How to set up a VirtualBox server in Debian 9: web interface, autostart, backup

This article describes how to set up a VirtualBox server in Debian 9 (Stretch):

  1. Installing VirtualBox
  2. VirtualBox web interface: phpVirtualBox
  3. Set up and use VMs
  4. Automatically start PhpVirtualBox on boot
  5. Automatically pause VMs on reboot/shutdown and resume them on boot
  6. Set up a backup system
  7. Troubleshooting

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– Debian 9.3 (Stretch)
– VirtualBox 5.2
– phpVirtualBox 5.0.5

You have an up-to-date Debian 9 server with a working internet connection.

Installing VirtualBox

Create a file /etc/apt/sources.list.d/virtualbox.list and add:
deb stretch contrib

Check here which key you need (opens in a new tab). At the time of writing this is oracle_vbox_2016.asc. Download and install the key so apt doesn’t complain when using the source:
[code]wget -O- | apt-key add -[/code]

Update sources:
[code]# aptitude update[/code]

Check which version of VirtualBox is current:
root@vorkian:/etc/apt/sources.list.d# aptitude search virtualbox
v virtualbox –
p virtualbox-5.0 – Oracle VM VirtualBox
p virtualbox-5.1 – Oracle VM VirtualBox
p virtualbox-5.2 – Oracle VM VirtualBox

Unless you have a reason to install an older version, install the most current:
[code]# aptitude install VirtualBox-5.2[/code]

During installation VirtualBox will inform you it needs some more bits:
[code]This system is currently not set up to build kernel modules.
Please install the Linux kernel "header" files matching the current kernel
for adding new hardware support to the system.
The distribution packages containing the headers are probably:
linux-headers-amd64 linux-headers-4.9.0-3-amd64
This system is currently not set up to build kernel modules.
Please install the Linux kernel "header" files matching the current kernel
for adding new hardware support to the system.
The distribution packages containing the headers are probably:
linux-headers-amd64 linux-headers-4.9.0-3-amd64

There were problems setting up VirtualBox. To re-start the set-up process, run /sbin/vboxconfig

Let’s install them:
# aptitude install linux-headers-amd64 linux-headers-4.9.0-3-amd64

Check the recommendation (“The distribution packages containing the headers are probably:” etc.) for the actual packages you need to install.

Rerun the VirtualBox configuration, as instructed:
[code]# vboxconfig[/code]

Extension pack
Check here what url you should use for the latest extension pack.
[code]# wget[/code]

Install the extension pack:
[code]# VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-5.2.6-120293.vbox-extpack[/code]

Set up an account for VirtualBox so it doesn’t run as root. If you have multiple users with their own VMs that’s ok too.
# useradd -d /home/vbox -m -g vboxusers -s /bin/bash vbox
# passwd vbox

Remember the password, you’ll need it later on.

VirtualBox web interface: phpVirtualBox

Tell the system which user the web service will run as. In /etc/default/virtualbox add:

Start the vboxweb service as the dedicated user:
[code]# sudo -u vbox vboxwebsrv –background[/code]

Install webserver and dependencies
[code]# aptitude install apache2 php php-soap php-xml unzip[/code]

Note: it would go too far to talk about web server security here. You will understand that it is important for internet facing (and any other) servers to have decent security. If you’re building an internet facing production server you must implement supplemental security, otherwise you will find your servers compromised.

Download phpVirtualBox:
# cd /var/www/html
# wget -O
# unzip

If you can’t unzip try different SourceForge mirrors. The German ones tend to work well for me.

Rename the folder for easier typing:
# mv phpvirtualbox-5.0-5/ phpvirtualbox

Change into the phpVirtualBox folder and copy the initial config file:
# cd /var/www/html/phpvirtualbox/
# cp config.php-example config.php

Open up the config file and add the vboxweb service credentials. In /var/www/html/phpvirtualbox/config.php change:
[code]var $username = ‘vbox’;
var $password = ‘P@55w0rd’;[/code]
…Using the password you entered for the vbox user earlier.

Point your browser to http://yourserver/phpvirtualbox (use your own server name or IP address). The default credentials are admin/admin.

