Making hyper-minimal Ubuntu virtual machines with debootstrap
Every so often I have to make a new virtual machine for some specific use case. Perhaps I need a newer version of Ubuntu than the one I’m running on my hardware in order to build some software, and containerization just isn’t working. Or maybe I need to test an app that I made modifications to in a fresh environment. In these instances, it can be quite helpful to be able to spin up these virtual machines quickly, and only install the bare minimum software you need for your use case.
One common strategy when making a minimal or specially customized install is to use a server distro (like Ubuntu Server for instance) as the base and then install other things on top of it. This sorta works, but it’s less than ideal for a couple reasons:
Server distros are not the same as minimal distros. They may provide or offer software and configurations that are intended for a server use case. For instance, the ubuntu-server metapackage in Ubuntu depends on software intended for RAID array configuration and logical volume management, and it recommends software that enables LXD virtual machine related features. Chances are you don’t need or want these sort of things.
They can be time-consuming to set up. You have to go through the whole server install procedure, possibly having to configure or reconfigure things that are pointless for your use case, just to get the distro to install. Then you have to log in and customize it, adding an extra step.
If you’re able to use Debian as your distro, these problems aren’t so bad since Debian is sort of like Arch Linux - there’s a minimal base that you build on to turn it into a desktop or server. But for Ubuntu, there’s desktop images (not usually what you want), server images (not usually what you want), cloud images (might be usable but could be tricky), and Ubuntu Core images (definitely not what you want for most use cases). So how exactly do you make a minimal Ubuntu VM?
As hinted at above, a cloud image might work, but we’re going to use a different solution here. As it turns out, you don’t actually have to use a prebuilt image or installer to install Ubuntu. Similar to the installation procedure Arch Linux provides, you can install Ubuntu manually, giving you very good control over what goes into your VM and how it’s configured.
This guide is going to be focused on doing a manual installation of Ubuntu into a VM, using debootstrap to install the initial minimal system. You can use this same technique to install Ubuntu onto physical hardware by just booting from a live USB and then using this technique on your hardware’s physical disk(s). However we’re going to be primarily focused on using a VM right now. Also, the virtualization software we’re going to be working with is QEMU. If you’re using a different hypervisor like VMware, VirtualBox, or Hyper-V, you can make a new VM and then install Ubuntu manually into it the same way you would install Ubuntu onto physical hardware using this technique. QEMU, however, provides special tools that make this procedure easier, and QEMU is more flexible than other virtualization software in my experience. You can install it by running
sudo apt install qemu-system-x86 on your host system.
With that laid out, let us begin.
Open a terminal on your physical machine, and make a directory for your new VM to reside in. I’ll use “~/VMs/Ubuntu” here.
Next, let’s make a virtual disk image for the VM using the
qemu-img create -f qcow2 ubuntu.img 32G
This will make a 32 GiB disk image - feel free to customize the size or filename as you see fit. The
-f parameter at the beginning specifies the VM disk image format. QCOW2 is usually a good option since the image will start out small and then get bigger as necessary. However, if you’re already using a copy-on-write filesystem like BTRFS or ZFS, you might want to use
-f raw rather than
-f qcow2 - this will make a raw disk image file and avoid the overhead of the QCOW2 file format.
Now we need to attach the disk image to the host machine as a device. I usually do this with you can use qemu-nbd, which can attach a QEMU-compatible disk image to your physical system as a network block device. These devices look and work just like physical disks, which makes them extremely handy for modifying the contents of a disk image.
qemu-nbd requires that the nbd kernel module be loaded, and at least on Ubuntu, it’s not loaded by default, so we need to load it before we can attach the disk image to our host machine.
sudo modprobe nbd
sudo qemu-nbd -f qcow2 -c /dev/nbd0 ./ubuntu.img
This will make our ubuntu.img file available through the /dev/nbd0 device. Make sure to specify the format via the
-f switch, especially if you’re using a raw disk image. QEMU will keep you from writing a new partition table to the disk image if you give it a raw disk image without telling it directly that the disk image is raw.
