VirtualBox Hosting for Windows

Many documents describing the use of desktop virtualization focus typically on having a Linux desktop and running Windows as an aside. Here we describe a situation where an intrepid Windows user may wish to make use of the flexibility of Linux to overcome many of the artificial restrictions imposed on Windows. A minimal Linux installation with a virtualization package can be completed in a matter of 30 minutes, whereas trying to recover a badly corrupted Windows installation can take many hours, particularly if a complete reinstall is to be done. My experience typically puts this time at 18 hours. If careful backup management of the Windows virtual machine (VM) is carried out, using simple Linux scripts, restoration of a VM can be a snap. Similarly transfer of VMs to updated machines is much simplified. This solution is an alternative to commercial and often costly backup solutions that run inside Windows, such as Norton's Ghost.

If you are worried, Microsoft allows installation on a VM provided it never moves from the hardware machine.

If Windows is to be run as a VM it must be understood that its performance will be reduced compared to a native install, in many cases by more than half. Most hardware is virtualized and is therefore not available directly to the VM. This is particularly the case for the video hardware, for which the higher level acceleration technologies are not yet available. For that reason this solution is only useful for applications that make moderate demands on the video.

Currently KVM is under investigation as a possible hypervisor but it continues to have "issues".

The best virtualization solution for this purpose appears to be VirtualBox. Some of the more important features provided are:

  1. support for 3D acceleration.

  2. runs 32 bit clients without VT extensions.

  3. very simple setup for all hardware support such as network, sound, SATA disks.

  4. sharing of host folders with Windows.

  5. USB and DVD drive passthrough.

We can use this to run Windows over Ubuntu for desktop use. VirtualBox is extensively documented in an on-line manual.


Install the latest version of Ubuntu, creating a non-privileged user and automatic login.

If Ubuntu isn't going to be used very much for desktop work, many of the applications can be omitted to keep its footprint small, but keep a web browser and text editor at least for administrative work. Also install an ssh server to allow remote access.

Create a small 5 or 10 GB ext4 partition for Ubuntu (mount at /), a small partition for swap, an xfs partition greater than 40 GB for the VMs (mounted at /vm). Remember that Windows may install in only 10GB or so, but will quickly blow out beyond 40GB after updates, users and programs are installed. If data files are to be kept apart from user files, add a separate partition or disk drive for these and format it as NTFS (formatting can be done in the Windows VM). It's best not to use a virtual disk for data files as it can be a major hassle trying to access individual files if the virtual disk becomes corrupted.

Do not use NTFS formatted partitions for VM files. My experience is that the performance of NTFS is extremely poor for these large files.

From within the non-privileged user account, install libqt4-network libqt4-opengl libqtcore4 libqtgui4

Download the VirtualBox deb file from the VirtualBox site for the latest version of VirtualBox (currently 4.1.0) and for the installed flavour of Ubuntu (currently Narwhal 11.04). Also obtain the compatible VirtualBox extension pack which provides USB and other hardware support. Note that the Ubuntu repository version virtualbox-ose is the open source version which currently is still at version 3. Version 4 from the VirtualBox download site is released under GPLv2, while the extension pack is provided under the VirtualBox PUEL.

Install VirtualBox from the deb file using gdebi which will resolve any missing dependencies.

Also install the VirtualBox Extension Pack either through the GUI or via the command line using VBoxManage.

$ sudo VBoxManage extpack install Oracle_VM_VirtualBox_Extension_Pack-4.1.0-73009.vbox-extpack

If the Extension Pack is to be updated, be sure to uninstall the old one first. This can be done from the GUI with File->Preferences and the bottom entry “Extensions”.

Create a launcher with command VirtualBox and use an icon from /usr/share/pixmaps/ where the icon can be found.

Install ssh server (openssh).

Use visudo to add the line:


to allow privileged commands to be executed without a password (this is for convenience and can be omitted).

In Nautilus->Preferences->Media turn off all the options to stop any media being mounted and to prevent a pop up box appearing at odd times. Newly added DVD/USB media must be captured by the running VM.

In System->Preferences->Startup Applications remove most of the unwanted applications, leaving Network Manager, PulseAudio, and any others considered desirable.


Most of the operations are done while logged in as the unprivileged user. The VM can be run by the user and most configuration can be done without root privileges.

When the VM has been created, start it up and install the vboxguestadditions in safe mode.

  1. Enable 2D and 3D acceleration options should be ticked under the 'Display' options in the VirtualBox control panel for the VM.

  2. Virtual machine guest additions should be installed and working and the video display colour depth set to 32 bits on both the host and guest OS. The host OS should have latest video drivers installed.

  3. If the processor supports the Intel Virtualization technology (VT) or the AMD-V and Nested Paging, then these options should be activated in the BIOS. Tick the check boxes under the 'System' options in the VirtualBox control panel.


