How to Use the DD Command to Copy VHD Files to Physical Hard Disk

Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) files are giant files that emulate the use of physical media on VirtualBox and some other virtual x86/x86_64 emulators. This lets you run Windows, OS X, MS-DOS, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, OS/2 or even other versions of Linux inside your Linux distribution. These files don’t let you directly write their contents to a physical disk via the dd command that lets you do the same with an ISO, but there’s a way to do it. While some guides require you to convert the VHD file to an ISO, you won’t have to do this if you’re running VirtualBox on any modern version of Linux. QEMU users also have a way out, though it involves more playing around.

You’ll need to make sure that none of the drives or partitions you’re going to be working with are the one you boot from. We just used a piece of partitioned NAND memory for this example, but you might want to use a live DVD or USB boot if you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do so. Regardless of which way you booted the machine in question, start your terminal program either by holding down Ctrl, Alt and T, searching for it on the Ubuntu Dash or opening it from the System Tools submenus in Xfce4 or LXDE.

Method 1: Using VBoxManage from the Command Prompt

By far the easiest way to do this is using a traditional VirtualBox installation. Make sure first that you’ve backed up all the data you’re worried about loosing because you’re going to destroy any data on the destination’s physical hardware while you also could end up doing something to the VHD or VHDX file in the process. This goes for the other method too, as well as anything involving commands that are this destructive.

Once you’re sure everything is safe and that the destination drive is unmounted but still attached to the machine, say an external hard disk that you have still plugged in but isn’t mounted or may even be raw as you will loose everything on it in the process, run VBoxManage clonehd freeBSD.VHDX –format RAW freeBSD.RAW while replacing freeBSD.VHDX with your virtual hard disk. We had a virtual hard disk file with a somewhat moderate installation of FreeBSD for testing purposes, hence the name.

As soon as this command is finished, run sudo dd if=freeBSD.RAW of=/dev/sde, replacing the RAW file’s name with the RAW you just created and the sde block device with the device you’re actually interested in. If you’re unsure, then you can always run sudo fdisk -l to make sure you know the right partition name. Just like with using dd for anything else, you don’t want to write to the wrong device.

You might get an error about there being no space left on the device, just like if you tried to write a large file to a smaller device, but this didn’t cause problems in tests. It seems this process adds extra zeros. Otherwise, you’ve been able to copy the virtual disk to a physical disk in only two steps with a bare minimum of fooling around.

Method 2: With the QEMU Disk Network Block Device Server Command

Users that only have access to the Quick Emulator (QEMU) virtualization system will have to deal with a slightly more involved procedure than those that have access to the VBoxManage command. At the command prompt, run sudo modprobe nbd followed by qemu-nbd -r -c /dev/ndb0 -f vpc ourTest.vhd, with the file name changed to reflect the actual file name you’re working with. You may need sudo to run qemu-nbd, depending on how you’ve configured your installation. If you’re copying the commands from here and pasting them, then make sure to change them before running them. In most cases you’ll only ever have the ndb0 device to worry about here, so you shouldn’t have any issues there.

Once it’s done, you can write the partition with qemu-nbd -P 2 -r -c /dev/nbd2 -f vpc ourTest.vhd followed by sudo ddrescure -v -f /dev/nbd2 /dev/sde2, but remember to replace the device files with the ones you’re actually interested in using. If you’re copying and pasting these into your own terminal, then make sure to replace those file names and partition numbers with the ones you’re trying to write to. Our /dev/sde device was merely a used SDHC card we were using to safely test this without damaging anything. You may need sudo to run qemu-nbd, but you shouldn’t need it. Likewise, you might have to drop the partition numbers depending on your configuration. The QEMU process isn’t nearly as intuitive for these reasons.

Hyper-V users might have a VHDX image instead of a VHD file. If this is the case, then you’ll instead need to run qemu-nbd -c /dev/nbd0 -f VHDX ourTest.vhd while replacing the file name once again. While this format was an addition to Windows Server 2012 in order to add larger storage capacity to virtualized machines, more and more Linux users are turning to it in order to escape the 2TB limit VHD has. Otherwise, these instructions should work regardless of the actual file size in question. The GNU ddrescue tool should work like dd, though it makes sure to copy the best blocks first.

Once this is run, users working with VHDX images will need to run sudo ddrescue -v -f /dev/nbd2 /dev/sde2, again replacing the files up above. Otherwise, everyone with all types of VirtualBox images can use qemu-nbd -P 2 -r -c /dev/nbd2 -f vpc ourTest.vhd to mount the partition in question as though it were any old disk. You’ll need to use sudo mount /dev/nbd2 /cdrom or sudo mount /dev/nbd2 /mnt to mount it. Make sure you’ve got nothing else mounted to the /cdrom or /mnt directories before you try it.

Method 3: Unmounting and then Disconnecting the File

To unmount the image, you simply need to use sudo umount /mnt or sudo umount /cdrom to detach it. The Linux kernel itself, after all, was busy treating it as though it were any other volume.

You’ll still need to disconnect it from the QEMU system, though, so type qemu-ndb -d /dev/nbd2 to disconnect it.


Kevin Arrows

Kevin Arrows is a highly experienced and knowledgeable technology specialist with over a decade of industry experience. He holds a Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) certification and has a deep passion for staying up-to-date on the latest tech developments. Kevin has written extensively on a wide range of tech-related topics, showcasing his expertise and knowledge in areas such as software development, cybersecurity, and cloud computing. His contributions to the tech field have been widely recognized and respected by his peers, and he is highly regarded for his ability to explain complex technical concepts in a clear and concise manner.