Once your disk image is attached, we can partition it and format it just like a real disk. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll give the drive an MBR partition table, create a single partition enclosing all of the disk’s space, then format the partition as ext4.
sudo fdisk /dev/nbd0
sudo mkfs.ext4 /dev/nbd0p1
(The two blank lines are intentional - they just accept the default options for the partition’s first and last sector, which makes a partition that encloses all available space on the disk.)
Now we can mount the new partition.
sudo mount /dev/nbd0p1 ./vdisk
Now it’s time to install the minimal Ubuntu system. You’ll need to know the first part of the codename for the Ubuntu version you intend to install. The codenames for Ubuntu releases are an adjective followed by the name of an animal, like “Jammy Jellyfish”. The first word (“Jammy” in this instance) is the one you need. These codenames are easy to look up online. Here’s the codenames for the currently supported LTS versions of Ubuntu, as well as the codename for the current development release:
| 20.04 | Focal |
| 22.04 | Jammy |
| 24.04 Development | Noble |
To install the initial minimal Ubuntu system, we’ll use the debootstrap utility. This utility will download and install the bare minimum packages needed to have a functional Ubuntu system. Keep in mind that the Ubuntu installation this tool makes is really minimal - it doesn’t even come with a bootloader or Linux kernel. We’ll need to make quite a few changes to this installation before it’s ready for use in a VM.
Assuming we’re installing Ubuntu 22.04 LTS into our VM, the command to use is:
sudo debootstrap jammy ./vdisk
After a few minutes, our new system should be downloaded and installed. (Note that debootstrap does require root privileges.)
Now we’re ready to customize the VM! To do this, we’ll use a utility called chroot - this utility allows us to “enter” an installed Linux system, so we can modify with it without having to boot it. (This is done by changing the root directory (from the perspective of the chroot process) to whatever directory you specify, then launching a shell or program inside the specified directory. The shell or program will see its root directory as being the directory you specified, and volia, it’s as if we’re “inside” the installed system without having to boot it. This is a very weak form of containerization and shouldn’t be relied on for security, but it’s perfect for what we’re doing.)
There’s one thing we have to account for before chrooting into our new Ubuntu installation. Some commands we need to run will assume that certain special directories are mounted properly - in particular, /proc should point to a procfs filesystem, /sys should point to a sysfs filesystem, /dev needs to contain all of the device files of our system, and /dev/pts needs to contain the device files for pseudoterminals (you don’t have to know what any of that means, just know that those four directories are important and have to be set up properly). If these directories are not properly mounted, some tools will behave strangely or not work at all. The easiest way to solve this problem is with bind mounts. These basically tell Linux to make the contents of one directory visible in some other directory too. (These are sort of like symlinks, but they work differently - a symlink says “I’m a link to something, go over here to see what I contain”, whereas a bind mount says “make this directory’s contents visible over here too”. The differences are subtle but important - a symlink can’t make files outside of a chroot visible inside the chroot. A bind mount, however, can.)
So let’s bind mount the needed directories from our system into the chroot:
sudo mount --bind /dev ./vdisk/dev
sudo mount --bind /proc ./vdisk/proc
sudo mount --bind /sys ./vdisk/sys
sudo mount --bind /dev/pts ./vdisk/dev/pts
And now we can chroot in!
sudo chroot ./vdisk
ping -c1 22.214.171.124 just to make sure that Internet access is working - if it’s not, you may need to copy the host’s /etc/resolv.conf file into the VM. However, you probably won’t have to do this. Assuming Internet is working, we can now start customizing things.
By default, debootstrap only enables the “main” repository of Ubuntu. This repository only contains free-and-open-source software that is supported by Canonical. This does *not* include most of the software available in Ubuntu - most of it is in the “universe”, “restricted”, and “multiverse” repositories. If you really know what you’re doing, you can leave some of these repositories out, but I would highly recommend you enable them. Also, only the “release” pocket is enabled by default - this pocket includes all of the software that came with your chosen version of Ubuntu when it was first released, but it doesn’t include bug fixes, security updates, or newer versions of software. All those are in the “updates”, “security”, and “backports” pockets.
