Setting up Chrome Remote Desktop for Linux on Compute Engine

This tutorial shows you how to set up the Chrome Remote Desktop service on a Debian Linux virtual machine (VM) instance on Compute Engine. Chrome Remote Desktop allows you to remotely access applications with a graphical user interface from a local computer or mobile device. For this approach, you don't need to open firewall ports, and you use your Google Account for authentication and authorization.

This tutorial assumes that you are familiar with the Linux command line and with installing Debian packages.

For information about other options for creating virtual workstations, see Creating a virtual workstation.

Objectives

  • Create a headless Compute Engine VM instance to run Chrome Remote Desktop on.
  • Install and configure the Chrome Remote Desktop service on the VM instance.
  • Set up an X Window System desktop environment in the VM instance.
  • Connect from your local computer to the desktop environment on the VM instance.

Costs

This tutorial uses billable components of Google Cloud, including:

  • Compute Engine

Use the Pricing Calculator to generate a cost estimate based on your projected usage.

Before you begin

  1. Sign in to your Google Cloud account. If you're new to Google Cloud, create an account to evaluate how our products perform in real-world scenarios. New customers also get $300 in free credits to run, test, and deploy workloads.
  2. In the Google Cloud Console, on the project selector page, select or create a Google Cloud project.

    Go to project selector

  3. Make sure that billing is enabled for your Cloud project. Learn how to confirm that billing is enabled for your project.

  4. Enable the Compute Engine API.

    Enable the API

  5. In the Google Cloud Console, on the project selector page, select or create a Google Cloud project.

    Go to project selector

  6. Make sure that billing is enabled for your Cloud project. Learn how to confirm that billing is enabled for your project.

  7. Enable the Compute Engine API.

    Enable the API

This tutorial requires that you use the Google Chrome browser on your local computer. If you don't have it already, you can install it from the Google Chrome home page.

Creating a Compute Engine instance

For the purposes of this tutorial, the default 1 vCPU (n1-standard-1) machine type with Debian Linux boot disk works fine, so you don't need to change the default settings.

  1. In the Cloud Console, go to the VM Instances page:

    Go to the VM Instances page

  2. Click Create.

  3. Set the instance name to crdhost.

  4. Optionally, select a region and zone that's close to you.

  5. Click Create.

    It takes a few moments to create your instance.

  6. After the instance has been created, connect to your new instance by clicking the SSH button in the instance list:

    Creating an SSH connection to the VM instance.

Installing Chrome Remote Desktop on the VM instance

The next step is to install Chrome Remote Desktop on the VM instance.

  1. In the SSH window connected to your VM instance, update the package manager data and install wget:

    sudo apt update
    sudo apt install --assume-yes wget tasksel
    
  2. On Debian 9 (stretch), install libgbm1 from the backports repository:

    [[ $(/usr/bin/lsb_release --codename --short) == "stretch" ]] && \
       sudo apt install --assume-yes libgbm1/stretch-backports
    
  3. Download and install the Debian Linux Chrome Remote Desktop installation package:

    wget https://dl.google.com/linux/direct/chrome-remote-desktop_current_amd64.deb
    sudo apt-get install --assume-yes ./chrome-remote-desktop_current_amd64.deb
    

Installing an X Windows System desktop environment

You need to install an X Window System desktop environment and window manager for Chrome Remote Desktop to use. Common options are:

You can use other desktop environments, but Chrome Remote Desktop does not support 3D graphics acceleration. If you do choose a desktop environment that uses 3D graphics acceleration, you need to disable that feature, or the remote desktop service won't start.

For remote connections over slower networks we recommended Xfce because it has minimal graphical elements and few animations.

Xfce

  1. In the SSH window connected to your VM instance, install the Xfce desktop environment and basic desktop components:

    sudo DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
        apt install --assume-yes xfce4 desktop-base dbus-x11 xscreensaver
    

    The DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive parameter suppresses a prompt to configure a layout for a keyboard that would be directly connected to the VM instance.

    XScreenSaver is required because the Xfce default screen locker (Light Locker) doesn't work with Chrome Remote Desktop (Light Locker displays a blank screen that cannot be unlocked).

  2. Configure Chrome Remote Desktop to use Xfce by default:

    sudo bash -c 'echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/xfce4-session" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session'
    
  3. Optionally, install the full suite of Linux desktop applications, including the Firefox browser, LibreOffice office application suite, and the Evince PDF viewer:

    sudo apt install --assume-yes task-xfce-desktop
    

Cinnamon

  1. In the SSH window connected to your VM instance, install the Cinnamon desktop environment and basic desktop components:

    sudo DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
        apt install --assume-yes cinnamon-core desktop-base dbus-x11
    

    The DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive parameter suppresses a prompt to configure a layout for a keyboard that would be directly connected to the VM instance.

