How to Install and Configure VNC on Ubuntu 20.04
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Introduction

Virtual Network Computing, or VNC, is a connection system that allows you to use your keyboard and mouse to interact with a graphical desktop environment on a remote server. It makes managing files, software, and settings on a remote server easier for users who are not yet comfortable with the command line.

In this guide, you’ll set up a VNC server with TightVNC on an Ubuntu 20.04 server and connect to it securely through an SSH tunnel. Then, you’ll use a VNC client program on your local machine to interact with your server through a graphical desktop environment.

Prerequisites

To complete this tutorial, you’ll need:

  • One Ubuntu 20.04 server with a non-root administrative user and a firewall configured with UFW. To set this up, follow our initial server setup guide for Ubuntu 20.04.
  • A local computer with a VNC client installed. The VNC client you use must support connections over SSH tunnels:

Step 1 — Installing the Desktop Environment and VNC Server

By default, an Ubuntu 20.04 server does not come with a graphical desktop environment or a VNC server installed, so you’ll begin by installing those.

You have many options when it comes to which VNC server and desktop environment you choose. In this tutorial, you will install packages for the latest Xfce desktop environment and the TightVNC package available from the official Ubuntu repository. Both Xfce and TightVNC are known for being lightweight and fast, which will help ensure that the VNC connection will be smooth and stable even on slower internet connections.

After connecting to your server with SSH, update your list of packages:

  • sudo apt update

Now install Xfce along with the xfce4-goodies package, which contains a few enhancements for the desktop environment:

  • sudo apt install xfce4 xfce4-goodies

During installation, you may be prompted to choose a default display manager for Xfce. A display manager is a program that allows you to select and log in to a desktop environment through a graphical interface. You’ll only be using Xfce when you connect with a VNC client, and in these Xfce sessions you’ll already be logged in as your non-root Ubuntu user. So for the purposes of this tutorial, your choice of display manager isn’t pertinent. Select either one and press ENTER.

Once that installation completes, install the TightVNC server:

  • sudo apt install tightvncserver

Next, run the vncserver command to set a VNC access password, create the initial configuration files, and start a VNC server instance:

  • vncserver

You’ll be prompted to enter and verify a password to access your machine remotely:

Output
You will require a password to access your desktops. Password: Verify:

The password must be between six and eight characters long. Passwords more than 8 characters will be truncated automatically.

Once you verify the password, you’ll have the option to create a view-only password. Users who log in with the view-only password will not be able to control the VNC instance with their mouse or keyboard. This is a helpful option if you want to demonstrate something to other people using your VNC server, but this isn’t required.

The process then creates the necessary default configuration files and connection information for the server. Additionally, it launches a default server instance on port 5901. This port is called a display port, and is referred to by VNC as :1. VNC can launch multiple instances on other display ports, with :2 referring to port 5902, :3 referring to 5903, and so on:

Output
Would you like to enter a view-only password (y/n)? n xauth: file /home/sammy/.Xauthority does not exist New 'X' desktop is your_hostname:1 Creating default startup script /home/sammy/.vnc/xstartup Starting applications specified in /home/sammy/.vnc/xstartup Log file is /home/sammy/.vnc/your_hostname:1.log

Note that if you ever want to change your password or add a view-only password, you can do so with the vncpasswd command:

  • vncpasswd

At this point, the VNC server is installed and running. Now let’s configure it to launch Xfce and give us access to the server through a graphical interface.

Step 2 — Configuring the VNC Server

The VNC server needs to know which commands to execute when it starts up. Specifically, VNC needs to know which graphical desktop environment it should connect to.

The commands that the VNC server runs at startup are located in a configuration file called xstartup in the .vnc folder under your home directory. The startup script was created when you ran the vncserver command in the previous step, but you’ll create your own to launch the Xfce desktop.

Because you are going to be changing how the VNC server is configured, first stop the VNC server instance that is running on port 5901 with the following command:

  • vncserver -kill :1

The output will look like this, although you’ll see a different PID:

Output
Killing Xtightvnc process ID 17648

Before you modify the xstartup file, back up the original:

  • mv ~/.vnc/xstartup ~/.vnc/xstartup.bak

Now create a new xstartup file and open it in a text editor, such as nano:

  • nano ~/.vnc/xstartup

Then add the following lines to the file:

~/.vnc/xstartup
#!/bin/bash
xrdb $HOME/.Xresources
startxfce4 &

The first line is a shebang. In executable plain-text files on *nix platforms, a shebang tells the system what interpreter to pass that file to for execution. In this case, you’re passing the file to the Bash interpreter. This will allow each successive line to be executed as commands, in order.

The first command in the file, xrdb $HOME/.Xresources, tells VNC’s GUI framework to read the server user’s .Xresources file. .Xresources is where a user can make changes to certain settings of the graphical desktop, like terminal colors, cursor themes, and font rendering. The second command tells the server to launch Xfce. Whenever you start or restart the VNC server, these commands will execute automatically.

Save and close the file after adding these lines. If you used nano, do so by pressing CTRL + X, Y, then ENTER.

To ensure that the VNC server will be able to use this new startup file properly, you’ll need to make it executable:

  • chmod +x ~/.vnc/xstartup

Then restart the VNC server:

  • vncserver -localhost

Notice that this time the command includes the -localhost option, which binds the VNC server to your server’s loopback interface. This will cause VNC to only allow connections that originate from the server on which it’s installed.

In the next step, you’ll establish an SSH tunnel between your local machine and your server, essentially tricking VNC into thinking that the connection from your local machine originated on your server. This strategy will add an extra layer of security around VNC, as the only users who will be able to access it are those that already have SSH access to your server.

You’ll see output similar to this:

Output
New 'X' desktop is your_hostname:1 Starting applications specified in /home/sammy/.vnc/xstartup Log file is /home/sammy/.vnc/your_hostname:1.log

With the configuration in place, you’re ready to connect to the VNC server from your local machine.

Step 3 — Connecting to the VNC Desktop Securely

VNC itself doesn’t use secure protocols when connecting. To securely connect to your server, you’ll establish an SSH tunnel and then tell your VNC client to connect using that tunnel rather than making a direct connection.

Create an SSH connection on your local computer that securely forwards to the localhost connection for VNC. You can do this via the terminal on Linux or macOS with the following ssh command:

  • ssh -L 59000:localhost:5901 -C -N -l sammy your_server_ip

Here’s what this ssh command’s options mean:

  • -L 59000:localhost:5901: The -L switch specifies that the given port on the local computer (59000) is to be forwarded to the given host and port on the destination server (localhost:5901, meaning port 5901 on the destination server, defined as your_server_ip). Note that the local port you specify is somewhat arbitrary; as long as the port isn’t already bound to another service, you can use it as the forwarding port for your tunnel.
  • -C: This flag enables compression which can help minimize resource consumption and speed things up.
  • -N: This option tells ssh that you don’t want to execute any remote commands. This setting is useful when you just want to forward ports.
  • -l sammy your_server_ip: The -l switch let’s you specify the user you want to log in as once you connect to the server. Make sure to replace sammy and your_server_ip with the name of your non-root user and your server’s IP address.

Note: This command establishes an SSH tunnel that forwards information from port 5901 on your VNC server to port 59000 on your local machine via port 22 on each machine, the default port for SSH. Assuming you followed the prerequisite Initial Server Setup guide for Ubuntu 20.04, you will have added a UFW rule to allow connections to your server over OpenSSH.

This is more secure than simply opening up your server’s firewall to allow connections to port 5901, as that would allow anyone to access your server over VNC. By connecting over an SSH tunnel, you’re limiting VNC access to machines that already have SSH access to the server.

If you are using PuTTY to connect to your server, you can create an SSH tunnel by right-clicking on the top bar of the terminal window, and then clicking the Change Settings… option:

Right-click on top bar to reveal Change Settings option

Find the Connection branch in the tree menu on the left-hand side of the PuTTY Reconfiguration window. Expand the SSH branch and click on Tunnels. On the Options controlling SSH port forwarding screen, enter 59000 as the Source Port and localhost:5901 as the Destination, like this:

Example PuTTY SSH tunnel configuration

Then click the Add button, and then the Apply button to implement the tunnel.

Once the tunnel is running, use a VNC client to connect to localhost:59000. You’ll be prompted to authenticate using the password you set in Step 1.

Once you are connected, you’ll see the default Xfce desktop. It should look something like this:

VNC connection to Ubuntu 20.04 server with the Xfce desktop environment

You can access files in your home directory with the file manager or from the command line, as seen here:

File Manager via VNC connection to Ubuntu 20.04

Press CTRL+C in your local terminal to stop the SSH tunnel and return to your prompt. This will disconnect your VNC session as well.

Now you can configure your VNC server to run as a systemd service.

Step 4 — Running VNC as a System Service

By setting up the VNC server to run as a systemd service you can start, stop, and restart it as needed, like any other service. You can also use systemd’s management commands to ensure that VNC starts when your server boots up.

First, create a new unit file called /etc/systemd/system/vncserver@.service:

  • sudo nano /etc/systemd/system/vncserver@.service

The @ symbol at the end of the name will let us pass in an argument you can use in the service configuration. You’ll use this to specify the VNC display port you want to use when you manage the service.

Add the following lines to the file. Be sure to change the value of User, Group, WorkingDirectory, and the username in the value of PIDFILE to match your username:

/etc/systemd/system/vncserver@.service
[Unit]
Description=Start TightVNC server at startup
After=syslog.target network.target

[Service]
Type=forking
User=sammy
Group=sammy
WorkingDirectory=/home/sammy

PIDFile=/home/sammy/.vnc/%H:%i.pid
ExecStartPre=-/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :%i > /dev/null 2>&1
ExecStart=/usr/bin/vncserver -depth 24 -geometry 1280x800 -localhost :%i
ExecStop=/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :%i

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

The ExecStartPre command stops VNC if it’s already running. The ExecStart command starts VNC and sets the color depth to 24-bit color with a resolution of 1280x800. You can modify these startup options as well to meet your needs. Also, note that the ExecStart command again includes the -localhost option.

Save and close the file.

Next, make the system aware of the new unit file:

  • sudo systemctl daemon-reload

Enable the unit file:

  • sudo systemctl enable vncserver@1.service

The 1 following the @ sign signifies which display number the service should appear over, in this case the default :1 as was discussed in Step 2.

Stop the current instance of the VNC server if it’s still running:

  • vncserver -kill :1

Then start it as you would start any other systemd service:

  • sudo systemctl start vncserver@1

You can verify that it started with this command:

  • sudo systemctl status vncserver@1

If it started correctly, the output should look like this:

Output
● vncserver@1.service - Start TightVNC server at startup Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/vncserver@.service; enabled; vendor preset: enabled) Active: active (running) since Thu 2020-05-07 17:23:50 UTC; 6s ago Process: 39768 ExecStartPre=/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :1 > /dev/null 2>&1 (code=exited, status=2) Process: 39772 ExecStart=/usr/bin/vncserver -depth 24 -geometry 1280x800 :1 (code=exited, status=0/SUCCESS) Main PID: 39795 (Xtightvnc) ...

Your VNC server is now ready to use whenever your server boots up, and you can manage it with systemctl commands like any other systemd service.

However, there won’t be any difference on the client side. To reconnect, start your SSH tunnel again:

  • ssh -L 59000:localhost:5901 -C -N -l sammy your_server_ip

Then make a new connection using your VNC client software to localhost:59000 to connect to your server.

Conclusion

You now have a secured VNC server up and running on your Ubuntu 20.04 server. Now you’ll be able to manage your files, software, and settings with a user-friendly graphical interface, and you’ll be able to run graphical software like web browsers remotely.

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