Ubuntu Server vs Desktop: What’s the Difference? [Explained]

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When you click the download button on the Ubuntu website, it gives you some options. Two of them are Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server.

It might confuse new users. Why are there two (actually 4 of them)? Which one should I download? Desktop or Ubuntu server? Are they the same? What is the difference?

Ubuntu website gives you several options

I’ll explain the difference between desktop and server editions of Ubuntu. I will also tell you which variant you should use.

Ubuntu desktop vs Ubuntu server

ubuntu desktop server
Ubuntu Desktop and Server Illustration

To understand the difference between a desktop computer and an Ubuntu server, you need to understand the difference between a desktop operating system and a server operating system.

Office

A desktop computer refers to a personal computer. A desktop operating system comes with a graphical user interface so that users can use their mouse and keyboard. The main purpose of a desktop computer is to provide you with a system that can be used for browsing the web, editing documents, viewing / editing images and videos, encoding and editing. games. Basically a general purpose computer for individuals, end users or family members.

I’m using the term desktop here, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used on a laptop. Desktop is the generic term for a personal computer.

Server

On the other hand, a server operating system is specifically created to host web services such as websites, applications, media servers, databases, etc.

Usually a server operating system does not come with a graphical interface. If it is a Linux-based operating system, you will need to operate the system entirely through commands in the terminal.

The advantage here is that the server operating system doesn’t need a lot of RAM and computing power because it doesn’t use a graphical desktop environment. Apart from this, the server operating system also has packages configured differently.

Now that you have a bit of an understanding of the difference between server and desktop, let’s see the difference between Ubuntu server and desktop.

User interface

The most visible difference between the Ubuntu server and the desktop is the user interface.

The Ubuntu desktop has a graphical user interface with the GNOME desktop environment. This makes it easier to use with the help of mouse clicks.

install the gnome desktop of the ubuntu gui server
Ubuntu GNOME edition user interface

The Ubuntu Server Edition works without a head. You will only see a terminal interface when you are logged in to it. You will often manage it remotely from other computers via SSH.

system restart required
Connection to remote Ubuntu server via SSH

Installation

Installing Ubuntu as a desktop is easy with the graphical installer. You can create a live USB drive and experience the desktop version without installing it. If you like it, you can install it in a matter of minutes by following the on-screen instructions.

Installing Ubuntu
Installing the Ubuntu desktop via the graphical installer

Installing Ubuntu as a server isn’t as easy as the desktop edition. You are stuck with the terminal interface. Even the simplest tasks like connecting to Wi-Fi can be a difficult task if you are not familiar with the procedure.

ubuntu server installation
Installing the Ubuntu server

Applications

The default set of apps in the Ubuntu desktop is geared towards regular computer users. Thus, you will find web browsers, an office suite, media players, games, etc.

Gnome app organizer
Applications in Ubuntu

The Ubuntu server has applications more suitable for running web services. And that’s not it. Some applications are also configured differently. Take SSH for example. The Ubuntu server has SSH preconfigured so that you can easily connect to it from remote systems. You must explicitly enable SSH on the Ubuntu desktop.

Hardware requirements

Since the desktop edition has a graphical user interface, you need at least 4 GB of RAM to run the Ubuntu desktop. Disk space should be at least 20 GB.

This is where it gets interesting for the Ubuntu server. It has no graphical interface. The command line interface does not consume a lot of system resources. As a result, you can easily run the Ubuntu server on a machine with 512MB and 5GB of disk space.

RAM and disk space on the server are subject to the web service you are running. If a web application requires at least 2 GB of RAM, you should have that much RAM. But in the simplest scenario, even 512MB or 1GB RAM might work.

Use

This is the main differentiator between desktop and Ubuntu server. Ask yourself what purpose do you want to use Ubuntu for?

If it’s specifically about deploying web services, go for the Ubuntu server. Keep in mind that you need to have basic Linux command line knowledge to navigate the terminal.

If you want to use Ubuntu like a regular computer like Windows, go for the Ubuntu desktop. If you want to use it for learning Linux commands, Docker, or even a simple (but local) LAMP server installation for learning, stick with the Ubuntu desktop.

For a server, the Ubuntu server is better than the Ubuntu desktop. For regular computing use, Ubuntu Desktop is the best choice.

Should you use the Ubuntu desktop for the server or install the GUI on the server?

Here is the thing. Both the desktop and the Ubuntu server are Linux. You can use the Ubuntu desktop as a server to host web services. It works.

Likewise, you can install the GUI on the Ubuntu server and use it graphically. It also works.

installation of the gnome desktop reception of the ubuntu gui server
GUI connection on an Ubuntu server

But just because it works doesn’t mean you have to. It defies the whole point of creating different editions for the server and the desktop.

You have to put in extra effort to convert server to desktop and vice versa. Why put up with this pain?

If your goal of using Ubuntu is clear, download and install the appropriate Ubuntu edition.

Hope this makes things around Ubuntu desktop and server editions a bit clearer now. If you have any questions or suggestions, please use the comments section.


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