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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Last edited 12/23/2010

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.

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18 Comment(s)

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From: at: 2010-12-31 08:17:48

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.


From: Anonymous at: 2011-01-07 19:54:07

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.

From: Mark at: 2011-01-10 10:21:05

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!

From: Anonymous at: 2011-01-23 14:27:18

yes, phpvirtualbox is now compatible with v4.

From: at: 2011-01-25 23:04:29

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.... 



From: Anonymous at: 2011-01-27 08:15:26

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).


From: Matthew F at: 2011-02-06 08:12:21

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 :-)

From: eljuanlux at: 2011-05-26 23:33:16

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, 


From: Anonymous at: 2011-06-27 11:58:55

Thanks for writing this article.

 It helped me.

From: Alexius Diakogiannis at: 2011-01-05 10:11:27

Hi, great job but there is a problem

 If you wish to use  VBox as a vmware alternative then your main problem is that when you will connect to the host machine through ssh and start the VM's, these will stop working as soon as you close your SSH connection (at least in Ubuntu 9.10 that I did my last test). That is because the proccess that is initiated is binded to my SSH sessio. Is there a work around on that to make it a true vmware alternative?

From: at: 2011-01-10 06:16:25

Actually you can get around that issue by using nohup together with & on VBoxHeadless


 nohup VBoxHeadless --startvm "vmname" --vrdp=config &

 Even when your ssh session has ended the VBoxHeadless process will carry on. If you want to start the VM when it boots you can include the above code in a .sh file and change the permissions as 775. Then using crontab -e and enter the following

@reboot /home/janantha/vboxkickstart.sh


From: K_light at: 2011-04-09 23:41:20

I tried your method ubuntugeek2010 but mine won't run at boot :(

From: at: 2011-01-26 22:42:11


Had exactly the same error come up myself just now.

It seems that if VirtualBox is running more than one VM it must be given a specified port.

If nothing is set, by default the port of the first VM host fired up will be TCP port 3389.

e.g. to set a VM to use port 3390

VBoxManage modifyvm "VM name" --vrdeport 3390

Then fire up the VM as normal:

 VBoxHeadless --startvm "VM name" &
Oracle VM VirtualBox Headless Interface 4.0.2
(C) 2008-2011 Oracle Corporation
All rights reserved.

VRDE server is listening on port 3390.

Other VM's will need a different port.

HTH, as there were hardly any results when googling that error.

From: Anonymous at: 2013-06-23 15:01:54

Thanks for the solution, it worked. I only have one add to the explanation, the cause of this problem is probably not because you may be running more than one VM, but, in windows, it mainly occurs because the OS has its own rdm server running on port 3389.

From: Anonymous at: 2011-01-10 17:50:28

VM in Headless servers would be useful when we can start and shutdown the VM as part of the OS. The need to log-in into the host (even SSH) make this more like an application rather than a service. (I have seen some hacks to start the VM along with the system but that was not straight forward. Shutting down VM along with the host might be even more complex.). Hopefully in a future version VBox will start and shutdown along with (some of) the Virtual machines automatically (like apache).

From: Anonymous at: 2011-01-14 18:31:47

It's a simple bash script away! Take any of the scripts in /etc/init.d and modify it to launch and stop vbox. Mine suspends the VM at host shutdown, but I added an option to gracefully shutdown the guest.

From: schtebo at: 2011-01-10 20:39:23

for rdp you have to install extension pack in virtualbox 4.0. 

VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.0-69151.vbox-extpack

From: Jarod Liu at: 2011-01-19 02:57:13

sudo VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.2-69518.vbox-extpack
VBoxManage modifyvm "WinXP" --vrde on
VBoxHeadless --startvm "WinXP"
Oracle VM VirtualBox Headless Interface 4.0.2
(C) 2008-2011 Oracle Corporation
All rights reserved.
VRDE server failed to start.
VRDE server is inactive.
I've no idea what's wrong. please give me some hint to hunt the problem.