Using gcloud for Virtual Machines

Virtual Machines

Our goal in this section is to create a virtual machine (VM) instance running a distribution of the Linux operating system. A VM is basically a virtualized operating system that runs on a host operating system. That host operating system may also be Linux, but it could be Windows or macOS. In short, when we use virtual machines, it means instead of installing an operating system (like Linux, macOS, Windows, etc) on a physical machine, we use virtual machine software to mimic the process. The virtual machine, thus, runs on top of our main OS. It's like an app, where the app is a fully functioning operating system.

In this book, we're going to use gcloud (via Google) to create and run our virtual machines, but there are other options available that you can explore on your own.

Google Cloud / gcloud

Google Account

To create our virtual machines using gcloud, we need a Google account. I imagine most of you already have a Google account, but if not, create one at

Google Cloud (gcloud) Project

In the following, we will use gcloud to create a Google Cloud project. Once you've created that project, we can enable billing for that project, and then install the gcloud software on our local machines.

To begin, you will need to click on the links to the gcloud documentation that I've inserted throughout this page, and closely follow those instructions closely. I help explain the steps at the links throughout this page, but it is imperative that you read through the instructions closely.

First, follow Step 1 at the top of the Install the gcloud CLI page to create a new project. Also, review the page on creating and managing projects.

When you create your project, you can name it anything, but try to name it something to do with this project. E.g., I might use the name sysadmin-418. Avoid using spaces when naming your project.

Then click on the Create button, and leave the organization field set to No Organization.

Google Billing

Second, set up a billing account for your gcloud project. This means there is a cost associated with this product, but the good news is that the cost for the machines we will build will be minimal (usually about one dollar a month for a minimal machine), since our virtual machines will be minimal. Follow Step 2 to enable billing for the new project. See also the page on how to create, modify, or close your self-serve Cloud Billing account

gcloud VM Instance

Log into Google Cloud Console, which should take you to the Dashboard page.

Our first goal is to create a virtual machine (VM) instance. As a reminder, a VM is basically a virtualized operating system. That means instead of installing an operating system (like Linux, macOS, Windows, etc) on your physical machine, software is used to mimic the process to install an operating system on Google's servers.

Google Cloud offers a number of Linux-based operating systems to create VMs. We're going to use the Ubuntu operating system and specifically the Ubuntu 20.04 LTS version.

What is Ubuntu? Ubuntu is a Linux distribution. A new version of Ubuntu is released every six months. The 20.04 signifies that this is the April 2020 version. LTS signifies Long Term Support. LTS versions are released every two years, and Canonical LTD, the owners of Ubuntu, provide standard support for LTS versions for five years. Thus, Ubuntu 20.04 is supported till April 2025.

LTS versions of Ubuntu are more stable. Non-LTS versions of Ubuntu only receive nine months of standard support, and generally use cutting edge technology, which is not always desirable for server operating systems. Each version of Ubuntu has a code name. 20.04 has the code name Focal Fossa. You can see a list of versions, code names, release dates, and more on Ubuntu's Releases page.

We will create our VM using the Google Cloud dashboard. To do so, follow these steps:

  • Click the three horizontal bars at the top left of the screen.
  • Hover over the Compute Engine link, and then select VM Instances.
  • In the window, select the project that you created earlier.
    • E.g., for me, I used the project name sysadmin-418.
  • Next, click on Create Instance.
  • Provide a name for your instance.
    • E.g., I chose fall-2023 (no spaces)
  • Under the Series drop down box, make sure E2 is selected.
  • Under the Machine type drop down box, select e2-micro (2 vCPU, 1 GB memory)
    • This is the lowest cost virtual machine and perfect for our needs.
  • Under Boot disk, click on the Change button.
  • In the window, select Ubuntu from the Operating system drop down box.
  • Select Ubuntu 20.04 LTS x86/64
  • Leave Boot disk type be set to Balanced persistent disk
  • Disk size should be set to 10 GB.
  • Click on the Select button.
  • Check the Allow HTTP Traffic button
  • Finally, click on the Create button to create your VM instance.

Install the latest gcloud CLI version

The next step is to install gcloud on your local machines. This will allow us to connect to remote server using our own terminal applications. The Install the gcloud CLI page provides instructions for different operating systems.