Optional: work around a version notification
At the time of writing phpVirtualBox and VirtualBox itself are not at the same version. PhpVirtualBox will complain about this but we can work around it. Note that this verion incongruity may result in unexpected behaviour and it’s best to keep an eye out for new versions.

In /var/www/html/phpvirtualbox/endpoints/lib/config.php change:
[code]define(‘PHPVBOX_VER’, ‘5.0-0’);[/code]
[code]define(‘PHPVBOX_VER’, ‘5.2-0’);[/code]
or the current version if later than 5.2.

For the wsdl file create a symlink with the same name:
[code]ln -s /var/www/html/phpvirtualbox/endpoints/lib/vboxwebService-5.0.wsdl /var/www/html/phpvirtualbox/endpoints/lib/vboxwebService-5.2.wsdl[/code]

This will stop the version complaints. It should work immediately; no need to restart anything.

Set up and use VMs

Use the VirtualBox web interface to set up a virtual machine like you would with the GUI version.

Once you start it you can connect to it using an RDP session to your server’s host name or IP address on the port defined in the VM’s settings, 9000 by default.

My Debian VirtualBox server has IP address On my Windows 10 box I connect to my Kubuntu VM with:
[code]mstsc /v:[/code]
Note that you are not connecting to the VM’s address. You are connecting to the server’s address.

Automatically start PhpVirtualBox on boot

Since we’re running VirtualBox with a dedicated user we need to tell VirtualBox web service to use that account: in /etc/systemd/system/, under the [Service] part, add the following:

The whole file should look like this:

ExecStart=/usr/lib/virtualbox/ start
ExecStop=/usr/lib/virtualbox/ stop


Reboot the server and verify PhpVirtualBox is started afterwards or just do
# systemctl daemon-reload
for good measure.

Automatically pause VMs on reboot/shutdown and resume them on boot

I would like my VMs to be automatically paused (‘status=saved’ in VirtualBox’s verbage) when I reboot or shutdown my server. It would also be nice if the VMs in question were automatically resumed when the server is back up. We can do that within Systemd.

We’ll create two scripts: one to pause VMs and one to restart them. Then call them from a Systemd unit. Note that you need to save the pause and restart scripts in a location where the vbox user can reach and execute them. From the unit file we’ll need the vbox user to execute them.

Which VMs do we pause? The ones that are running and the ones that are paused because paused VMs’ states wouldn’t survive a reboot. Which VMs do we resume? Just the ones that were running, not the ones that were paused, because we want the new overall state to resemble the old one as closely as possible (i.e. we do not want paused VMs to be suddenly running, so it’s better to keep them saved than running).

In /home/vbox/
# Pause running VMs

# Clear the previous status file if it exists
if [ -e $STATUSFILE ]; then rm $STATUSFILE; fi

# List all VMs
for VM in $(vboxmanage list vms | rev | cut -d’ ‘ -f1 | rev)
# Get VM state
STATE=$(vboxmanage showvminfo $VM –machinereadable | grep "VMState=" | cut -d’=’ -f2)

# Pause if state is running or paused, write to status file
if [[ $STATE == \"running\" || $STATE == \"paused\" ]]; then
vboxmanage controlvm $VM savestate
# No need to restart paused vm’s; just let them remain saved.
if [[ $STATE == \"running\" ]]; then echo "$VM">>$STATUSFILE; fi

In /home/vbox/
# Restart VMs saved earlier


# If no status file exists then apparently there are no VMs to resume.
if [ ! -f $STATUSFILE ]; then exit; fi

while read VM; do
vboxmanage startvm $VM –type headless

Make the scripts accessible to the vbox user and executable:

# cd /home/vbox
# chown vbox
# chmod +x

Create a unit file /etc/systemd/system/virtualmachines.service:

Description=Save VirtualBox VMs before shutdown or reboot; resume them after boot.

ExecStart=/usr/bin/sudo -u vbox /home/vbox/
ExecStop=/usr/bin/sudo -u vbox /home/vbox/

Enable the new daemon:
# systemctl daemon-reload
# systemctl enable virtualmachines.service
…But be aware that if you run it now it will put any running VMs in the saved status. So I recommend you stop/save any running VMs at this point, reboot your server, start one or more VMs, reboot and then check if they came back up. Check /var/log/syslog for troubleshooting hints if it doesn’t work.

