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GECo Virtual Machine

Quick Start

To get going quickly:

  1. Install VirtualBox and Vagrant.
  2. Download the GECo VM Vagrantfile and save it in the directory where you plan do do your work.
  3. Open a terminal, change to the directory where you saved your Vagrantfile, and run vagrant up to download and start the machine. A window with the virtual machine's desktop should pop up. Run vagrant halt while in that same directory to shut the machine down.
  4. Either log into the desktop interface (it should log in automatically, but for reference, both password and username are "vagrant") or log in via ssh by running vagrant ssh on your host computer while in the Vagrantfile directory.

That's it! See more instructions and tips below.



This is a virtual machine with all important LIGO-related software pre-installed.

I am building this because dealing with LIGO's toolkit dependencies is a hassle and, for researchers who just need to get going with their work, a waste of time. Doing any work at remotely is a difficult proposition (unless you are sshed into a LIGO server, which is sometimes impossible or undesirable, and in any case requires credentials and its own special software for anything besides SSH), and setup instructions are not uniform across OSes. My group at Columbia University is currently using this Virtual Machine to avoid all of these issues, but I imagine we are not the only ones who have encountered these hurdles, so I hope that other labs might find this useful.

Using the Virtual Machine

GUI vs. No-GUI

There are two versions of geco-vm: one with a GUI (graphical user interface) and one without. The GUI version is called geco-vm-gui; it is the more beginner-friendly version. It is more resource intensive, however, and is only available for desktop (not server) use. If you know what you are doing and prefer working from the command line anyway, or if performance and resource usage are important considerations, you should use the headless (i.e. GUI-free), lightweight geco-vm; otherwise, geco-vm-gui has all the same capabilities but comes with a familiar desktop interface and nice features like shared clipboard (you can copy text within the virtual machine and paste it in your host computer, and vice versa) and drag-and-drop file movement (this feature only works for dragging files into the VM). See the Pro Tips section below for more information applicable to both GUI and headless version.

Installing and Getting Started

If you just want to use the virtual machine, you can follow these instructions to get started. These instructions should work on any system.

  1. Download and install the latest version of VirtualBox.
  2. Download and install the latest version of Vagrant
  3. Download either the GUI Vagrantfile or the headless Vagrantfile to the folder you want to work in.
  4. Run vagrant up to download and boot the virtual machine.
  5. Run vagrant ssh to start using the virtual machine; for the GUI version, you can just use the virtual machine window that pops. It should log you in automatically when the VM starts up. For reference, the username and password are both "vagrant".

That's it! Once you are sshed into the guest machine, it is just like using ssh with any other machine. Similarly, the GUI expriece should be just like using any Ubuntu box. While sshed, you can run exit to return to the host machine. While not using the guest machine, you can simply run vagrant to get a short list of available commands for managing this VM.

Updating to the Latest Version of the VM


vagrant destroy -f
# if you are using the headless geco-vm, write geco-vm instead of geco-vm-gui
vagrant box remove -f --all stefco/geco-vm-gui
vagrant up

Full Instructions, With Explanation

It is easy to make mistakes while upgrading to the latest version of vagrant if you don't know what you're doing. This can cause you to waste hours troubleshooting a broken feature that has been fixed on the latest version of the box simply because you think you've already upgraded (when in fact you haven't). Knowing how vagrant works can help immensely in avoiding this peculiar debugging hell.

When you initialize your virtual machine with vagrant up, vagrant does the following:

  1. Checks whether you already have a copy of stefco/geco-vm saved in vagrant's cache of vagrant boxes
  2. Downloads the latest copy of stefco/geco-vm-gui or stefco/geco-vm (depending on which you are using) if you do not have a local copy; if you do have a local copy, even if it is outdated, vagrant will use that one
  3. Decompresses and copies your local copy of the stefco/geco-vm-gui or stefco/geco-vm box and stores that fresh copy of the virtual machine in the ~/Virtualbox\ VMs directory; this copy will be the virtual machine you use
  4. Starts up the new machine
  5. Runs any provisioning scripts that you specify (which allow you to further customize the box before you use it)
  6. Mounts shared folders

Note the following:

  • Simply updating your cached vagrant box to the latest version with vagrant box update will only update your cached box; this alone will not have any effect on the virtual machine you are already using.
  • Destroying and recreating your machine using vagrant destroy -f followed by vagrant up will just create a fresh version of the old box; you need to make sure you also update the cached copy of the vagrant box using vagrant box update before you reinitialize the virtual machine.

