VBoxHeadless - Running Virtual Machines With VirtualBox 4.1 On A Headless CentOS 6.2 Server

Version 1.0
Author: Falko Timme
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Last edited 06/25/2012

This guide explains how you can run virtual machines with VirtualBox 4.1 on a headless CentOS 6.2 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 CentOS 6.2 server (host system) with the IP address where I'm logged in as a normal user (user name admin in this example) instead of as root.

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

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

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

# passwd admin

... and log in as that user.


2 Installing VirtualBox

To install VirtualBox 4.1 on our CentOS 6.2 server, we need root privileges, therefore we run

$ su

Then we install the dependencies for VirtualBox 4.1 as follows:

# yum groupinstall 'Development Tools'

# yum install SDL kernel-devel kernel-headers dkms

With the last command we have installed the kernel headers of our currently used kernel. The headers are located in the /usr/src/kernels/ directory, but it is likely that its directory is not named <kernel_version>-<architecture>, but has a different name so that the Virtualbox kernel module cannot be built later on because the expected kernel headers directory cannot be found. We are going to correct that now:

Check your kernel version...

# uname -r

[root@server1 ~]# uname -r
[root@server1 ~]#

This means that there should be a directory called 2.6.32-220.el6.x86_64 in the /usr/src/kernels/ directory. We can check this now:

# cd /usr/src/kernels/
# ls -l

[root@server1 kernels]# ls -l
total 4
drwxr-xr-x 22 root root 4096 Jun 25 17:30 2.6.32-220.23.1.el6.x86_64
[root@server1 kernels]#

As you see, I have the directory 2.6.32-220.23.1.el6.x86_64, but not 2.6.32-220.el6.x86_64. Therefore we create a symlink called 2.6.18-238.el5-x86_64 that points to 2.6.18-238.9.1.el5-x86_64:

# ln -s 2.6.32-220.23.1.el6.x86_64 `uname -r`

Next download and register the VirtualBox public rpm key:

# wget -q http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/debian/oracle_vbox.asc
# rpm --import oracle_vbox.asc
# rm -f oracle_vbox.asc

Now we enable the VirtualBox CentOS repository on our system:

# cd /etc/yum.repos.d/
# wget http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/rpm/rhel/virtualbox.repo

We can now simply install VirtualBox 4.1 as follows:

# yum install VirtualBox-4.1

If the installation is successful, the output should end as follows:

Running Transaction
  Installing : VirtualBox-4.1-4.1.18_78361_rhel6-1.x86_64                                                                                                 1/1

Creating group 'vboxusers'. VM users must be member of that group!

No precompiled module for this kernel found -- trying to build one. Messages
emitted during module compilation will be logged to /var/log/vbox-install.log.

Stopping VirtualBox kernel modules [  OK  ]
Uninstalling old VirtualBox DKMS kernel modules [  OK  ]
Trying to register the VirtualBox kernel modules using DKMS [  OK  ]
Starting VirtualBox kernel modules [  OK  ]

  VirtualBox-4.1.x86_64 0:4.1.18_78361_rhel6-1

[root@server1 kernels]#

(If the installation fails because the correct kernel headers directory cannot be found, output will end as follows:

Running Transaction
  Installing : VirtualBox-4.1-4.1.18_78361_rhel6-1.x86_64                                                                                                 1/1

Creating group 'vboxusers'. VM users must be member of that group!

No precompiled module for this kernel found -- trying to build one. Messages
emitted during module compilation will be logged to /var/log/vbox-install.log.

Stopping VirtualBox kernel modules [  OK  ]
Uninstalling old VirtualBox DKMS kernel modules [  OK  ]
Trying to register the VirtualBox kernel modules using DKMS
Error! Your kernel source for kernel 2.6.32-220.el6.x86_64 cannot be found at
/lib/modules/2.6.32-220.el6.x86_64/build or /lib/modules/2.6.32-220.el6.x86_64/source.
  (Failed, trying without DKMS)
Recompiling VirtualBox kernel modules [FAILED]
  (Look at /var/log/vbox-install.log to find out what went wrong)

  VirtualBox-4.1.x86_64 0:4.1.18_78361_rhel6-1

[root@server1 kernels]#

In this case, try to create the correct kernel symlink (as shown before) and then run

# /etc/init.d/vboxdrv setup

to create the VirtualBox kernel module.)

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

# /usr/sbin/usermod -G vboxusers admin

VirtualBox is now installed and ready to be used.

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 4.1.18 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/4.1.18/Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.1.18-78361.vbox-extpack
# VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.1.18-78361.vbox-extpack

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


# exit

to leave the root account and become a normal user (admin) 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/ch08.html.

I will now create an Ubuntu 12.04 Server VM with 1024MB memory and a 10GB hard drive from the Ubuntu 12.04 Server iso image (which I have stored in /home/ubuntu-12.04-server-amd64.iso):

$ VBoxManage createvm --name "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" --register
$ VBoxManage modifyvm "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" --memory 1024 --acpi on --boot1 dvd --nic1 bridged --bridgeadapter1 eth0
$ VBoxManage createhd --filename Ubuntu_12_04_Server.vdi --size 10000
$ VBoxManage storagectl "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" --name "IDE Controller" --add ide
$ VBoxManage storageattach "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" --storagectl "IDE Controller" --port 0 --device 0 --type hdd --medium Ubuntu_12_04_Server.vdi
$ VBoxManage storageattach "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" --storagectl "IDE Controller" --port 1 --device 0 --type dvddrive --medium /home/ubuntu-12.04-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 admin, this is /home/admin/.VirtualBox/Machines - the result should be /home/admin/.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/admin/.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 an old one, you can start it with the command:

$ VBoxHeadless --startvm "Ubuntu 12.04 Server"

(Replace Ubuntu 12.04 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 stop a VM, run

$ VBoxManage controlvm "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" poweroff

To pause a VM, run

$ VBoxManage controlvm "Ubuntu 12.04 Server" pause

To reset a VM, run

$ VBoxManage controlvm "Ubuntu 12.04 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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3 Comment(s)

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From: Anonymous at: 2012-07-06 16:07:13

Hi and thanks for the guide. I have a question on chapter 4. What if you have more than 1 running VMs on the host? so if you type in the host IP which guest will you be connecting to?

From: Jay at: 2012-07-09 11:08:11

I was wondering the same thing, but I figured you could use remote desktop to install the OS, and once running, switch to native remote connectivity to that box as you would any other system.  Not exactly useful in a prod environment, but a pretty cheap and easy test/home space.

From: Anonymous at: 2013-05-07 08:37:59

For all what I know, each running virtual machine simply needs a different remote desktop port number: number

...rather than... (no port number = default port)

In this tutorial, there is only one virtual machine, so its remote desktop uses the default port.

You can specify the remote desktop port number for each virtual machine in its settings in VirtualBox. ("Display ? Remote display" tab in the graphical manager. I haven't tried this in the headless tool yet.)