The lines containing ‘’ make the script wait after boot until the is reached, which among other things contains the VirtualBox web service. It also makes the script wait on reboot/shutdown until all necessary VMs are saved before shutting down VirtualBox itself and rebooting/shutting down.

I tested this whole contraption on a virtual machine containing virtual machines. On one test run PhpVirtualBox wouldn’t start (but the VMs would) but upon reboot it did. Most of the time it would just work smoothly. Taking into consideration the VM-in-a-VM setup I am quite satisfied with this system.

Set up a backup system

This backup script is taken and adapted from this page (opens in a new tab), which also contains commentary and explanations.

I’ve put this in /home/vbox/


# Loop through all VirtualBox VMs, pause, export,
# and restore them to their original states.
# Vorkbaard, 2012-02-01, 2018-02-09

# =============== Set your variables here ===============

VBOXMANAGE="/usr/bin/VBoxManage -q"

# =======================================================

# Generate a list of all VMs

for VM in $(vboxmanage list vms | rev | cut -d’ ‘ -f1 | rev)

# Get VM’s friendly name
FRIENDLYNAME=$(vboxmanage showvminfo –machinereadable $VM | grep "name=" | cut -d’"’ -f2)

# Delete old $LOGFILE file if it exists
if [ -e $LOGFILE ]; then rm $LOGFILE; fi

# Get the vm state
VMSTATE=$(vboxmanage showvminfo $VM –machinereadable | grep "VMState=" | cut -f 2 -d "=")
echo "$VM’s state is: $VMSTATE."

# If the VM’s state is running or paused, save its state
if [[ $VMSTATE == \"running\" || $VMSTATE == \"paused\" ]]; then
vboxmanage controlvm $VM savestate
if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then ERR="saving the state"; fi

# Export the vm as appliance
if [ "$ERR" == "nothing" ]; then
vboxmanage export $VM –output $EXPORTDIR/$VM-new.ova &> $LOGFILE
if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
# Remove old backup and rename new one
if [ -e $EXPORTDIR/$VM.ova ]; then rm $EXPORTDIR/$VM.ova; fi
mv $EXPORTDIR/$VM-new.ova $EXPORTDIR/$VM.ova
# Get file size
FILESIZE=$(du -h $EXPORTDIR/$VM.ova | cut -f 1)
echo "Not exporting because the VM’s state couldn’t be saved." &> $LOGFILE

# Resume the VM to its previous state if that state was paused or running
if [[ $VMSTATE == \"running\" || $VMSTATE == \"paused\" ]]; then
vboxmanage startvm $VM –type headless
if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then ERR="resuming"; fi
if [ $VMSTATE == \"paused\" ]; then
vboxmanage controlvm $VM pause
if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then ERR="pausing"; fi

# Calculate duration
duration="Operation took $(($duration / 60)) minutes, $(($duration % 60)) seconds."

# Notify the admin
if [ "$ERR" == "nothing" ]; then
MAILBODY="Virtual Machine $FRIENDLYNAME was exported succesfully!"
MAILBODY="$MAILBODY"$’\n’"Export filesize: $FILESIZE"
MAILSUBJECT="VM $VM succesfully backed up"
MAILBODY="There was an error $ERR VM $VM."
if [ "$ERR" == "exporting" ]; then
MAILSUBJECT="Error exporting VM $VM"

# Send the mail

# Clean up
if [ -e $LOGFILE ]; then rm $LOGFILE; fi


Chown the script to the vbox user and make it executable:
# chown vbox /home/vbox/
# chmod +x /home/vbox/

Then schedule it using cron or just run it whenever you like.

If you want the mail part to work configure mail or mailx for your system. Otherwise it’ll just send mail to local addresses. You can also use ssmtp if you don’t want to set up EXIM or Postfix; ssmtp is easy to set up and is used mainly for systems that just need to be able to send the occasional outgoing mail.

