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

Ubuntu ranks as arguably the most popular Linux-based operating system. It’s undoubtedly one of the best-known. However, Ubuntu varies quite a bit. Within Ubuntu, there are two distinct flavors: a stable release and long-term support (LTS) iteration.

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

What Is Ubuntu Server?

Before comparing 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, tower 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 consists of the operating system, server software (e.g., Apache for hosting websites; CUPS print server), and security software.

So, Ubuntu Server, then, is an operating system for a server machine based on Ubuntu. It is a stripped-down version of the Ubuntu Desktop, shipped with the necessary tools to set up and maintain a server machine.

Is Ubuntu Server Free?

Yes. Like the desktop version, Ubuntu Server is free to download and use. However, the developers offer subscription-based support packages if you’re using it for business-related purposes and can’t afford issues affecting the uptime.

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 potential problem and solution to match.

The Difference Between Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server


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

1. Lack of a Graphical User Interface

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

It is because most servers run headless. But what does this mean? Well, they run without a traditional keyboard, mouse, and monitor setup that lets users 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.

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. However, you can always set up a GUI in your Ubuntu Server in a few simple steps.

2. Different Applications on Ubuntu Desktop and Server

Ubuntu Desktop contains applications suited for regular use: there’s an office productivity suite, multimedia software, and a web browser.

However, Ubuntu Server features a different set of packages. These packages 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. While Ubuntu Desktop applications are geared towards use on the host machine, Ubuntu Server packages concentrate on establishing connectivity with clients and security.

3. Ubuntu Server vs. Desktop Installation

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, giving you more freedom regarding how you want the base system to work.

4. 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 Ubuntu Desktop should not be a completely new experience. At the very least, Ubuntu Server should seem familiar if you have experience with the command line and SSH. There are other key similarities: the kernel and support. Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Desktop share the same kernel build and support from the developers.

Do Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server Use a Different Kernel?

No. Since Ubuntu 12.04, both server and desktop variants employ the same kernel. Because of that, you can add any package to either variant. It 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 later 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, Ubuntu 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 have 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 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 to use your computer as a daily driver. It 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 Ubuntu Desktop as a server.

For example, you might run a low-power Lenovo ThinkServer TS140 with Ubuntu Desktop. It 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 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. You can always add a GUI later because the two Ubuntu flavors share a core kernel.

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 the 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.

While Ubuntu Server is equipped to meet most of your hosting requirements, if you are looking to set up a server for the long haul, you should learn how Ubuntu compares to other server distributions and figure out which works best for you.

What Is Ubuntu Core?

If you’re wondering about the differences between Ubuntu Core and Ubuntu Server to install one or the other, this takes a slightly different dimension. But you’ll understand the difference easily now that you know what Ubuntu Server is.

Ubuntu Core vs. Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu Core is a stripped-down version of Linux intended for embedded device projects like an Internet of Things device or a 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. You should avoid using Ubuntu Core on a server or desktop machine as Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Desktop are better options.

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 in 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.

Essentially, your decision centers on which option requires the most accessible initial setup. 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.

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

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