  2. Set your Chrome Remote Desktop session to use Cinnamon in 2D mode (which does not use 3D graphics acceleration) by default:

    sudo bash -c 'echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/cinnamon-session-cinnamon2d" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session'
    
  3. Optionally, install the full suite of Linux desktop applications, including the Firefox browser, the LibreOffice office application suite, and the Evince PDF viewer:

    sudo apt install --assume-yes task-cinnamon-desktop
    

Gnome

  1. In the SSH window connected to your VM instance, install the full Gnome desktop environment, including the Firefox browser, the LibreOffice office application suite, and the Evince PDF viewer:

    sudo DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
        apt install --assume-yes  task-gnome-desktop
    

    The DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive parameter suppresses a prompt to configure a layout for a keyboard that would be directly connected to the VM instance.

  2. Set your Chrome Remote Desktop session to use Gnome

    sudo bash -c 'echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/gnome-session" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session'
    

Gnome-Classic

  1. In the SSH window connected to your VM instance, install the full Gnome desktop environment, including the Firefox browser, the LibreOffice office application suite, and the Evince PDF viewer:

    sudo DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
        apt install --assume-yes  task-gnome-desktop
    

    The DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive parameter suppresses a prompt to configure a layout for a keyboard that would be directly connected to the VM instance.

  2. Set your Chrome Remote Desktop session to use the Gnome-Classic desktop:

    sudo bash -c 'echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/gnome-session-classic" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session'
    

KDE Plasma

  1. In the SSH window connected to your VM instance, install the full Gnome desktop environment, including the Firefox browser, the LibreOffice office application suite, and the Evince PDF viewer:

    sudo DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
        apt install --assume-yes  task-kde-desktop
    

    The DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive parameter suppresses a prompt to configure a layout for a keyboard that would be directly connected to the VM instance.

  2. Set your Chrome Remote Desktop session to use KDE Plasma

    sudo bash -c 'echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/startkde" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session'
    

Regardless of which desktop environment you've installed, complete the installation process by following these steps:

  1. Disable the display manager service on your instance. There is no display connected to your instance, so the display manager service won't start.

    sudo systemctl disable lightdm.service
    
  2. Optionally, install the Chrome browser on your instance:

    wget https://dl.google.com/linux/direct/google-chrome-stable_current_amd64.deb
    sudo apt install --assume-yes ./google-chrome-stable_current_amd64.deb
    

Configuring and starting the Chrome Remote Desktop service

To start the remote desktop server, you need to have an authorization key for the Google account that you want to use to connect to it:

  1. In the Cloud Console, go to the VM Instances page:

    Go to the VM Instances page

  2. Connect to your instance by clicking the SSH button.

  3. On your local computer, using the Chrome browser, go to the Chrome Remote Desktop command line setup page:

    https://remotedesktop.google.com/headless

  4. If you're not already signed in, sign in with a Google Account. This is the account that will be used for authorizing remote access.

  5. On the Set up another computer page, click Begin.

  6. On the Download and install Chrome Remote Desktop page, click Next.

  7. Click Authorize.

    You need to allow Chrome Remote Desktop to access your account. If you approve, the page displays a command line for Debian Linux that looks like the following:

    DISPLAY= /opt/google/chrome-remote-desktop/start-host \
        --code="4/xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx" \
        --redirect-url="https://remotedesktop.google.com/_/oauthredirect" \
        --name=$(hostname)
    

    You use this command to set up and start the Chrome Remote Desktop service on your VM instance, linking it with your Google Account using the authorization code.

  8. Copy the command to the SSH window that's connected to your instance, and then run the command.

  9. When you're prompted, enter a 6-digit PIN. This number will be used for additional authorization when you connect later.

    You might see errors like No net_fetcher or Failed to read. You can ignore these errors.

  10. Verify that the service is running using the following command.

    sudo systemctl status chrome-remote-desktop@$USER
    

    If the service is running, you see output that includes the state active:

    chrome-remote-desktop.service - LSB: Chrome Remote Desktop service
        Loaded: loaded (/lib/systemd/system/chrome-remote-desktop@USER.service; enabled; vendor preset: enabled)
        Active: active (running) since DATE_TIME; ELAPSED_TIME
    

Connecting to the VM instance

You can connect to the VM instance using the Chrome Remote Desktop web application.

