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Ubuntu Desktop vs. Ubuntu Server: What’s the Difference?



Ubuntu ranks as arguably the most popular Linux operating system. It’s certainly one of the best known. 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. Here, you’ll learn all about the differences between Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Desktop.

What Is Ubuntu Server?

Before we compare the differences between Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server, let’s establish what a server is.

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 without peripherals is known as a “headless” setup. Software for a server includes the operating system, server software (e.g., Apache for hosting websites; CUPS print server), and security software.


Ubuntu Server, then, is an operating system for a server, based on Ubuntu.

Is Ubuntu Server Free?

Yes. Like the desktop version, Ubuntu Server is free to download and use.

However, if you’re using it for business-related purposes and can’t afford for issues to affect the running, support packages are available from developers Canonical.[]

If you prefer to manage the support of the server in-house, that is also an option. The Ubuntu Community resource has documents and discussions on every conceivable problem, and solutions to match.

The Difference Between Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu 20.04 Focal Fossa Desktop

Several differences lend insight into the divergence of Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server.

Graphical User Interface

The main difference in Ubuntu Desktop and Server is the desktop environment. While Ubuntu Desktop includes a graphical user interface, Ubuntu Server does not.


This is because most servers run headless. But what does this mean? Well, they run without a traditional keyboard, mouse, and monitor setup to interact with the machine. Instead, servers are usually remotely managed using SSH. While SSH is built into Unix-based operating systems, it’s also simple to use SSH on Windows.

Related: How to Remotely Manage a Server With SSH

Although some Linux server operating systems feature desktop environments, many lack a GUI. So, Ubuntu Desktop assumes that your machine uses video outputs and installs a desktop environment. Ubuntu Server, meanwhile, lacks a GUI.

Different Applications on Ubuntu Desktop and Server

Additionally, Ubuntu Desktop contains applications suited to general use: there’s an office productivity suite, multimedia software, and web browser.

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


Differences Installing Ubuntu Server and Desktop

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 Server vs Desktop Performance

Because Ubuntu Server doesn’t have a GUI by default, it has potentially better system performance. After all, there is no desktop environment to manage, so resources can be dedicated to server tasks.

However, this doesn’t always work out in practice. For example, you might install some particularly resource-intensive server software, thereby slowing the machine down. Conversely, you might use Ubuntu Desktop purely for word processing.

Installing Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Desktop with the default options on two identical machines will invariably result in the Server delivering better performance than the desktop. But once software comes into the mix, things change.


Ubuntu Desktop vs. Ubuntu Server: The Similarities

Ubuntu Server installation complete

Using Ubuntu Server rather than desktop should not be a completely new experience. At the very least if you have experience of the command line and SSH, Ubuntu Server should seem familiar. There are other key similarities: the kernel, and support.

Do Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server Us a Different Kernel?

No. Since Ubuntu 12.04, both Server and Desktop variants use the same kernel. Because both Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server employ the same kernel, you can add any packages to either variant. This means that while there is a difference between the default installations, 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.


Is There Any Difference in Support for Ubuntu Server and Desktop Editions?

Again, no. Before Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, Desktop editions featured a three-year support cycle. Their Server counterparts benefited from a five-year support cycle.

Since the release of 12.04 LTS, Ubuntu Desktop and Server variants both moved to a five-year support cycle.

Ubuntu Server vs Ubuntu Desktop: 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 as a server.

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


Ubuntu 20.04 LTS

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 any Ubuntu Desktop as a server.

For example, you might run a low-power Lenovo ThinkServer TS140 with the Ubuntu Desktop. This gives you the option of hooking up a monitor and using the desktop environment.

You might transform an Ubuntu Server into a home theater PC (HTPC) with Linux media server software. Good options for this include Plex and Subsonic. Alternatively, you might even create a Linux game server using Ubuntu Desktop, rather than Ubuntu Server.

When to Use Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu Server welcome screen

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.

Therefore, go with the option that’s less work for your project. If Ubuntu Server includes the packages you need, use Server and install a desktop environment. Absolutely need a GUI but want server software that isn’t included in the default Server install? Well, use Ubuntu Desktop and install the software you need.

Related: Ubuntu vs CentOS

What About Ubuntu Core?

If you’re wondering about the differences between Ubuntu Core and Ubuntu Server with a view to installing one or the other, this takes a slightly different dimension.

Ubuntu Core is a stripped-down version of Linux intended for embedded device projects. This might be an Internet of Things device or some smart home project. While Ubuntu Core can have server functionality, it isn’t a server in the same way as a machine running Ubuntu Server is.


Make the Right Choice Between Ubuntu Desktop and Server

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.

Largely, your decision centers on which option requires the easiest 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—starting with a desktop environment can make this a less daunting task.

Planning to use an Ubuntu server but use a Windows desktop? Learn how to establish remote desktop access to Ubuntu from Windows.


ubuntu-remote-desktop-featured 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.

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About The Author Christian Cawley (1493 Articles Published)

Deputy Editor for Security, Linux, DIY, Programming, and Tech Explained, and Really Useful Podcast producer, with extensive experience in desktop and software support. A contributor to Linux Format magazine, Christian is a Raspberry Pi tinkerer, Lego lover and retro gaming fan.

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