How to Setup and Manage VirtualBox VMs on a Headless Server

How to Setup and Manage VirtualBox VMs on a Headless Server

This guide explains how to install and configure VirtualBox on a remote headless server and remotely control its virtual machines with the RemoteBox app.

VirtualBox is free cross-platform virtualization software that may be installed as application software on any operating system. It allows you to run virtual machines (VMs) on a single physical machine and use them alongside the actual machine.

Each virtual machine can run its operating systems, such as Linux, Windows, Unix, and Solaris.

Most VirtualBox users believe that VirtualBox is solely meant for usage only on a desktop environment, where virtual machine management is accomplished through the VirtualBox GUI.

However, VirtualBox can run on headless servers, and headless VirtualBox VMs can be handled remotely using an external VirtualBox front-end client.

But first, let us clarify what we mean by the term “headless server.” A headless server is simply a computer that does not have a display, mouse, keyboard, or other peripherals.

So, in our case, the term refers to a server that does not have a graphical environment installed and is administered remotely, most commonly via SSH.

This guide will show you how to install VirtualBox on a headless server and manage the virtual machines running on it using the RemoteBox application.

Step 1: Install VirtualBox

In this guide, we will install our headless VirtualBox server on Ubuntu 22.04. However, if you’re using another Linux distro as a server, such as Debian, or one of the Red Hat derivatives such as AlmaLinux or Rocky Linux, our excellent guides below will help you install VirtualBox.

VirtualBox is available in the Ubuntu official repositories. Unfortunately, the version there is not the most up-to-date. So, to use the most recent version, we will install it from the officially available VirtualBox repository.

To ensure that the packages we receive to install the VirtualBox are genuine, first, we should download and import the VirtualBox signed GPG keys on our Ubuntu system.

wget -q https://www.virtualbox.org/download/oracle_vbox_2016.asc -O- | sudo apt-key add -
wget -q https://www.virtualbox.org/download/oracle_vbox.asc -O- | sudo apt-key add -
Import VirtualBox’s GPG Keys

Don’t worry about the “Warning: apt-key is deprecated” message. It is only informative and does not indicate an actual error.

After importing the GPG keys, we’ll add the official VirtualBox repository. This implies that the update package will be made available with the rest of your system’s regular updates if a new version is released.

Type the command shown below.

echo "deb [arch=amd64] http://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/debian $(lsb_release -cs) contrib" | sudo tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/virtualbox.list
Add VirtualBox Repository for Ubuntu

Before we proceed with VirtualBox installation on our Ubuntu system, we should update the list of available packages. So, run the below command to update the repositories index.

sudo apt update
Update Ubuntu's repositories index

As you can see, our new VirtualBox repository is now available and ready to be used. So everything is already prepared for the actual installation. 

Finally, we installed VirtualBox on our Ubuntu system using the apt command.

sudo apt install virtualbox-6.1
Install VirtualBox on Ubuntu

Many installation packages will be displayed as VirtualBox dependencies. This should not bother you. To confirm, type Y and press Enter.

Wait for all of the packages to finish installing before proceeding. VirtualBox is now installed on our Ubuntu system. It’s time to move on to the next step.

Step 2: Install VirtualBox Extension Pack

Because our VirtualBox server is headless, we need to use a special protocol called VirtualBox Remote Desktop Protocol (VRDP) to communicate with it remotely. This feature is supplied by installing an additional software package, VirtualBox Extension Pack.

However, we should mention something important here. The VirtualBox Extension Pack’s version must match the version of VirtualBox installed. The simplest method to check this is to run:

vboxmanage -v | cut -dr -f1
Check installed VirtualBox version

As you can see, the version of Virtualbox installed is 6.1.34. Therefore, we need to download the Extension Pack with the same version.

So, use the below wget command to download the Extension Pack for VirtualBox.

If your installation versionCheck that port 18083 on the server hosting your Headless VirtualBox installation is open. It is required for RemoteBox and VirtualBox to communicate successfully. is different, replace both places containing 6.1.34 in the command below with the current version. In addition, you can also go straight to the downloads page and look at the available versions.

wget https://download.virtualbox.org/virtualbox/6.1.34/Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-6.1.34.vbox-extpack

Next, to install the VirtualBox Extension pack, run the vboxmanage command as follows:

sudo vboxmanage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-6.1.34.vbox-extpack

When prompted to accept Oracle’s license terms and conditions, type y and press Enter to confirm.

Install VirtualBox Extension Pack

You can verify that the extension pack was installed correctly by running:

vboxmanage list extpacks
Verify installed VirtualBox Extension Pack version

Step 3: Configure the VirtualBox Server

We’ll configure our headless VirtualBox server to accept remote connections in this step. This is done because the virtual machines running on it will be managed remotely from another computer using the RemoteBox app.

First, we’ll create a user with a name, for example, vbox, who must be a member of the vboxusers group. We will use this user later to log in remotely to our headless VirtualBox server.

