Linux Technology Explained

What Is the Difference Between Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server?

Moe Long 11-12-2019

Ubuntu ranks as arguably the most popular Linux operating system. It’s certainly one of the best known. It’s one of those distributions that keeps users coming back 8 Things That Keep You Coming Back to Ubuntu There is so much going on in the Linux world, from new features in GNOME Shell to the release of Plasma 5, and the amazing Elementary OS, so why do you stick with Ubuntu? Read More . However, Ubuntu varies quite a bit. Within Ubuntu, there are two distinct flavors: a stable release and long term service (LTS) iteration.


Further, Ubuntu splits into Ubuntu Cloud, Ubuntu Core, Ubuntu Kylin, Ubuntu Desktop, and Ubuntu Server. In this article, you’ll learn all about the differences between Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Desktop.

Servers vs. Desktops

Image Credit: NeuPaddy via Pixabay

Let’s consider a desktop versus a server before diving into differences in Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server. Servers typically come in two form factors: rackmount and tower. A tower server is essentially a desktop, but its parts often differ with a focus on longevity, stability, and security. For instance, servers use error code correcting (ECC) RAM. Whereas non-server desktops don’t.

Moreover, servers don’t necessarily include peripherals like a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Running a server sans peripherals is known as a “headless” setup. Yet a desktop implies everyday use. Therefore, it does include a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Additionally, desktop hardware doesn’t focus as heavily on longevity, security, and stability. Similarly, software installed on a desktop is tailored for general use. So server and desktop hardware lends insight into the divergence of Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server.

Ubuntu Desktop vs. Ubuntu Server: The Differences

Graphical User Interface

Image Credit: Wikimedia


The main difference in Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server is the desktop environment. While Ubuntu Desktop includes a graphical user interface, Ubuntu Server does not. That’s because most servers run headless. Instead of using a traditional keyboard, mouse, and monitor setup to interact with the machine, servers are usually remotely managed using SSH How to Remotely Manage a Linux Server with SSH SSH is very functional, which is why it's a go-to for remote server management. Learn how to remotely manage a Linux server via SSH, from connection, to installing software, and file transfers. Read More . While SSH is built into Unix-based operating systems, it’s pretty simple to use SSH on Windows as well How to Use SSH in Windows: 5 Easy Ways SSH is an encrypted network protocol used for remote access. Here's how to use SSH in Windows using native and third-party apps. Read More . For additional server management information, check out this beginner’s guide to setting up SSH on Linux How to Set Up SSH on Linux and Test Your Setup: A Beginner's Guide Need to access your Linux computer or server remotely? Here's how to set up and configure SSH on Linux, Windows, and mobile. Read More .

Although some Linux server operating systems feature desktop environments, many lack a GUI. For instance, Container Linux by CoreOS How to Set Up SSH on Linux and Test Your Setup: A Beginner's Guide Need to access your Linux computer or server remotely? Here's how to set up and configure SSH on Linux, Windows, and mobile. Read More is entirely command line based. While Ubuntu Server lacks a GUI, Ubuntu Desktop assumes that your machine uses video outputs. Therefore Ubuntu Desktop installs a desktop environment.


Additionally, Ubuntu Desktop contains applications suited to general use: there’s an office productivity suite, multimedia software, and web browser. You can also find Ubuntu Desktop in a smattering of flavors.

Image Credit: Ubuntu Screenshots via Flickr


However, Ubuntu Server also includes standard packages. These focus on server requirements. Accordingly, Ubuntu Server boasts flavors such as email server, file server, web server, and samba server. Specific packages include Bind9 and Apache2. Whereas Ubuntu desktop applications are focused on use on the host machine, Ubuntu Server packages concentrate on allowing connectivity with clients as well as security.


Image Credit: Wikimedia

Because Ubuntu Server lacks a GUI, installation differs from that of Ubuntu Desktop. Installing Ubuntu Desktop is essentially like any other software install. But Ubuntu Server uses a process-driven menu instead.

Image Credit: Linux Server Screenshots via Flickr


Ubuntu Desktop vs. Ubuntu Server: The Similarities


After Ubuntu 12.04, both Server and Desktop variants use the same kernel. Previously, Desktop and Server used different kernels. Because both Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server employ the same kernel, you can add any packages to either variant. This means that while default installation varies, you can customize your Ubuntu flavor accordingly.

