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

Updated on July 24, 2019
Phillip Rearick profile image

Phillip's favorite topics to write about include increasing the speed of applications, machines, and connections.

The above graphic is a representation of the connection between cloud-based servers and hardware.
The above graphic is a representation of the connection between cloud-based servers and hardware. | Source

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.

What is the difference between the three?

The distinction 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 the purpose of each technology. The desktop, server, and cloud all exist to accommodate disparate needs.

  • Ubuntu Desktop: The Ubuntu desktop environment is meant to be a free alternative to Windows and Mac. It is preloaded with utilities and applications.
  • Ubuntu Server: The Ubuntu server is a command-line interface (CLI) environment, preloaded with the bare essentials, meant to be a server that is set up and left alone to function independently in perpetuity of its use.
  • Ubuntu Server for Cloud: The Ubuntu server for cloud is 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 an alternative GUI environment 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 executed in the terminal now can be done using graphical methods similar to more popular desktop interfaces such as Windows and Mac. Nevertheless, some functions can only be done in the terminal, and others are much easier to do in the terminal than graphically.

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

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Ubuntu desktop is preloaded with applications and is meant to replace or stand-in for a Windows or Macintosh operating system.A Windows10 desktop graphical interface.A Mac desktop graphical interface.
The Ubuntu desktop is preloaded with applications and is meant to replace or stand-in for a Windows or Macintosh operating system.
The Ubuntu desktop is preloaded with applications and is meant to replace or stand-in for a Windows or Macintosh operating system.
A Windows10 desktop graphical interface.
A Windows10 desktop graphical interface. | Source
A Mac desktop graphical interface.
A Mac desktop graphical interface. | Source

Ubuntu is much more customizable than Windows and Mac, though most customization requires the installation of third-party software or use of the terminal. Ubuntu Desktop comes with both a classic panel at the top and a toolbar, known as the "dash", located on the left side. The dash is very similar to that of a Windows dashboard and only differs in that you cannot change the location. The dash 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 when using Windows and require the use of the terminal (or third party software).

The Ubuntu Desktop Pre-Loaded Applications

The Ubuntu Desktop has many preloaded utilities, and many more utilities stored in its online repositories, downloadable via the Software Center. Some 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. Ubuntu Server does not come with a GUI, but instead comes with a CLI, or command-line interface. Once you install it, 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".

What Is a Server?

A server is a computer or program that manages access to centralized resources or services in a network.

The Ubuntu Server comes with the bare essentials for operation. The server version uses the same app repositories as the desktop version, and a GUI can be installed on the server version if a GUI is desired. None of the desktop utilities listed above come with Ubuntu Server because the server operating system is meant to be used as nothing but a server.

The Ubuntu server is a light, basic operating system designed to manage files.
The Ubuntu server is a light, basic operating system designed to manage files.

After installing the server, you can use the command line to install the necessary software to 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 type of 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: Selects a variety of packages useful for a general-purpose mail server system
  • OpenSSH server: Selects packages needed for an OpenSSH server
  • PostgreSQL database: Selects client and server packages for the PostgreSQL database
  • Print server: Sets up your system to be a print server
  • Samba File server: 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, cloud-based version of the Ubuntu Server. The Ubuntu Cloud has solutions for both public and private use.

Which One Should You Choose?

How do you determine which one to use? This depends on one question: What will you use it for?

  • If you want a desktop environment to replace or use alongside your Windows or Mac OS environment, that comes with a GUI and a multitude of great utilities, use the Ubuntu Desktop.
  • If you need a reliable server with a CLI, 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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      • profile image

        miza 

        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

        sooraj 

        5 years ago

        awesome !! well explained . Thanks a lot :D

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