduced so called "extension packs" and has outsourced some functionality like remote desktop connection support (VRDP) that was part of VirtualBox packages before version 4.0 into these extension packs. Because we need remote desktop connections to control our virtual machines, we need to install the appropriate extension pack now. Go to http://www.virtualbox.org/wiki/Downloads, and you will find a link to the following extension pack:

VirtualBox 4.0 Oracle VM VirtualBox Extension Pack
Support for USB 2.0 devices, VirtualBox RDP and PXE boot for Intel cards

Download and install the extension pack as follows:

cd /tmp
wget http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/4.0.0/Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.0-69151.vbox-extpack
VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.0-69151.vbox-extpack

(Make sure you grab the latest version from the VirtualBox web site.)

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 http://www.virtualbox.org/manual/ch08.html.

I will now create an Ubuntu 10.10 Server VM with 256MB memory and a 10GB hard drive from the Ubuntu 10.10 Server iso image (which I have stored in /home/ubuntu-10.10-server-amd64.iso):

VBoxManage createvm --name "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" --register
VBoxManage modifyvm "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" --memory 256 --acpi on --boot1 dvd --nic1 bridged --bridgeadapter1 eth0
VBoxManage createhd --filename Ubuntu_10_10_Server.vdi --size 10000
VBoxManage storagectl "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" --name "IDE Controller" --add ide
VBoxManage storageattach "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" --storagectl "IDE Controller" --port 0 --device 0 --type hdd --medium Ubuntu_10_10_Server.vdi
VBoxManage storageattach "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" --storagectl "IDE Controller" --port 1 --device 0 --type dvddrive --medium /home/ubuntu-10.10-server-amd64.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 10.10 Server"

(Replace Ubuntu 10.10 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 "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" poweroff

To pause a VM, run

VBoxManage controlvm "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" pause

To reset a VM, run

VBoxManage controlvm "Ubuntu 10.10 Server" reset

To learn more about VBoxHeadless, take a look at

VBoxHeadless --help

and at http://www.virtualbox.org/manual/ch07.html#vboxheadless.

Falko Timme

About Falko Timme

Falko Timme is an experienced Linux administrator and founder of Timme Hosting, a leading nginx business hosting company in Germany. He is one of the most active authors on HowtoForge since 2005 and one of the core developers of ISPConfig since 2000. He has also contributed to the O'Reilly book "Linux System Administration".

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Good read for newcomers! Thanks falko, I'm sure this article will become handy in future Google searches.

If I may add, can you also post the commands to run the VM's at system startup, I'm using webmin, since cron didnt work for me, maybe you have a better automated command? 

Also, for those who want to get a complete replacement for the closed-source, out-dated, and end-of-life VMware Server, phpvirtualbox will add web interface capabilities to the virtualbox.


By: Anonymous

Unfortunately phpVirtualbox isn't yet compat with 4.0 (Just went looking for such a thing and came across this post after checking out phpVirtualbox's page). So, stuck with my scripts and the CLI now, not too bad.

By: Mark

Ahhh Thank you for this post about the extension pack! I've been trying to get VRDE to work for 2 hours now. Almost gave up until I found this! VB needs to make this point about the extension packs in their docs ASAP. Especially in the VRDE how-to sections!

By: Anonymous

yes, phpvirtualbox is now compatible with v4.


sorry bad tutorial,   using the  closed-source version in a tutorial without warning for the restricted policies is imho opinion a bad practice, 

also rdp can be replaced by a module that implements vnc instead of rdp  witch is free either gpl lgpl or other.... 



By: Anonymous

b4 version 4.0, it was painful to move the Vms in VirtualBox , not anymore

To move a VM use Virtualbox 4.x new export format .ova. If you setup your VM with "Virtio-net" network card you can even move from Windows Host to Linux Host without changing a bit ! (with SATA drivers at least, have not tried IDE, even for XP.)

To start - stop the Vms as a service :    http://www.glump.net/howto/virtualbox_as_a_service   . Very handy. No need for nohup (or a detached Screen windows which is another solution over SSH).


By: Matthew F

Just wanted to thank you for writing this article. I'd have preferred to use KVM if my machine supported hardware virtualizaion, but this VMWare headless setup works very well :-)

By: eljuanlux

Hi there, just say thanks about this fantastic tutorial, i spent like 2 days triying to enable de VBoxVRDP and i could't because of the extra pack and thanks to you, today i did it,

Thanks man,


Best Regards, 


By: Anonymous

Thanks for writing this article.

 It helped me.