This guide covers the steps necessary for installing and configuring a VNC server on Ubuntu 18.04. We will also show you how to securely connect to the VNC server through an SSH tunnel.
Virtual Network Computing (VNC) is a graphical desktop sharing system that allows you to use your keyboard and mouse to remotely control another computer. It is an open-source alternative to the Microsoft remote desktop protocol (RDP).
Before continuing with the tutorial, make sure you are logged in as a user with sudo privileges.
Installing Desktop Environment
Most servers don’t have a desktop environment installed, so we’ll start by installing a lightweight desktop environment.
There are several desktop environments (DE) available in Ubuntu repositories. We’ll be installing Xfce. It is fast, stable, and lightweight desktop environment, which makes it ideal for usage on a remote server.
Enter the following commands to install Xfce on your server:
sudo apt update
Depending on your system, downloading and installing the Xfce packages may take some time.
Installing VNC Server
There are also several different VNC servers available in Ubuntu repositories such as TightVNC, TigerVNC and x11vnc. Each VNC server has different strengths and weaknesses in terms of speed and security.
We’ll be installing TigerVNC. It is an actively maintained high-performance VNC server.
Type the following command to install TigerVNC on your Ubuntu server:
sudo apt install tigervnc-standalone-server tigervnc-common
Now that the VNC server is installed, the next step is to create the initial configuration and set up the password. Do not use sudo when running the
You will be prompted to enter and confirm the password and whether to set it as a view-only password. If you choose to set up a view-only password, the user will not be able to interact with the VNC instance with the mouse and the keyboard.
You will require a password to access your desktops. Password: Verify: Would you like to enter a view-only password (y/n)? n /usr/bin/xauth: file /home/black/.Xauthority does not exist New 'server2.justla.me:1 (black)' desktop at :1 on machine server2.justla.me Starting applications specified in /etc/X11/Xvnc-session Log file is /home/black/.vnc/server2.justla.me:1.log Use xtigervncviewer -SecurityTypes VncAuth -passwd /home/black/.vnc/passwd :1 to connect to the VNC server.
The first time the
vncserver command is run, it creates and stores the password file in
~/.vnc. This directory will be created if not present.
:1 after the hostname in the output above. This indicates the display port number on which the vnc server is running. In our case, the server is running on TCP port
5901 (5900+1). If you create a second instance with
vncserver it will run on the next free port i.e
:2, which means that the server is running on port
What is important to remember is that when working with VNC servers,
:X is a display port that refers to
Before continuing with the next step, stop the VNC instance using the
vncserver command with a
-kill option and the server number as an argument. In this example the server is running in port 5901 (
:1), so we’ll stop it with:
vncserver -kill :1
Killing Xtigervnc process ID 7264... success!
Configuring VNC Server
Now that both Xfce and TigerVNC are installed on the server, we need to configure TigerVNC to use Xfce. To do so, create the following file:
#!/bin/sh unset SESSION_MANAGER unset DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS exec startxfce4
Save and close the file. The commands above will be automatically executed whenever you start or restart the TigerVNC server.
~/.vnc/xstartup file also needs to have execute permissions. Run the following
chmod command to make sure permissions are correct:
chmod u+x ~/.vnc/xstartup
If you need to pass additional options to the VNC server, create a file named
config and add one option per line. Here is an example:
Creating a Systemd unit file
Create a systemd unit file so that you start, stop, and restart the VNC service as needed, same as any other systemd service.
Open your text editor and copy and paste the following configuration into it. Make sure to change the username on line 7 to match your username.
sudo nano /etc/systemd/system/vncserver@.service
[Unit] Description=Remote desktop service (VNC) After=syslog.target network.target [Service] Type=simple User=black PAMName=login PIDFile=/home/%u/.vnc/%H%i.pid ExecStartPre=/bin/sh -c '/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :%i > /dev/null 2>&1 || :' ExecStart=/usr/bin/vncserver :%i -geometry 1440x900 -alwaysshared -fg ExecStop=/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :%i [Install] WantedBy=multi-user.target
Save and close the file.
Notify systemd that we created a new unit file with:
sudo systemctl daemon-reload
The next step is to enable the unit file with the following command:
sudo systemctl enable firstname.lastname@example.org
1 after the
@ sign defines the display port on which the VNC service will run. This means that the VNC server will listen on port
5901, as we discussed in the previous section.
Start the VNC service by executing:
sudo systemctl start email@example.com
Verify that the service is successfully started with:
sudo systemctl status firstname.lastname@example.org
● email@example.com - Remote desktop service (VNC) Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/vncserver@.service; indirect; vendor preset: enabled) Active: active (running) since Thu 2018-08-16 19:05:54 UTC; 4s ago Process: 9893 ExecStartPre=/bin/sh -c /usr/bin/vncserver -kill :1 > /dev/null 2>&1 || : (code=exited, status=0/SUCCESS) Main PID: 9900 (vncserver) Tasks: 0 (limit: 507) CGroup: /firstname.lastname@example.org ‣ 9900 /usr/bin/perl /usr/bin/vncserver :1 -geometry 1440x900 -alwaysshared -fg
Connecting to VNC server
VNC is not an encrypted protocol and can be subject to packet sniffing. The recommended approach is to create an SSH tunnel that will securely forward traffic from your local machine on port 5901 to the server on the same port.
Set Up SSH Tunneling on Linux and macOS
If you run Linux, macOS, or any other Unix-based operating system on your machine, you can easily create an SSH tunnel with the following command:
ssh -L 5901:127.0.0.1:5901 -N -f -l username server_ip_address
You will be prompted to enter the user password.
Do not forget to replace
server_ip_address with your username and the IP address of your server.
Set Up SSH Tunneling on Windows
If you run Windows, you can set up SSH Tunneling using the PuTTY SSH client.
Open Putty and enter your server IP Address in the
Host name or IP address field.
Connection menu, box, expand
SSH and select
Tunnels. Enter the VNC server port (
5901) in the
Source Port field and enter
server_ip_address:5901 in the
Destination field and click on the
Add button as shown in the image below:
Go back to the
Session page to save the settings so that you do not need to enter them each time. To the remote server, select the saved session and click on the
Connecting using Vncviewer
Now that the SSH tunnel is created, it is time to open your Vncviewer and to connect to the VNC Server at
You can use any VNC viewer such as TigerVNC, TightVNC, RealVNC, UltraVNC, Vinagre, and VNC Viewer for Google Chrome.
We’ll be using TigerVNC. Open the viewer, enter
localhost:5901, and click on the
Enter your user password when prompted, and you should see the default Xfce desktop. It will look something like this:
You can start interacting with the remote XFCE desktop from your local machine using your keyboard and mouse.
By now you should have a VNC server up and running, and you can easily manage your Ubuntu 18.04 server from your local desktop machine using an easy to use graphic interface.
To configure your VNC server to start a display for more than one user, create the initial configuration and set up the password using the
vncserver command. You will also need to create a new service file using a different port.
Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions.