VNC is a system that allows you to remotely control another computer. It allows you to relay your mouse and keyboard inputs as if you were physically sitting in front of the system, when in fact you could be on the other side of the world.

In this guide, we will go over the steps to setup a VNC server on your Ubuntu 20.04 system. When we're done, you'll be able to access your system remotely from anywhere, provided that your client system and the VNC server have an internet connection.

In this tutorial you will learn:
  • How to install and configure TightVNC Server
  • How to install and configure XFCE desktop manager
  • How to connect to our VNC server with TightVNC Viewer
  • How to tunnel VNC connections through SSH
  • How to manage multiple VNC desktops with a Systemd script
Connecting to a VNC server
Connecting to a VNC server
Software Requirements and Linux Command Line Conventions
Category Requirements, Conventions or Software Version Used
System Installed or upgraded Ubuntu 20.04 Focal Fossa
Software TightVNC Server, XFCE desktop manager, TightVNC Viewer
Other Privileged access to your Linux system as root or via the sudo command.
Conventions # - requires given linux commands to be executed with root privileges either directly as a root user or by use of sudo command
$ - requires given linux commands to be executed as a regular non-privileged user

Install VNC server


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We'll need to install a few packages first. There are multiple options for VNC server software, but we'll be going with TightVNC Server for this tutorial. Along with VNC, we also need a graphical desktop. XFCE is a good choice, so that's what we'll be covering here.

  1. Start by opening a terminal and entering the following command to install TightVNC server and the XFCE desktop manager core files:
    $ sudo apt install tightvncserver XFCE4 XFCE4-goodies
    
  2. After the packages are done installing, we need to configure a username and password that will be used to connect to the VNC server by a client. Create a password with this command:
    $ vncpasswd
    
  3. Next, let's configure VNC to start the XFCE desktop environment when a client connects. Use nano or the text editor of your preference (ex. Atom, Sublime) to create the following file:
    $ nano ~/.vnc/xstartup
    


  4. Insert the following few lines and then save your changes and exit the file:

    #!/bin/sh
    unset SESSION_MANAGER
    unset DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS
    startxfce4 &
    
    xstartup configuration file
    xstartup configuration file
  5. With those changes made, edit the permissions of the file to make it executable:
    $ chmod +x ~/.vnc/xstartup
    

Start VNC server



VNC runs as a service on your system. In order for clients to connect, the VNC server must obviously be running and listening for incoming connection attempts. With our configuration complete, we are ready to start VNC server with the following command:

$ vncserver

If your terminal returns some output like in the screenshot below, your VNC server is running correctly.

Launch VNC server
Launch VNC server

VNC will use a new port for every remote desktop that is created. At this point, your system should be listening on port 5901 for incoming VNC connections. You can see this for yourself with the ss -ltn command:

$ ss -ltn
VNC listening on port 5901
VNC listening on port 5901

If you have the UFW firewall enabled, you'll need to open port 5901 so it doesn't block incoming VNC connections:

$ sudo ufw allow from any to any port 5901 proto tcp
Rule added
Rule added (v6)

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Connect to VNC server

There are a lot of choices in the way of VNC clients and any of them should be capable of connecting to your newly launched VNC server. If you don't already have a preferred client to use, follow along with us as we cover the instructions for connecting to the VNC server with the TightVNC Viewer.

  1. Start by installing the xtightvncviewer package on your Ubuntu client system:
    $ sudo apt install xtightvncviewer
    
  2. Once the VNC client is installed, you can use the vncviewer command, followed by either the hostname or IP address of the VNC server, in order to connect to it.
    $ vncviewer linuxconfig.org:1
    
    Enter your password that we created previously when setting up VNC Server. If all went well, you will be presented with a XFCE desktop session running on the remote VNC server Ubuntu system:
    Connect to VNC server
    Connect to VNC server


Tunnel VNC through SSH

For extra security, you can tunnel the VNC connection through SSH on your VNC server. Of course, this is assuming that you have SSH access on the VNC server. If you'd like the added security, follow along with these steps:

  1. If you don't already have SSH installed, that's a pretty obvious prerequisite for this to work:
    $ sudo apt install ssh
    
  2. Next, create an SSH tunnel on a local port 5901 leading to a remote port 5901 on your VNC server. In the following command, make sure you replace user1 and linuxconfig with the username and hostname of your VNC server:
    $ ssh -L 5901:127.0.0.1:5901 -N -f -l user1 linuxconfig
    
    The above command will open a local port 5901 on a localhost loopback network interface 127.0.0.1:

    $ ss -ltn
    State       Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address:Port               Peer Address:Port
    LISTEN      0      128       0.0.0.0:22                    0.0.0.0:*
    LISTEN      0      5       127.0.0.1:631                   0.0.0.0:*
    LISTEN      0      128     127.0.0.1:6010                  0.0.0.0:*
    LISTEN      0      128     127.0.0.1:6011                  0.0.0.0:*
    LISTEN      0      128       0.0.0.0:38299                 0.0.0.0:*
    LISTEN      0      128     127.0.0.1:5901                  0.0.0.0:*
    


  3. Next, use the local port 5901 to connect to a remote VNC server via the SSH tunnel:
    $ vncviewer localhost:1
    

VNC server system startup script

While this configuration works, you may have a scenario where you need to manage multiple VNC desktop sessions. In that case, creating a systemd startup script can facilitate that.

Use nano or another text editor to create the following file:

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

Once you have the file opened, insert the following lines while replacing the user1 username with the username of your VNC user on Line 7 and Line 10. Optionally, change the screen resolution settings and apply other vncserver options or arguments:

[Unit]
Description=Systemd VNC server startup script for Ubuntu 20.04
After=syslog.target network.target

[Service]
Type=forking
User=user1
ExecStartPre=-/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :%i &> /dev/null
ExecStart=/usr/bin/vncserver -depth 24 -geometry 800x600 :%i
PIDFile=/home/user1/.vnc/%H:%i.pid
ExecStop=/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :%i

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

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Systemd startup file
Systemd startup file

Next, reload Systemd for the changes to take effect:

$ sudo systemctl daemon-reload

To start VNC desktop 1, enter:

$ sudo service vncserver@1 start

To stop VNC desktop 1, execute:

$ sudo service vncserver@1 stop

The following linux command will enable the VNC desktop 1 to start after reboot:

$ sudo systemctl enable vncserver@1

To start VNC desktop 2, enter:

$ sudo service vncserver@2 start

And so on...

Conclusion

In this guide, we saw how to install and configure TightVNC Server on Ubuntu 20.04 Focal Fossa. We installed XFCE desktop manager for our VNC clients to use when they connect.

We also learned how to use TightVNC Viewer to connect remotely to our VNC server. On top of all this, we also covered how to tunnel VNC connections through SSH for extra security, and use a custom Systemd startup script to efficiently manage multipe VNC desktop connections.

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