To fix this, run the following block of code, adjusted for your release of Ubuntu:
tee /etc/apt/sources.list << ENDSOURCESLIST
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu jammy main universe restricted multiverse
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu jammy-updates main universe restricted multiverse
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu jammy-security main universe restricted multiverse
deb http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu jammy-backports main universe restricted multiverse
Replace “jammy” with the codename corresponding to your chosen release of Ubuntu. Once you’ve run this, run
cat /etc/apt/sources.list to make sure the file looks right, then run
apt update to refresh your software database with the newly enabled repositories. Once that’s done, run
apt full-upgrade to update any software in the base installation that’s out-of-date.
What exactly you install at this point is up to you, but here’s my list of recommendations:
linux-generic. Highly recommended. This provides the Linux kernel. Without it, you’re going to have significant trouble booting. You can replace this with a different kernel metapackage if you want to for some reason (like linux-lowlatency).
grub-pc. Highly recommended. This is the bootloader. You might be able to replace this with an alternative bootloader like systemd-boot.
vim (or some other decent text editor that runs in a terminal). Highly recommended. The minimal install of Ubuntu doesn’t come with a good text editor, and you’ll really want one of those most likely.
network-manager. Highly recommended. If you don’t install this or some other network manager, you won’t have Internet access. You can replace this with an alternative network manager if you’d like.
tmux. Recommended. Unless you’re going to install a graphical environment, you’ll probably want a terminal multiplexer so you don’t have to juggle TTYs (which is especially painful in QEMU).
openssh-server. Optional. This is handy since it lets you use your terminal emulator of choice on your physical machine to interface with the virtual machine. You won’t be stuck using a rather clumsy and slow TTY in a QEMU display.
pulseaudio. Very optional. Provides sound support within the VM.
icewm + xserver-xorg + xinit + xterm. Very optional. If you need or want a graphical environment, this should provide you with a fairly minimal and fast one. You’ll still log in at a TTY, but you can use
startxto start a desktop.
Add whatever software you want to this list, remove whatever you don’t want, and then install it all with this command:
apt install listOfPackages
Replace “listOfPackages” with the actual list of packages you want to install. For instance, if I were to install everything in the above list except openssh-server, I would use:
apt install linux-generic grub-pc vim network-manager tmux icewm xserver-xorg xinit xterm
At this point our software is installed, but the VM still has a few things needed to get it going.
We need to install and configure the bootloader.
We need an /etc/fstab file, or the system will boot with the drive mounted read-only.
We should probably make a non-root user with sudo access.
There’s a file in Ubuntu that will prevent Internet access from working. We should delete it now.
The bootloader is pretty easy to install and configure. Just run:
sudo grub-install /dev/nbd0
For /etc/fstab, there are a few options. One particularly good one is to label the partition we installed Ubuntu into using e2label, then use that label as the ID of the drive we want to mount as root. That can be done like this:
e2label /dev/nbd0p1 ubuntu-inst
echo "LABEL=ubuntu-inst / ext4 defaults 0 1" > /etc/fstab
Making a user account is fairly easy:
adduser user # follow the prompts to create the user
adduser user sudo
And lastly, we should remove the Internet blocker file. I don’t understand why exactly this file exists in Ubuntu, but it does, and it causes problems for me when I make a minimal VM in this way. Removing it fixes the problem.
EDIT: January 21, 2024: This
rm command doesn’t actually work forever - an update to NetworkManager can end up putting this file back, breaking networking again. Rather than using
rm on it, you should
dpkg-divert it somewhere benign, for instance with
dpkg-divert --divert /usr/lib/NetworkManager/conf.d/10-globally-managed-devices.conf --rename /var/nm-globally-managed-devices-junk.old, which should persist even after an update.