So you might start with Ubuntu Server and install a desktop environment if you decide you can’t run it headless. Alternatively, you could begin with Ubuntu Desktop and add the necessary packages to create a server. Since Ubuntu Server and Desktop share a core Ubuntu kernel, default installation differences don’t preclude future software package installs.


Similarly, support shifted with the release of 12.04. Before Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, Desktop editions featured a three-year support cycle. Their Server counterparts benefitted from a five-year support cycle. But with the debut of 12.04 LTS, both variants moved to a five-year support cycle.

Which Should You Use?

Considering the differences and similarities, now comes the big question: should you use Ubuntu Server or Ubuntu Desktop? So long as you’re using an LTS version of Ubuntu, either Server or Desktop should function in a server environment. The main factors separating the two remain a GUI and default packages. Still, the core Ubuntu kernel means you can install the same packages on both flavors.


When to Use Ubuntu Desktop

You should use Ubuntu Desktop if you’re using your computer as a daily driver. This includes a bevy of multimedia and productivity software. There’s a GUI and installation is pretty simple. Moreover, you can install server software to use a Ubuntu Desktop as a server. I run a low-power (but beefy on computing capabilities) Lenovo ThinkServer TS140. While my TS140 is headless, I use Ubuntu Desktop. I appreciate the option of hooking up a monitor and using the desktop environment.

This allows me the option to transform my server into a home theater PC (HTPC) media server combo. As I use Linux media server software The 8 Best Media Server Software Options for Linux Where do you start with Linux media servers? Plex is good, but we've checked some other strong options to help you choose. Read More such as Plex and Subsonic, default packages included in Ubuntu Server were not a priority for my environment. I’ve even created a Linux game server Everything You Need to Build a Game Server on Linux Building a DIY Linux game server for Steam games, Minecraft, etc? Here's how to build a game server with Ubuntu Linux. Read More using Ubuntu Desktop, not Server.

When to Use Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu Server is best used for servers. That might seem obvious. But just like there are rackmount and tower servers, not all servers are the same. You should opt for Ubuntu Server over Ubuntu Desktop if you plan to run your server headless. Because the two Ubuntu flavors share a core kernel, you can always add a GUI later.

Additionally, Ubuntu Server is best for specific varieties of servers where the packages are included. For example, you might consider Ubuntu Server when creating an email server or web server. While you can install these packages on the Ubuntu Desktop iteration, Server includes many default specialized server installations. Therefore, go with the option that’s less work. If Ubuntu Server includes the packages you need, use Server and install a desktop environment. But if you absolutely need a GUI and your server software is not included in the default Server install, use Ubuntu Desktop. Then simply install the software you need.

See our comparison of Ubuntu and CentOS for use on a web server CentOS vs. Ubuntu: The Best Web Hosting Server OS Looking for a Linux server operating system? Two top options are CentOS and Ubuntu, but which one is best? Read More for more information.

What Purpose Does It Serve?

Ultimately, it’s not as simple as using Ubuntu Server for a server and Ubuntu Desktop for a desktop. Consider your needs and the work involved setting up your machine. If you’re running a media server, Ubuntu Server might be overkill. A desktop intended for general use should run Ubuntu Desktop. When to use Ubuntu Server is where the choice comes.

Largely, your decision centers on which requires less initial set up. But there’s also a consideration of familiarity. If you’re setting up a server and are uncomfortable without the GUI, use Ubuntu Desktop. Creating a server might sound intimidating, and making the foray with a desktop environment can make this a less daunting task.

For more distro comparisons, we’ve broken down Debian and Ubuntu’s different uses Debian vs. Ubuntu: Best Linux Distro for Laptops, Desktops, and Servers Considering Linux OS for a new project? Debian and Ubuntu are great choices for a Linux PC, laptop, or server. But which is best? Read More . And if you need help establishing remote desktop access to Ubuntu from Windows How to Establish Remote Desktop Access to Ubuntu From Windows Need to remote access your Ubuntu PC from another location? Here's how to remote desktop with Ubuntu from Windows. Read More , we have you covered.

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  1. Sergio
    March 3, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    Thank you so much!

  2. Dimosthenis
    November 30, 2019 at 12:49 pm

    Very useful informations.
    Didn't know a lot of things and now i am able to choose desktop or server for my occasion.

  3. JohnK
    June 14, 2018 at 1:09 am

    What a terrific guide! I never knew about these 'headless' servers and always wondered how anyone would configure one without a monitor + keyboard etc... So they use ssh remotely and that's how they set things up? Wow, now I can try to do something like this at home without using windows thank you!!