The DVD drives should be writeable. In the VirtualBox control panel Settings, with the CD/DVD pointing to the physical drive, a checkbox allows passthrough to be enabled. Alternatively this can be enabled from the command line:

$ VBoxManage storageattach <name> --storagectl <name> - -port <number> - -device <number> - -type dvddrive - -medium host:<drive> - -passthrough on

The various parameters can be found by VboxManage queries (see manual). A blank physical DVD must be mounted in order for the burning software to recognise it.


Use the IHC AC97 driver and Pulse Audio.


There have been some difficulties with this in recent VirtualBox 4 releases: when started without any USB device inserted, VirtualBox did not subsequently recognise any USB device. This may be fixed by now, but if not, ensure that a USB device is plugged in (such as  a mouse) when booting.

For recent editions of Ubuntu, simply add the login users to the vboxusers group created when VirtualBox was installed:

$ sudo usermod -G vboxusers -a `whoami`

(log off and on again for this to be recognised). Once the VirtualBox Extension Pack has been installed and vboxguestadditions installed, USB is enabled by adding a default filter.

USB needs particular attention in Ubuntu for installs earlier than Lucid.

VM Autostart

Start the VM automatically at login by adding to the GNOME login script under System->Preferences->Startup Applications, the following command:

$ VBoxManage startvm <name>

(where <name> is that given to the VM, such as WinXPPro). It is useful to add a script that will automatically shutdown, possibly also backing up. As an example (for mounted external devices starting at /dev/sdc):


# Start Windows and wait until it shuts down

VBoxManage startvm WinXPPro
while [ `VBoxManage list runningvms | wc -l` != 0 ]; do
    sleep 5s

# If an external disk is not present, shutdown the system
# Try a couple of possible mount points for the external disk

sudo umount $DRIVE > /dev/null 2>&1
sudo mount $DRIVE /backup
if [ $? -gt 0 ]; then
    sudo umount $DRIVE > /dev/null 2>&1
    sudo mount $DRIVE /backup
    if [ $? -gt 0 ]; then
        sudo shutdown -h now

# Check if enough space is available and copy VM files

if [ `mount | grep /backup | wc -l` != 0]; then
    vmsize=`du -s --block-size=1G /vm | awk '{print $1}'`
    backupfree=`df -h |grep $DRIVE | awk '{print $4}' | sed s/.$//`
    if [ "$vmsize" -lt "$backupfree" ]; then
        sudo cp -a /vm /backup
sudo umount $DRIVE
sudo shutdown -h now

I use a more extensive script that employs zenity to provide GUI access to additional options after the Windows VM has powered down. The shutdown command delayed for up to 10 seconds, giving the opportunity to abort the shutdown and remain in Ubuntu, or restore or backup the Windows VM.


In scripts, use logger to log to a file:

logger -f /var/log/virtualbox.log "..."

adding the desired text message to the end of the command. In /etc/logrotate.d/virtualbox, add:

/var/log/virtualbox.log {
    rotate 4

Convert VMDK Images to VDI Images

Convert to a raw image using qemu, then use:

$ VBoxManage convertfromraw image.raw image.vdi

It may be possible to convert from vdi to other formats using the clonehd option of VBoxManage. Refer to the VBoxManage manual for more details.

Transfer of VMs between Hosts

This can be done in a number of ways, the first is by far the simplest.

1 Copy the VM

Simply copy the VM files across to the desired location on the new host and in VirtualBox Manager choose Machine->Add. Navigate to the location of the VM files and select the vbox file. If there are additional disk drives these need to be added separately.

When copying the VM, it will be necessary to give it a new MAC address as it will clash with the original VM particularly when on the same subnet. The following command will generate a new random MAC address for the first NIC.

$ VBoxManage modifyvm <name> --macaddress1 auto

2 Convert to Virtual Appliance

Using the export and import utility in the VirtualBox GUI to convert to a virtual appliance, then import into the new machine. This failed on the one and only attempt I made.

3 Clone the vdi file

Use the VboxManage utility to clone the vdi file:

  • Shutdown the Virtual Machine

  • Release the .vdi file – File > Virtual Media Manager > Select the virtual machine disk to be copied > Click “Release”

  • In a terminal (use the full location paths for .vdi locations)

    $ VBoxManage clonevdi Original.vdi NewCopy.vdi

  • Copy the new .vdi file to the new machine

  • Create a new VirtualMachine in VirtualBox and use the copied .vdi as the HardDisk


To call up a menu in a full screen guest, use Host+Home

Remote Desktop

VirtualBox includes a remote desktop feature allowing a remote administrator (or even a user) to connect to a running VM. This uses a compatible adaptation of the remote desktop protocol (rdp) used in Microsoft Windows products. It can be accessed from a Windows machine using the remote desktop tool, and from Linux using rdesktop.

This is enabled as described above in the VirtualBox GUI, or by the command:

$ VBoxManage modifyvm <name> --vrde on

The VirtualBox extensions must be installed for this to work. Connections are made by default on port 3389 which must be opened in any intervening firewalls.

First created 26 June 2011

Last Modified 11 March 2013
Ken Sarkies 2011