  1. On your local computer, go to the Chrome Remote Desktop web site.

  2. Click Remote Access

  3. If you're not already signed in to Google, sign in with the same Google Account that you used to set up the Chrome Remote Desktop service.

    You see your new VM instance in the Remote Devices list. List of remote devices available to connect to.

  4. Click the name of the remote desktop instance.

  5. When you're prompted, enter the PIN that you created earlier, and then click the arrow button to connect.

    You are now connected to the desktop environment on your remote Compute Engine instance.

If you installed the Xfce desktop, the first time you connect, you are prompted to set up the desktop panels. Click Use Default Config to get the standard taskbar at the top and the quick launch panel at the bottom.

xfce desktop showing the taskbar and quick launch panel.

Improving the remote desktop experience

This section provides instructions for changing settings in order to improve the remote desktop experience.

Enable Clipboard Synchronization

Clipboard Synchronization allows the contents of the clipboard to be shared between the local and remote machines. If this feature is not already enabled, do the following:

  1. Open the Session Options panel using the button that appears when you move the mouse to the side of the window.
  2. In the Enable Clipboard Synchronization section, click Begin (this section will only be shown if clipboard synchronization is not yet enabled).
  3. Click Allow.

Install the Remote Desktop Chrome app

The Remote Desktop Chrome app gives a separate windowed experience and allows keyboard shortcuts that would normally be intercepted by Chrome to be used on the remote system.

If this app is not installed, do the following:

  1. Open the Session Options panel using the button that appears when you move the mouse to the side of the window.
  2. In the Install App section, click Begin.
  3. Click Install.

The remote desktop session reopens in its own application window.

You can move any remote desktop sessions from a Chrome tab to the app window by clicking the Open With icon in the URL bar.

Disable animations and effects in Cinnamon

The Cinnamon desktop uses several graphical features and animations, such as semi-transparent windows and menus that fade in and out. Because these animations take more time to render over a remote connection, it can make the user interface feel slow.

To disable these effects:

  1. In the Cinnamon desktop, select Menu > Preferences > Effects.

    Setting desktop preferences in Cinnamon.

  2. Disable each of the effects:

    Disabling animation effects in Cinnamon.

Set a user password

The user account created by Compute Engine doesn't have a password. However, several desktop environments require one for unlocking screensavers and authorizing administrative actions. It is therefore important to set a password for your user:

  1. Connect to the instance using SSH, as you did when you first set up the instance.
  2. Create a password for the user:

    sudo passwd $(whoami)
    

Disable screensavers and lock screens

Because you're accessing your desktop from a remote computer, it's normally not necessary to use a screensaver or screen locker, so you can disable these.

Xfce

  1. In the Applications menu, select Settings > Screensaver.
  2. Set Mode to Disable Screen Saver.

Cinnamon

  1. In the desktop, select Menu > Preferences > Screensaver.
  2. In the Settings tab, set Delay to Never and disable the following two Lock settings to lock the screen automatically.

Gnome

  1. In the desktop, click Activities and type Settings.
  2. Select the Settings application.
  3. In the Settings application, select Privacy > Screen Lock.
  4. Disable Automatic Screen Lock and close the dialog.
  5. Select Devices > Keyboard.
  6. In the list of keyboard shortcuts, scroll down to the System section, and then click Lock Screen.
  7. Press the Backspace key to disable the shortcut, and then click Set.
  8. Select Power and set Blank Screen to Never.

Gnome-Classic

  1. In the desktop, select Applications > System Tools > Settings.
  2. In the Settings application, select Privacy > Screen Lock.
  3. Disable Automatic Screen Lock and close the dialog.
  4. Select Devices > Keyboard.
  5. In the list of keyboard shortcuts, scroll down to the System section and click Lock Screen.
  6. Press the Backspace key to disable the shortcut, and then click Set.
  7. Select Power and set Blank Screen to Never.

KDE Plasma

  1. In the desktop, click the KDE menu button, and then type Screen Locking.
  2. Select the Screen Locking application.
  3. In the Configure Screen Locking application, disable Lock Screen Automatically after and click the button to clear the keyboard shortcut.
  4. Click OK.

Increase the desktop resolution

If you have an ultra high-resolution monitor, you might find that the default maximum remote desktop size of 1600 x 1200 is too small. If so, you can increase it to the resolution of your monitor.