So, to make sure you are using the latest and greatest version of stefco/geco-vm, you should make sure you are in your vagrant working directory on your host machine and run:

vagrant destroy -f
# if you are using the headless geco-vm, write geco-vm instead of geco-vm-gui
vagrant box remove -f --all stefco/geco-vm-gui
vagrant up

You can check on your cached version of this (and all) vagrant boxes by running vagrant box list, and you can see whether you successfully deleted your running copy of the virtual machine by running vagrant status.


Vagrant Best Practices

You should think of your virtual machine as disposable; ideally, you should not store any information on it long term. Because Vagrant automatically shares your host computer's vagrant folder (i.e. the folder in which your Vagrantfile is located) with the guest virtual machine under the /vagrant directory, it is trivially easy to keep your work saved on your host machine by keeping it in the /vagrant directory of the guest machine. This way, if you have to delete your virtual machine (for example, if you are upgrading to the latest version), you can do so without having to worry about lost work.

Adding Custom Scripts

You can add custom scripts to your path by putting them in the /home/vagrant directory on the host machine. You can also add those scripts to a bin folder in the directory on your host machine where the Vagrantfile is located (since this directory is shared with geco-vm through the /vagrant directory).

Previewing Images with iTerm2

If you are using a mac with the latest build of iTerm2 (something I highly recommend, since iTerm2 is an excellent terminal emulator), you can use imgcat to preview images on your virtual machine right in your terminal during an ssh session. This is nice for e.g. taking a quick look at a fresh plot without leaving the command line.

Developing the Base Image

This machine is built and deployed using a tool called Packer, made by the same people who make Vagrant. Configuration information for creating a virtual machine using Packer can be found on their website. The important idea, though, is that Packer uses a template file (in our case, geco-vm.json) to specify:

  • Builders, which take an installation disk image (Ubuntu 12.04 LTS 64-bit, in our case) and make a fresh installation in a new virtual machine using the providers of your choice (for us, only VirtualBox, though you can get crazy with VMWare, DigitalOcean, Amazon AWS, Docker, etc.)
  • Provisioners, which handle file-copying and script running (usually runnning a dependency install script, like, in our case); this is the part where you get to customize the box with whatever you need.
  • Post-Processors, which package the resulting virtual machine image so that it can be used by Vagrant, and which automatically upload the images to Atlas (see below).

After installing the latest version of packer, there is one step you will have to take before you can build the machine for yourself. Because Atlas requires authentication to deploy a newly build vagrant box, you must either:

  1. Remove the final deployment step from the ubuntu-12.04-amd64.json template file, or
  2. Create your own free Atlas account at, create a new Packer project, and modify the template file to point to your now project.

To remove the deployment step from the template file, delete precisely these lines:

      "type": "atlas",
      "only": ["virtualbox-iso"],
      "artifact": "stefco/geco-vm",
      "artifact_type": "",
      "metadata": {
        "provider": "virtualbox",
        "created_at": "{{timestamp}}"

To point to your newly created packer project, modify only the "artifact" line in the above code section, changing it from:

"artifact": "stefco/geco-vm",


"artifact": "your_atlas_username/your_packer_project_name",

Now that that is finished, you can start running with

packer build ubuntu-12.04-amd64.json

and, after a considerable amount of time, you should have a fresh copy of the vm ready to play with.

Of course, you can modify it as you like, and if you add features that will be useful to others, I will happily incorporate those changes into the base box.


This tutorial was invaluable in getting going quickly with Packer. I also found this helpful. And, of course, Packer's own documentation is invaluable.

As far as provisioning LIGO tools, I drew inspiration from DASWG's page, from scripts written by Szabi for provisioning his own Debian box, from conversations with people at the observatories, and from the gwpy .travis.yml configuration scripts. There are also plenty of good instructions on various remote access topics on the LIGO wiki.

More information on Vagrant

Creating a Default Vagrant File

If you want to start with Vagrant's default "blank" Vagrantfile, you can generate one by running vagrant init stefco/geco-vm. This creates a simple Vagrantfile for this box, with some helpful comments on how you can modify the file to your liking. There are a couple of features of the geco_vm box that are specified in the repository Vagrantfile above, so you should probably just go ahead and use that one.

You can read Vagrant's documentation on their website for more information.

To Do

  • Get packer build working with the Ubuntu 12.04 virtualbox machine
  • Get ligo tools installed
  • Get this machine up on atlas
  • Write a demo Vagrantfile with how-to explanations
  • Install Globus/Condor/DataGrid
  • Install gwpy
  • Install geco_stat
  • ???
  • Profit


All the tools you need to work with LIGO in one Vagrant box.



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