There are installation instructions for macOS, Windows, Chromebooks, and various Linux distributions. Follow these instructions closely for the operating system that you're using. Note that for macOS, you have to choose among three different CPU/chip architectures. If you have an older macOS machine (before November 2020 or so), it's likely that you'll select macOS 64-bit (x86_64). If you have a newer macOS machine, then it's likely you'll have to select macOS 64-bit (arm64, Apple M1 silicon). It's unlikely that any of you are using a 32-bit macOS operating system. If you're not sure which macOS system you have, then let me know and I can help you determine the appropriate platform. Alternatively, follow these instructions to find your processor information:

  • click on the Apple menu
  • choose About This Mac
  • locate the Processor or Chip information

After you have downloaded the gcloud CLI for your particular OS and CPU architecture, you will need to open a command prompt/terminal on your machines to complete the instructions that describe how to install the gcloud CLI. macOS uses the Terminal app, which can be located using Spotlight. Windows user can use Command.exe, which can be located by search also.

Windows users will download a regular .exe file, but macOS users will download a .tar.gz file. Since macOS is Unix, you can use the mv command to move that file to your $HOME directory. Then you extract it there using the tar command, and once extracted you can change to the directory that it creates with the cd command. For example, if you are running macOS and are downloading the X86_64 version of the gcloud CLI, then open your Terminal.ap and run the following commands:

mv ~/Downloads/google-cloud-cli-444.0.0-darwin-x86_64.tar.gz $HOME
tar -xzf google-cloud-cli-444.0.0-darwin-x86_64.tar.gz 
cd google-cloud-sdk

Modify the file names in the commands above, as appropriate, if you're using the M1 version of the gcloud CLI.

macOS notes

macOS users may need to complete some setup work before installing Google Cloud. First, open your and run the following code:

xcode-select --install

Once the Xcode developer tools are installed, you need to install the macOS Homebrew package manager. To do so, follow the instructions here:


After Homebrew is installed use the brew command to install pyenv.

brew install pyenv

And then use pyenv to install Python:

pyenv install PYTHON_VERSION

For example, to install the latest release of Python (August 2023):

penv install 3.11

Finally, you can install the Google Cloud application using the steps outlined above, or you can use the steps outlined in the Google Cloud Interactive installation.

See also:

Setting up a Python development environment

Initializing the gcloud CLI

Once you have downloaded and installed the gcloud CLI program, you need to initialize it on your local machine. Scroll down the install page to the section titled Initializing the gcloud CLI. In your terminal/command prompt, run the initialization command. Per the instructions at the above page, it should be something like so:

gcloud init

And continue to follow the instructions in the documentation.

Connect to our VM

After the new VM machine has been created, you connect to it via the command line. macOS users will connect to it via their Windows users can connect to it via their command prompt or use PuTTY.

If you have used ssh before, note that we use a slightly different ssh command to connect to our VMs. The syntax follows this pattern:

gcloud compute ssh --zone "zone-info" "name-info" --project "project-id"

You need to replace the values in the double quotes in the above command with the values located in your Google Cloud console and in your VM instances section.

You can select the SSH drop down box to copy the exact gcloud command to connect to your server.

Update our Ubuntu VM

The above command will connect you to the remote Linux server, or the VM. The VM will include a recently updated version of Ubuntu 20.04, but it may not be completely updated. Thus the first thing we need to do is update our machines. On Ubuntu, use the following two commands to update your machines, which you should run also:

sudo apt update
sudo apt -y upgrade

Then reboot the server with the following command:

sudo reboot

You do not always have to reboot when updating your server. It is only necessary when there has been a kernel update. I'm assuming that when we update these machines for the first time after installation, that there will have been a kernel update.

If you reboot your server, you will automatically be disconnected from your server. If you do not need to reboot your server, then type exit to logout and quit the connection to the remote server.


Typing exit at the prompt will always close our connection to our remote servers.


You have installed a pristine version of Ubuntu, but mistakes will happen while learning how to use your machines, and it's therefore important to backup this pristine version of the operating system. (Or it could be that our systems may become compromised at some point.) Therefore, you want to create a snapshot of the newly installed Ubuntu server. This will allow you to restore the server if something goes wrong later.

To get started:

  1. In the left hand navigation panel, click on Snapshots.
  2. At the top of the page, click on Create Snapshot.
  3. Provide a name for your snapshot: e.g., ubuntu-1.
  4. Provide a description of your snapshot: e.g., This is a new install of Ubuntu 20.04.
  5. Choose your Source disk.
  6. Choose a Location to store your snapshot.
    • To avoid extra charges, choose Regional.
    • From the drop down box, select the same location (zone-info) your VM has
  7. Click on Create

Please monitor your billing for this to avoid costs that you do not want to incur.


Congratulations! You have just completed your first installation of a Linux server.

To summarize, in this section, you learned about and created a virtual machine (VM) with gcloud. This is a lot! By the end of this book, you will be able to fire up a virtual machine on short notice and deploy websites and more.