Using gcloud for Virtual Machines

Virtual Machines

Our goal in this section is to create a virtual machine (VM) instance. 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 my Linux Systems Administration course, we used to use VirtualBox to create virtual machines with Linux as the virtual operating system. This worked despite whether you or I were running Windows, macOS, or Linux as our main operating systems. VirtualBox is freely available virtualization software, and using it let students and myself run Linux as a server on our own desktops and laptops without changing the underlying OS on those machines (e.g., Windows, macOS).

However, even though we virtualize an operating system when we run a VM, the underlying operating system and CPU architecture are still important. When Apple, Inc launched their new M1 (ARM-based) chip in 2020, it created problems for running non ARM-based operating systems as virtual machines (i.e., x86_64 chips).

Fortunately, we are able to solve that issue using a third-party virtualization platform. In this course, that means we're going to use gcloud (via Google). There are other options available that you can explore on your own.

Google Cloud / gcloud

Google Account

We need to have a personal Google account to get started with gcloud. I imagine most of you already have a Google account, but if not, go ahead and create one at

Google Cloud (gcloud) Project

Next, the gcloud software helps you us on a Google Cloud project on your own system. Once you've created that project, you can enable billing for that project, and then install the gcloud software on your local machine.

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 course. E.g., I am using the name syslib-2023. Avoid using spaces when naming your project.

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

Google Billing

The second thing to do is to set up a billing account for your gcloud project. This does mean there is a cost associated with this product, but the good news is that our bills by the end of the semester should only amount to $5 to 10 dollars, at most. Follow Step 2 to enable billing for your new project. See also the page on how to create, modify, or close your self-serve Cloud Billing account

Install the latest gcloud CLI version

After you have set up billing, the next step is to install gcloud on your local machines. 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 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 downloading the X86_64 version of the gcloud CLI, then you would run the following commands:

For macOS users, this assumes the .tar.gz file was downloaded to your default Downloads folder:

cd ~/Downloads/
mv google-cloud-cli-392.0.0-darwin-x86_64.tar.gz ~/
cd ~/
tar -xzf google-cloud-cli-392.0.0-darwin-x86_64.tar.gz
cd google-cloud-sdk

Modify the above commands, as appropriate, if you're using the M1 or the M2 version of the gcloud CLI.

Initializing the gcloud CLI

Please follow the instructions from the Google Cloud documentation for your operating system.

Once you have downloaded and installed the gcloud CLI program, you need to initialize it on your local machine. Scroll down on 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:

gcloud init

And continue to follow the above instructions.

gcloud VM Instance

Once you've initialized gcloud, 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 a physical machine, software is used to mimic the process.

gcloud 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.

Ubuntu is a Linux distribution. There are many, many distributions of Linux, and most are probably listed on the DistroWatch site. 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.

LTS versions of Ubuntu are stable. Non-LTS versions of Ubuntu receive nine months of standard support, and generally apply 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 gcloud console. To do so, follow these steps from the Project page:

  • Click on the hamburger icon (three vertical bars) in the top right corner.
  • Click on Compute Engine and then VM instances
  • Make sure your project is listed.
  • Next, click on Create Instance.
  • Provide a name for your instance.
    • E.g., I chose syslib-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.

Later in the semester when we install Koha, we will need to create a virtual machine with more CPUs and memory. We will be charged more for those machines. Since we do not yet need the extra resources, we will start off with fairly low powered machines.

Connect to our VM

After the new VM machine has been created, we need to 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.

We use a ssh command to connect to our VMs. The syntax follows this pattern:

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

The values in the double quotes in the above command can be located in your Google Cloud console and in your VM instances section. See the course video for details.

Update our Ubuntu 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, we'll use the following two commands, which you should run also:

sudo apt update
sudo apt -y upgrade

Then type exit to logout and quit the connection to the remote server.


When you log into your machines, you'll note a command prompt that ends with a dollar sign $. This is where we type our commands. The command prompt also displays our location in the file system. The tilde ~ is a shorthand symbol for our home directory. By default, we are placed in our home directory whenever we login to our machines.


Lastly, we have installed a pristine version of Ubuntu, but it's likely that we will mess something up as we work on our systems. Or it could be that our systems may become compromised at some point. Therefore, we want to create a snapshot of our newly installed Ubuntu server. This will allow us to restore our 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 VM with gcloud. This is a lot! After this course is completed, you will be able to fire up a virtual machine on short notice and deploy websites and more.