We have an Intel NUC in my university's language department that will soon host a web application used by faculty and students in the department. The NUC runs Ubuntu (14.10).

I'm comfortable with the terminal and SSH-ing into the server, however I find that a lot of tasks that I need to do are just so much easier through screen-sharing (VNC).

I suggested to our new technical director that we install VNC on this server to make my life a lot easier (in fact it had VNC installed before he was hired, and then he uninstalled it). However, he replied with the following comment:

I would much prefer not to run X or VNC on the server if we can get away with it. It is a server after all.

I really don't understand this logic. It isn't hooked up to a monitor; the only access into it through SSH. Is there some miraculous downside to having VNC access to a server that I am unaware of?

Obviously you're opening up another port for an attacker; rebuttal: we're behind two university firewalls (the main university network firewall as well as our subnet's own special firewall). VNC would only be able to be accomplished inside our subnet, so I'm at a loss as to why this would be an issue other than "it's another package to maintain", and with Ubuntu's apt package manager that becomes a non-issue.

What are the downsides of installing VNC on a server?

Edit: this isn't just a web server. It's hosting a number of other applications. Not sure if that makes a difference.

  • 21
    I can't imagine anything you might need to do with a web server that would be easier using a GUI. Perhaps you should also ask about whether there is a better way to perform the tasks you want to perform. Aug 26, 2015 at 23:11
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    Either way, this is an opportunity to learn something new. Aug 26, 2015 at 23:18
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    It's all about limiting surface. With more services more can go wrong and more can get hacked. Granted you said this but it remains true. Also personally I hate VNC. What about X11 Forwarding over SSH? Aug 26, 2015 at 23:37
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    So why do you need to use these tools on a server? Using a browser without a graphical interface will be useless in most cases - but you wouldn't consider running your browser on a server. What ever tool you are using just install it on your client and access whatever data you need on the server preferably via ssh. Maybe have a look into sshfs
    – Ben
    Aug 26, 2015 at 23:50
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    I don't want to post this as an answer, because it doesn't answer the question "What are the downsides of VNC", but to elaborate on the comment by @MichaelBailey: You don't need X or VNC on the server. SSH to the Server with X forwarding allows graphical programs to actually run on the server while displaying the windows on an X11 server running on your local machine. You only need some shared X11 libraries on the server which will not waste resources while you have not program running that uses them. IMO a good compromise. Aug 27, 2015 at 12:41

4 Answers 4


There are a great many reasons:

  • Attack surface: more programs, especially networked ones, means more opportunities for someone to find a bug and get in.

  • Defect surface: as above, but replace "someone" with "Murphy", and "get in" with "ruin your day". Actually, "ruin your day" probably applies to the previous point, too.

  • System efficiency: X11, and the GUI environments that people tend to run on them, consume a decent amount of RAM, especially on a limited resources system like a NUC. Not running them means more resources for doing useful work.

  • Operator efficiency: GUIs do not lend themselves to scripting and other forms of automation. Clicking on things feels productive, but it's actually about the worst way to do something deeply technical. You'll also find your future employment opportunities severely limited if you can't script and automate away your job -- the industry is going away from GUI admin tools. Heck, even Windows server can be installed GUI-free these days, and if that doesn't make you think about the relative merits of only knowing how to click on things, I really don't know what to say to you.

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    Dang it womble.. you beat me to the punch by like 30 seconds again. :) Great answer. Aug 26, 2015 at 23:55
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    Lots of time spent with Mavis Beacon in my youth has to have some benefits... <grin>
    – womble
    Aug 26, 2015 at 23:56
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    @ChrisCirefice then I suggest you ask someone to do things the right way instead of compromising the security of production servers for a tiny bit of ease of use. Aug 27, 2015 at 2:36
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    That's a touch harsh, Andre. I'd like to think that Chris has a slightly better understanding of the implications of his preferences now, no need to beat the stuffing out of him for it.
    – womble
    Aug 27, 2015 at 3:06
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    @ChrisCirefice be really careful thinking things like "no super-valuable information" and "behind firewalls". The value of data is in the eye of the beholder, and the role of systems can subtly change over time, so that more valuable (to an attacker) data slowly ends up accumulating on a system which everyone thinks isn't worth defending... and then you end up on the front page of every news website because something embarrassing was leaked.
    – womble
    Aug 27, 2015 at 20:33

The problem isn't VNC - don't get me wrong, VNC is a horrible protocol and has many flaws (the biggest being the lack of encryption support so everything goes over the network in plain text), but it isn't the main reason its usage is not recommended on servers.