  1. Use SSH to connect to the instance.
  2. Set the CHROME_REMOTE_DESKTOP_DEFAULT_DESKTOP_SIZES environment variable to include the resolution of your monitor:

    echo "export CHROME_REMOTE_DESKTOP_DEFAULT_DESKTOP_SIZES=1600x1200,3840x2560" \
        >> ~/.profile
    
  3. Restart the service:

    sudo systemctl restart chrome-remote-desktop@$USER
    

Choose a different desktop environment

In the preceding section, you set a default desktop environment in the global /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session configuration file. You can also choose a different desktop environment (if it's installed) by specifying it in the .chrome-remote-desktop-session configuration file in your home directory:

Xfce

echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/xfce4-session" > ~/.chrome-remote-desktop-session

Cinnamon

echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/cinnamon-session-cinnamon2d" > ~/.chrome-remote-desktop-session

Gnome

echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/gnome-session" > ~/.chrome-remote-desktop-session

Gnome-Classic

echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/gnome-session-classic" > ~/.chrome-remote-desktop-session

KDE Plasma

echo "exec /etc/X11/Xsession /usr/bin/startkde" > ~/.chrome-remote-desktop-session

After you make this change, restart the service so the change takes effect:

sudo systemctl restart chrome-remote-desktop@$USER

As mentioned before, Chrome Remote Desktop does not support 3D graphics acceleration. Therefore, for any desktop environments that uses these features, you need disable 3D graphics, or the session will not start.

Automating the installation process

When you need to set up multiple machines with Chrome Remote Desktop, the manual installation steps can become repetitive. You can use a custom startup script to automate this process, using the following procedure:

  1. In the Cloud Console, go to the VM Instances page:

    Go to the VM Instances page

  2. Click Create Instance.

  3. Set the instance name to crdhost-autoinstall.

  4. Optionally, select a region and zone that's close to you.

  5. Copy the following shell script and paste it into the Automation/Startup Script textbox:

    #!/bin/bash -x
    #
    # Startup script to install Chrome remote desktop and a desktop environment.
    #
    # See environmental variables at then end of the script for configuration
    #
    
    function install_desktop_env {
      PACKAGES="desktop-base xscreensaver dbus-x11"
    
      if [[ "$INSTALL_XFCE" != "yes" && "$INSTALL_CINNAMON" != "yes" ]] ; then
        # neither XFCE nor cinnamon specified; install both
        INSTALL_XFCE=yes
        INSTALL_CINNAMON=yes
      fi
    
      if [[ "$INSTALL_XFCE" = "yes" ]] ; then
        PACKAGES="$PACKAGES xfce4"
        echo "exec xfce4-session" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session
        [[ "$INSTALL_FULL_DESKTOP" = "yes" ]] && \
          PACKAGES="$PACKAGES task-xfce-desktop"
      fi
    
      if [[ "$INSTALL_CINNAMON" = "yes" ]] ; then
        PACKAGES="$PACKAGES cinnamon-core"
        echo "exec cinnamon-session-cinnamon2d" > /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session
        [[ "$INSTALL_FULL_DESKTOP" = "yes" ]] && \
          PACKAGES="$PACKAGES task-cinnamon-desktop"
      fi
    
      DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive \
        apt-get install --assume-yes $PACKAGES $EXTRA_PACKAGES
    
      systemctl disable lightdm.service
    }
    
    function download_and_install { # args URL FILENAME
      curl -L -o "$2" "$1"
      dpkg --install "$2"
      apt-get install --assume-yes --fix-broken
    }
    
    function is_installed {  # args PACKAGE_NAME
      dpkg-query --list "$1" | grep -q "^ii" 2>/dev/null
      return $?
    }
    
    # Configure the following environmental variables as required:
    INSTALL_XFCE=yes
    INSTALL_CINNAMON=yes
    INSTALL_CHROME=yes
    INSTALL_FULL_DESKTOP=yes
    
    # Any additional packages that should be installed on startup can be added here
    EXTRA_PACKAGES="less bzip2 zip unzip tasksel wget"
    
    apt-get update
    
    # Install backports version of libgbm1 on Debian 9/stretch
    [[ $(/usr/bin/lsb_release --codename --short) == "stretch" ]] && \
      apt-get install --assume-yes libgbm1/stretch-backports
    
    ! is_installed chrome-remote-desktop && \
      download_and_install \
        https://dl.google.com/linux/direct/chrome-remote-desktop_current_amd64.deb \
        /tmp/chrome-remote-desktop_current_amd64.deb
    
    install_desktop_env
    
    [[ "$INSTALL_CHROME" = "yes" ]] && \
      ! is_installed google-chrome-stable && \
      download_and_install \
        https://dl.google.com/linux/direct/google-chrome-stable_current_amd64.deb \
        /tmp/google-chrome-stable_current_amd64.deb
    
    echo "Chrome remote desktop installation completed"
    

