I'd like to use the GUI environment on a spare box I have headless, not just ssh into it.
Is it possible to setup a remote desktop service even when there's no screen attached to the remote host?
I'm intending to use Debian Linux on the host.
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Yes you can, the only thing to be aware of is if you do not have a monitor you also may not have a mouse or keyboard. Some BIOS's will throw a error if it detects no keyboard connected but that can usually be disabled. It is just something you need to be aware of.
The Unix Stack Exchange site has a good question and answer on SSH X forwarding that may help you get started.
Xvnc is a virtual X server that provides VNC remote desktop service. No monitor (or even video card) is required for it to run.