After creating the vbox user, please give it a password and remember it. We’ll need it soon.

sudo useradd -m -d /home/vbox -g vboxusers -s /bin/false vbox
sudo passwd vbox
Create VirtualBox service account

Next, we need to create a file called virtualbox in the /etc/default directory.

sudo vim /etc/default/virtualbox

Then we added the following content to it.

VBOXWEB_USER=vbox
VBOXWEB_PASSWD=password
VBOXWEB_HOST=192.168.122.197
VBOXWEB_TIMEOUT=0

Of course, replace the password string in the lines above with the password you set for the vbox user and the server’s IP address in the VBOXWEB_HOST line with the current one for your installation.

Finally, restart the vboxweb-service service.

sudo systemctl restart vboxweb-service

Check the service to ensure if it works after restarting.

sudo systemctl status vboxweb-service
Check VirtualBox's vboxweb-service

Great! Everything seems to be functioning normally.

Check that port 18083 on the server hosting your headless VirtualBox installation is open. It is required for RemoteBox and VirtualBox to communicate with each other successfully.

Step 4: Install RemoteBox

RemoteBox is a free and open-source VirtualBox front-end client that allows you to remotely manage a VirtualBox installation, including its guests, and interact with them as if they were running locally.

However, before installing RemoteBox, we must install the dependencies required for RemoteBox to function correctly. We’ll show you how to install them on several of the most popular Linux distributions.

Ubuntu / Debian / Linux Mint

sudo apt install libgtk3-perl libsoap-lite-perl freerdp2-x11 tigervnc-viewer

AlmaLinux / Rocky Linux

sudo dnf install perl-Gtk3 perl-SOAP-Lite perl-libwww-perl freerdp tigervnc xdg-utils

Fedora

sudo dnf install perl-Gtk3 perl-SOAP-Lite freerdp tigervnc xdg-utils

Then download the latest up-to-date version of the RemoteBox app, which at the time of writing is 3.1. You can check here which is the latest version.

wget https://remotebox.knobgoblin.org.uk/downloads/RemoteBox-3.1.tar.bz2

Using the command below, uncompress the downloaded file.

bunzip2 RemoteBox-3.1.tar.bz2

Finally, unpack the tar file.

tar xvf RemoteBox-3.1.tar

Step 5: Run RemoteBox and Connect It to VirtualBox

Now that we have everything in place, we can launch RemoteBox and connect it to our headless VirtualBox server.

First, enter into the RemoteBox-3.1 directory, then launch the application.

cd RemoteBox-3.1/
./remotebox
Run RemoteBox app

When the GUI opens, enter the required information.

RemoteBox GUI

Once connected, you can use the RemoteBox application to interact with your remote VirtualBox server in the same way you would with the standard VirtualBox GUI interface.

RemoteBox connected to remote headless VirtualBox server

Step 6: Attach ISO File to VirtualBox via RemoteBox GUI

There is one more thing that the regular user may struggle with. When creating a virtual machine with RemoteBox, how do you specify the installation ISO image? Let us show you how simple it is.

As shown in the previous example, assume we want to create a new Debian 11 virtual machine. It displays in the left panel when we have set it up and confirmed using the “Create” button. However, before we start it, we must specify the installation ISO file.

Log in via SSH to the remote headless VirtualBox server and download the installation ISO file with a program like wget.

The following is an example command for downloading the ISO image to the /tmp directory:

wget -P /tmp/ https://cdimage.debian.org/debian-cd/current/amd64/iso-cd/debian-11.3.0-amd64-netinst.iso

Of course, you could download the installation ISO file to your local desktop machine first and then use the scp command to transfer it to the remote VirtualBox server.

The ISO file must then be added to “Virtual Media Manager” to be available for selection in the RemoteBox GUI. First, go to the “File” menu and pick “Virtual Media Manager.”

RemoteBox Menu

“Virtual Media Manager” will appear. This is where we add our ISO files or create the virtual hard disks that will be used in our VMs. Select the “Optical Discs” tab and press the “Add” button.

RemoteBox Virtual Media Manager

Navigate to the directory storing the installation ISO file in the “Location” area, pick it, and confirm with the “OK” button.

Virtual Media Manager add ISO file

The file has been successfully added to “Virtual Media Manager.” Confirm pressing “OK.”

Virtual Media Manager add ISO file

Following the procedures below to add the ISO file to the virtual CD drive. First, choose the virtual machine and then “Settings.” Then, pick “Storage” and “Empty Drive” in the opening window.

Select the “Optical Discs” option by clicking the small choosing floppy icon with the “+” sign. Next, choose the ISO installation file from the available files that appear.

Virtual Media Manager add ISO file

As a result, the file will be mounted. To save your changes, click the “Save” button.

Virtual Media Manager add ISO file

Finally, start your virtual machine to proceed with the installation.

Starting VirtualBox VM installation via the RemoteBox app

Conclusion

This guide showed you how to install and configure VirtualBox on a remote headless server and remotely control its virtual machines with the RemoteBox app.

We are convinced that you will find widespread use for it, as VirtualBox is one of the most popular virtualization applications among home users and developers.

Thank you for following our guidance. Any feedback is much appreciated!

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