How to set up a Ubuntu desktop on a VPS

An always-online server running a full Ubuntu Desktop can be useful for many reasons. I usually use DigitalOcean but the popular France-based host OVH seems perfect for this scenario.

Install xfce4 desktop environment

The familiar desktops Unity and Gnome don’t work without a display plugged in so the next best choice is Xfce which is like the Raspberry Pi desktop.

sudo apt install xfce4 xfce4-goodies tightvncserver

Create a user and start VNC

Each user gets a VNC server. In this example, we set up an account called user1 and give them sudoer permissions.

adduser user1
usermod -a -G sudo user1

At this point we are ready to log in as user1 and start the VNC server. The :1 is a screen number. Increment this number for each additional user and write down which screen number belongs to each user.

su user1
vncserver -geometry 1280x800 :1

At this point you can use a VNC app like RealVNC to connect. The first screen will be on port 590X where X is the screen number to connect to.

Run vncserver at startup using systemctl

We can take this to the next level by creating a service that will run at startup. Create a service for each user. First, kill any running VNC servers with

vncserver -kill :1
vncserver -kill :2
vncserver -kill :3

In this example we are making a service for user1 using the screen :1 so create a new service file at /etc/systemd/system/vnc1.service:

Description=VNC server for user1
After=syslog.target network.target


ExecStartPre=/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :1 > /dev/null 2>&1
ExecStart=/usr/bin/vncserver -geometry 1280x800 :1
ExecStop=/usr/bin/vncserver -kill :1


Now reload systemctl and start the VNC service.

sudo systemctl daemon-reload
sudo systemctl start vnc1
sudo systemctl enable vnc1