That’s it!

If you have any questions not related to PhpVirtualBox or VirtualBox itself (they are not my projects) feel free to ask them in the comment section below.

If you found this article helpful please click some of the ads on my page to help me pay for hosting this site, or consider donating any amount using the PayPal donation button on the top right of this page. Thanks :)


  • Different versions of VirtualBox and the extension pack may lead to unexpected behavious and weird errors.
  • Mouse or keyboard not working in RDP session may be caused by lack of video memory (<128MB) in the VM.
  • Check /var/log/syslog for messages regarding VirtualBox and PhpVirtualBox.
  • Unable to install certain packages: perhaps new versions have been published. Stop copying and pasting commands from this site and start actually reading what your server is telling you.
  • Unable to unzip download from a different server. Try the German ones.
  • PhpVirtualBox’s default username and password are both ‘admin’.


  1. Diego

    Hi, and thanks for this tutorial. I have a question: Does the exported vm retains it’s (saved) state? I tried to restore one of the backups and the machine started offline, not in a saved state.


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  3. Leon

    Hi. Great script I used for two years already.
    Recently I needed to restore the backed up copy and to my horror discovered that restoration fails with “file corrupted” message. It appears that the copy (13GB) was recorded with some error.
    To my great luck I had one more copy (a bit older, but what can I do…) – so I restored the system.
    But now I added the following to my (actually your) script:

    export() {
    vboxmanage export $VMNAME –output $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new.ova &>>export.log
    while [ true ] ; do
    vboxmanage export $VMNAME –output $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new.ova &>> export.log
    if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
    return 1
    cp stamdat $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new1.ova &>> export.log
    vboxmanage export $VMNAME –output $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new1.ova &>> export.log
    if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
    return 1
    cmp $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new.ova $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new1.ova
    if [ $? -ne 0 ]; then
    echo “Copies not equal!” &>>export.log
    rm $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new.ova
    mv $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new1.ova $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new.ova
    rm $EXPORTDIR/$VMNAME-new1.ova
    and corresponding call to export() instead of straight “vboxmanage export”

    It appears that you renewed the script and introduced some very nice changes.
    So, I decided to write this to you – may be you would like to incorporate this change too?


  4. Leon

    Sorry, I see that the site eliminates formatting and the text is hardly readable.
    In two word: I make the “vboxmanage export” twice, compare the copies and if not equal – remove the first and continue this till they will BE equal.
    Thanks again! :-)

    • Kapitein Vorkbaard

      That’s a great idea! It doubles your backup time but this setup it not targeted for corporate use; personally I used it to back up my PfSense router in the middle of the night.

      I’ll just let your comment remain here – if I’m going to integrate it in the article I would like to test it first and I haven’t the time for that. I am sure this will come in handy for other readers.

      Thank you!

      • leonp

        OK, the situation is worse.
        Each run of “vboxmanage export” produces different results, thus files/backups are not compatible (cmp always fails).
        Any ideas?

  5. ok i would like some help i installed debian 9 from a netstat disk saved on a usb stick you see I want the debian server to have as littlw as possible installed so if you do not mind please what is the lightest possible server and what lines should be in my sources file BEFORE I start instaaling virtualbox. sorry if this question is somewhat off topic.


  6. Leo

    Hi, thank you for this guide.

    I have a problem. When I restart the server it stops the VM but it does not create a Statusfile. and because missing the status file it cant restart the vm after reboot. i tried also to change the statusfile directory but the same problem i dont know what i did wrong….

  7. RoRu69

    Hi Kapitein Vorkbaard.

    I posted a tutorial for Installing Debian 10, Openmediavault 5, Virtualbox 6 and PHPVirtualbox on the Openmediavault Forum where I used and altered version of your Backup Script for Virtualbox VM’s.

    I Modified it a bit. I have a machine that needs a reboot after exporting. When the machine recovers from Saved State the USB port doesn’t work anymore. An ACPI shutdown and start solved the problem.

    Offcouse I made a reference to your website to indicate that you are the original writer of the script. If you do mind please let me know, i will remove the script from the Forum.

    Regards, RoRu69

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