You're going to install VNC to access what, a black screen ? No, you wanted to access an entire desktop environment, and that is the real problem.

Once you install all this desktop-grade Gnome (or similar) software you can already consider your server compromised, since there are so many bugs left to be exploited in this horrible, huge collection of applications (besides the fact that it's not designed for productivity and uses a ton of resources). Once of the other reasons why I don't recommend this software and most of the Linux desktop environments is that they take over the entire system almost like a rootkit, and implement their own versions of everything (authentication ? No more rock solid users and groups, let's run this Policykit nonsense as root that gives permissions based on some unreadable, obscure XML files... configuration ? Who needs human-readable config files ? Let's store everything in binary databases that you can't really see nor edit unless you use their provided utilities, just like the Windows registry, and also let's start a bunch of daemons as root to use up resources even when you're not using the desktop).

Trying to install a Gnome desktop environment on my Archlinux server tells me "Total Installed Size: 1370.86 MiB". That is huge, imagine the extra attack surface this ex-server will have once it's installed. Other desktop environments aren't much better.

  • "VNC is a horrible protocol and has many flaws (the biggest being the lack of encryption...)" In situations were one needs VNC, not a server environment, your issue is averted by tunneling your VNC sessions through ssh. Aug 27, 2015 at 1:52
  • @KeithReynolds yeah, but it should be built-in especially when you compare it to its concurrents like the more "up to date" RDP which is encrypted right away (safe as long as you trust the server's certificate). Aug 27, 2015 at 2:04
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    One design philosophy is to have every possible solution built in(generally typical of MS developers), and the other is to piece together what you need(generally typical of Linux developers). Regarding VNC: When security is needed over an untrusted network ssh, requires an account and provide encryption. When security isn't a concern, sharing ones desktop doesn't require a system account or the overhead of encryption. Aug 27, 2015 at 2:39
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    @KeithReynolds another issue of VNC is that it sends pure bitmaps instead of draw commands which are drawn on the client side like RDP. This makes VNC horrible to use on anything besides a local network while RDP remains fine even on crappy mobile networks. Aug 27, 2015 at 19:55

Obviously you're opening up another port for an attacker; rebuttal: we're behind two university firewalls (the main university network firewall as well as our subnet's own special firewall). VNC would only be able to be accomplished inside our subnet, so I'm at a loss...

Never assume that because your system is behind a firewall, on a private network, you don't need to worry about security. Many, if not most, successful intrusions are performed by insiders (employees, students, etc) that have access to said networks.


Try this to keep the technical director happy:

  • Install VNC and whatever desktop you like

  • Do NOT install a screensaver of any kind. Why? You don't have a screen, and a desktop just sitting there doesn't consume many resources.

  • Do NOT forward the VNC port. If you need to use it, tunnel the VNC port (5900) via SSH (port 22) and connect to it that way.

This process gets you encryption and all the security of SSH, which is already open. You don't add any security issues you didn't already have before.

I already do this on my own server, there is no noticeable additional delay in the VNC process compared to a direct connection.

  • 9
    "You don't add any security issues you didn't already have before" isn't even close to true. Installing extra code - and Andre B above gives you some idea how much extra code we're talking about - gives more opportunities for privilege escalation by (ssh'ed-in) local users.
    – MadHatter
    Aug 27, 2015 at 11:03
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    I agree that security is a balancing act, but claiming that acts (installing extra software) that are part of the trade-off have no downside is disingenuous. Saying there are few ssh'ed in users is equally misleading: the question's author says he ssh'es in right now, and we have no way of knowing how many others do so.
    – MadHatter
    Aug 27, 2015 at 11:40
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    "OP has determined that SSH is secure enough". Security isn't a property that you have or don't; it's a degree of preparedness against a given threat model. If the threat model is "unauthorised access by remote user", then yes, ssh is good defence. If the threat model is "privilege escalation by authorised local user", then ssh is no defence, and installing tons of extra code on the server increases the attack surface significantly. Womble is an experienced sysadmin with about seventy thousand times your reputation on this site, so you might want to go easy on the insults.
    – MadHatter
    Aug 27, 2015 at 12:29
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    @paul No, my main concern wasn't about the lack of encryption of VNC (it can be mitigated using SSH tunneling), the main issue is the enormous attack surface of any desktop environment. Aug 27, 2015 at 17:01
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    @paul: you're right, I have absolutely no sense of balance. I'm not Fox News: I don't need to be "fair and balanced". I'm a sysadmin: I need to be right.
    – womble
    Aug 28, 2015 at 8:18

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