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VBoxHeadless – Running Virtual Machines With VirtualBox 4.0 On A Headless Ubuntu 11.04 Server

This guide explains how you can run virtual machines with VirtualBox 4.0 on a headless Ubuntu 11.04 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 11.04 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 4.0 on our Ubuntu 11.04 server, we open /etc/apt/sources.list

sudo vi /etc/apt/sources.list

… and add the following line to it:

deb natty contrib

Then we download the VirtualBox public key…

wget -q -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, and you will find a link to the following extension pack:

VirtualBox 4.0.6 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
sudo VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.6-71344.vbox-extpack

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

(Make sure you run the last command with sudo – sudo VBoxManage extpack install … – because otherwise you will get an error like this:

administrator@server1:/tmp$ VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.6-71344.vbox-extpack
Progress state: NS_ERROR_FAILURE
VBoxManage: error: Failed to install “/tmp/Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.0.6-71344.vbox-extpack”: The installer failed with exit code 127: Error creating textual authentication agent: Error opening current controlling terminal for the process (`/dev/tty’): No such device or address


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

I will now create an Ubuntu 11.04 Server VM with 512MB memory and a 10GB hard drive from the Ubuntu 11.04 Server iso image (which I have stored in /home/ubuntu-11.04-server-amd64.iso):

VBoxManage createvm –name “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” –register
VBoxManage modifyvm “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” –memory 512 –acpi on –boot1 dvd –nic1 bridged –bridgeadapter1 eth0
VBoxManage createhd –filename Ubuntu_11_04_Server.vdi –size 10000
VBoxManage storagectl “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” –name “IDE Controller” –add ide
VBoxManage storageattach “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” –storagectl “IDE Controller” –port 0 –device 0 –type hdd –medium Ubuntu_11_04_Server.vdi
VBoxManage storageattach “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” –storagectl “IDE Controller” –port 1 –device 0 –type dvddrive –medium /home/ubuntu-11.04-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 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 an old one, you can start it with the command:

VBoxHeadless –startvm “Ubuntu 11.04 Server”

(Replace Ubuntu 11.04 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 11.04 Server” poweroff

To pause a VM, run

VBoxManage controlvm “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” pause

To reset a VM, run

VBoxManage controlvm “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” reset

To learn more about VBoxHeadless, take a look at

VBoxHeadless –help

and at

4 Connecting To A VM From A Remote Desktop

4.1 Windows XP

You can use the built-in Remote Desktop Connection utility to connect to the VM:


Type in the hostname or IP address of the host (not the guest!):


And voilà, you should be connected to the VM:


4.2 Linux

On Linux desktops, you can use the rdesktop command to connect to the VM. Open a terminal (on Ubuntu, for example, it’s under Applications > Accessories > Terminal)…


… and type in the following command:

rdesktop -a 16

( is the host IP address, not the one of the guest – replace it with your own IP address or hostname; -a 16 means 16 bit colour depth.)


And voilà, you should be connected to the VM:


4.3 If The Remote Desktop Connection Doesn’t Work…

If the remote desktop connection doesn’t work, you’ve probably missed the step where I install the VirtualBox extension pack in chapter 2. Please install the extension pack now, stop your virtual machine (see chapter 3.3), and modify your virtual machine to accept remote desktop connections:

VBoxManage modifyvm “Ubuntu 11.04 Server” –vrde on

(If the extension pack is already installed when you create your virtual machine, remote desktop connections are automatically enabled.)

Then start your virtual machine again.


  • VirtualBox:
  • Ubuntu: