What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu’s Server, Desktop, and Cloud?

Updated on November 24, 2016

When you go to download Ubuntu, there are three options: desktop, server, and cloud. If you are new to Ubuntu, this can be a little confusing. So, what is the difference between the three? The difference is pretty dramatic and if you pick the wrong one to start with, you may have a big surprise waiting for you! The difference really comes down to one thing: the purpose. All the differences exist to accommodate the needs of different users. Here is a short and simple explanation of what each is and then I will go into more detail.

Ubuntu Desktop: A desktop environment, preloaded with many great utilities, meant to be a free alternative to Windows and Mac.

Ubuntu Server: A command line interface (CLI) environment, preloaded with the bare essentials, meant to be a server that is set up and left alone for the rest of its life.

Ubuntu Server for Cloud: A graphical user interface (GUI) environment, preloaded with the bare essentials, meant to be a cloud that manages multiple servers.

Ubuntu Desktop

Ubuntu Desktop is a GUI environment alternative to Mac and Windows.

Ubuntu Desktop, although it hosts a GUI, is heavily reliant on its command line, known as the terminal. Ubuntu is working very hard to eliminate its dependence on the terminal. Most of the commands that used to be done in the terminal, now can be executed using graphical methods. Nevertheless, some functions can only be done in the terminal, and others are much easier to do in the terminal.

Ubuntu desktop has a simple file system structure, similar to that of Android, that can be navigated using the file manager. The file explorer is easy to use and not that different from Windows’ Windows Explorer, and Mac’s Finder. In addition, there are many great alternatives available for download.

Ubuntu is much more customizable than Windows and Mac; however, most customization requires the installation of third party software, or use of the terminal. Ubuntu Desktop has comes with both a classic panel at the top and a toolbar, known as the dash, on the left side. The Dash, aside from the changeable location, is very similar to that of Windows. It has a Home button at the top that is followed by customizable icons for your favorite software. The desktop background can be changed, and you can create icons on the desktop. Both of these tasks are more difficult to do than Windows and requires use of the terminal (or third party software).

It has many preloaded utilities, and many more stored in its online repositories and Software Center, available for download. Some of the pre-installed utilities are:

Gedit: text editor, similar to Notepad and TextEdit

Firefox: Internet browser, similar to Internet Explorer and Safari

LibreOffice: Office Suite, similar to Microsoft Office

Empathy: Chat account manager

Thunderbird: Email Client

Ubuntu One Music Store: Music store and browser, similar to iTunes

Movie Player

Shotwell Photo Manager

Ubuntu Server

Ubuntu Server is a very basic operating system. It is extremely light. Ubuntu Server does not come with a GUI, but instead comes with a CLI. Therefore, after the install, you turn on your server and are presented with nothing but a blinking cursor. This can be very shocking for someone expecting a desktop-like environment. Do not make the mistake of installing the Server version just because it sounds cool. The Server version uses the same app repositories as the Desktop version. A GUI can be installed on the Server version if so desire. The Ubuntu Server comes with the bare essentials. None of the utilities listed above come with Ubuntu Server, because this operating system is supposed to be used as nothing but a server. After installing the server, you can then use the command line to install the necessary software for your server. As an added feature, when installing Ubuntu Server, you can select a package of software to install with your operating system that is specific to the server you wish to build. The available software packages are:

DNS server: Selects the BIND DNS server and its documentation.

LAMP server: Selects a ready-made Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP server.

Mail server: This task selects a variety of packages useful for a general purpose mail server system.

OpenSSH server: Selects packages needed for an OpenSSH server.

PostgreSQL database: This task selects client and server packages for the PostgreSQL database.

Print server: This task sets up your system to be a print server.

Samba File server: This task sets up your system to be a Samba file server, which is especially suitable in networks with both Windows and Linux systems.

Tomcat Java server: Installs Apache Tomcat and needed dependencies.

Virtual Machine host: Includes packages needed to run KVM virtual machines.

Manually select packages: Executes aptitude allowing you to individually select packages.

Ubuntu Server for Cloud

Ubuntu Server for Cloud is a cloud computing solution based on Eucalyptus. It is a GUI used to connect and manage multiple servers to provide access to data or programs of the network. This is an offshoot of the Ubuntu Server. The Ubuntu Cloud has solutions for both public and private use.

Which One Should You Choose?

The question now is simply, what will you use it for? If you want a desktop environment to replace or use alongside your Windows or Mac environment, that comes with a GUI and a multitude of great utilities, select the Ubuntu Desktop. If you want a reliable server with a CLI that you will let run on its own, select the Ubuntu Server. If you want a cloud computing solution to connect and manage your other servers, select the Ubuntu Server for Cloud.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers


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        2 years ago

        please guide me for using ubuntu...i want make ubuntu as a file server..

        i install ubunt server in vmware..

        so how to add datastore(storage) in ubuntu?

      • profile image


        5 years ago

        awesome !! well explained . Thanks a lot :D


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