And that’s it! Now we can exit the chroot, unmount everything, and detach the disk image from our host machine.
sudo umount ./vdisk/dev/pts
sudo umount ./vdisk/dev
sudo umount ./vdisk/proc
sudo umount ./vdisk/sys
sudo umount ./vdisk
sudo qemu-nbd -d /dev/nbd0
Now we can try and boot the VM. But before doing that, it’s probably a good idea to make a VM launcher script. Run
vim ./startVM.sh (replacing “vim” with your text editor of choice), then type the following contents into the file:
qemu-system-x86_64 -enable-kvm -machine q35 -m 4G -smp 2 -vga qxl -display sdl -monitor stdio -device intel-hda -device hda-duplex -usb -device usb-tablet -drive file=./ubuntu.img,format=qcow2,if=virtio
Refer to the
qemu-system-x86_64 manpage or QEMU Invocation documentation page at https://www.qemu.org/docs/master/system/invocation.html for more info on what all these options do. Basically this gives you a VM with 4 GB RAM, 2 CPU cores, decent graphics (not 3d accelerated but not as bad as plain VGA), and audio support. You can tweak the amount of RAM and number of CPU cores by changing the
-smp parameters respectively. You’ll have access to the QEMU monitor through whatever terminal you run the launcher script in, allowing you to do things like switch to a different TTY, insert and remove devices and storage media on the fly, and things like that.
Finally, it’s time to see if it works.
chmod +x ./startVM.sh
If all goes well, the VM should boot and you should be able to log in! If you installed IceWM and its accompanying software like mentioned earlier, try running
startx once you log in. This should pop open a functional IceWM desktop.
Some other things you should test once you’re logged in:
Do you have Internet access?
ping -c1 126.96.36.199can be used to test. If you don’t have Internet, run
sudo nmtuiin a terminal and add a new Ethernet network within the VM, then try activating it. If you get an error about the Ethernet device being strictly unmanaged, you probably forgot to remove the /usr/lib/NetworkManager/conf.d/10-globally-managed-devices.conf file mentioned earlier.
Can you write anything to the drive? Try running
touch testto make sure. If you can’t, you probably forgot to create the /etc/fstab file.
If either of these things don’t work, you can power off the VM, then re-attach the VM’s virtual disk to your host machine, mount it, and chroot in like this:
sudo qemu-nbd -f qcow2 -c /dev/nbd0 ./ubuntu.img
sudo mount /dev/nbd0p1 ./vdisk
sudo chroot vdisk
Since all you’ll be doing is writing or removing a file, you don’t need to bind mount all the special directories we had to work with earlier.
Once you’re done fixing whatever is wrong, you can exit the VM, unmount and detach its disk, and then try to boot it again like this:
sudo umount vdisk
sudo qemu-nbd -d /dev/nbd0
You now have a fully functional, minimal VM! Some extra tips that you may find handy:
If you choose to install an SSH server into your VM, you can use the “hostfwd” setting in QEMU to forward a port on your local machine to port 22 within the VM. This will allow you to SSH into the VM. Add a parameter like
-nic user,hostfwd=tcp:127.0.0.1:2222-:22to your QEMU command in the “startVM.sh” script. This will forward port 2222 of your host machine to port 22 of the VM. Then you can SSH into the VM by running
ssh firstname.lastname@example.org -p 2222. The “hostfwd” QEMU feature is documented at https://www.qemu.org/docs/master/system/invocation.html - just search the page for “hostfwd” to find it.
If you intend to use the VM through SSH only and don’t want a QEMU window at all, remove the following three parameters from the QEMU command in “startVM.sh”:
Then add the following switch:
This will disable the graphical QEMU window entirely and provide no video hardware to the VM.
You can disable sound support by removing the following switches from the QEMU command in “startVM.sh”:
There’s lots more you can do with QEMU and manual Ubuntu installations like this, but I think this should give you a good start. Hope you find this useful! God bless.
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