    This script performs the following tasks each time the machine is rebooted:

    • If the remote desktop package is not installed:
      • Downloads and installs the Chrome Remote Desktop package.
      • Installs the dependent packages.
    • Installs the Xfce or Cinnamon desktop environments (depending on the script settings).
    • If the full desktop environment option is enabled, installs the necessary packages.
    • If the Chrome browser option is enabled and is not installed:
      • Downloads and installs the Chrome Remote Desktop package.
      • Installs the dependent packages.
  6. Click Create.

    It takes a few moments to create your instance, and on first run with all the options enabled, the script can take up to 10 minutes to complete the installation.

  7. To monitor progress, connect to the VM instance using SSH, and in the terminal of the instance, run the following command:

    sudo journalctl -o cat -f _SYSTEMD_UNIT=google-startup-scripts.service
    

    This command shows the output from the startup script. When the script has finished, you see the following:

    INFO startup-script: Chrome remote desktop installation completed
    INFO startup-script: Return code 0.
    INFO Finished running startup scripts.
    

This script only installs the required packages; you still need to configure the Remote Desktop Service for your user, as described previously.

There are various ways to specify a startup script when creating a new VM instance:

  • Pasting it into the Cloud Console (as shown earlier).
  • Storing it as a file on a local machine, and using the --metadata-from-file flag when you create the instance using the gcloud command line tool.
  • Storing it in a Cloud Storage bucket and specifying the URL to the object—either in the console or in the gcloud tool.

For more information on the alternative methods of how to configure the startup script, see Running Startup scripts in the Compute Engine documentation.

Troubleshooting

Check the status of the Chrome Remote Desktop service

If at any point the Chrome Remote Desktop service is not responding, you can check its status by using SSH to connect to the instance and running the following command:

sudo systemctl status chrome-remote-desktop@$USER

If the service is running, you see output that includes the state active:

chrome-remote-desktop.service - LSB: Chrome Remote Desktop service
    Loaded: loaded (/lib/systemd/system/chrome-remote-desktop@USER.service; enabled; vendor preset: enabled)
    Active: active (running) since DATE_TIME; ELAPSED_TIME

To restart the service, use the following command in the SSH window:

sudo systemctl restart chrome-remote-desktop@$USER

Get log and error information

Chrome Remote Desktop writes log information to the system journal:

journalctl SYSLOG_IDENTIFIER=chrome-remote-desktop     # All logs
journalctl SYSLOG_IDENTIFIER=chrome-remote-desktop -e  # Most recent logs
journalctl SYSLOG_IDENTIFIER=chrome-remote-desktop -b  # Logs since reboot

You can check these log files for error messages.

Re-enable the service

If you have mistakenly disabled connections to the remote instance in the client app, you can reconfigure the service and re-enable it by following the instructions in Configuring and starting the Chrome Remote Desktop service.

Check the global and user-specific session configuration files.

Check the contents of the global /etc/chrome-remote-desktop-session configuration file and the user-specific ~/.chrome-remote-desktop-session configuration file and confirm that the specified desktop environments are installed.

Clean up

To avoid incurring charges to your Google Cloud account for the resources used in this tutorial, either delete the project that contains the resources, or keep the project and delete the individual resources.

Deleting the project

The easiest way to eliminate billing is to delete the project that you created for the tutorial.

To delete the project:

  1. In the Cloud Console, go to the Manage resources page.

    Go to Manage resources

  2. In the project list, select the project that you want to delete, and then click Delete.
  3. In the dialog, type the project ID, and then click Shut down to delete the project.

Delete the Compute Engine instance

As an alternative to deleting the entire project, you can delete the VM instance you created for this tutorial:

  1. In the Cloud Console, go to the VM Instances page:

    Go to the VM Instances page

  2. Select the checkbox next to the instance name you created earlier (crdhost).

  3. Click the Delete button at the top of the page:

    Deleting the VM instance.

    It takes a few moments to delete your instance.

Deauthorize Chrome Remote Desktop for the instance

If you no longer want to connect to the VM instance, you can disable it and remove the instance from the Remote Devices list.

  1. On your local computer, go to the Chrome Remote Desktop Remote Device list (Beta) web site.

  2. Click next to the instance name:

    Disabling the remote device in Chrome.

  3. Click OK to confirm that the remote device connection should be disabled.

What's next