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. 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
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
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. While SSH is built into Unix-based operating systems, it’s pretty simple to use SSH on Windows as well. For additional server management information, check out this beginner’s guide to setting up SSH on Linux.
Although some Linux server operating systems feature desktop environments, many lack a GUI. For instance, Container Linux by CoreOS 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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. And if you need help establishing remote desktop access to Ubuntu from Windows, we have you covered.
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