How to Install a Desktop (GUI) on an Ubuntu Server

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By Vijay Singh Khatri

If we look at the main difference between the ubuntu server and its desktop version, we can clearly mark out one significant difference, and that is the absence of GUI in the Ubuntu server. The Ubuntu server has all the features, tools, and programs that you need to run a server along with other tools which are present in the desktop Ubuntu minus the GUI.

The server version of Ubuntu does not have a graphical user interface, even though it seems impossible, but the decision to do so was deliberate as the GUI uses a lot of system resources, which is not productive for a server. Thus, the server operating system comes without a GUI.

Furthermore, you can even install GUI using tools like Webmin and Cockpit on your cloud-based server. These tools will allow you to control and manage your Ubuntu-based servers graphically via a web browser. If you are not comfortable with running your server with only commands, then fret not; we are here to help you install your preferred Desktop GUI on Ubuntu based server. But in order to do so, you need to have direct access to the server and have all the root permissions available for your session.

Steps To Install A Desktop GUI

Now that you know all about GUI and how it can be beneficial for Ubuntu Server, let’s take a look at the steps required to install a desktop-based GUI on Ubuntu servers.

Step – 1 Update All The Repositories And Packages

Before you do anything, make sure your server fulfills all these three prerequisites.

  • First, you need to have a server that is running Ubuntu Linux OS.
  • After that, you need to have both the sudo and root privileges.
  • Lastly, the apt-get package manager needs to be present in the OS by default, or you can download and install the package manually.

Now that you have checked all the prerequisites, it’s time to update all the repositories and the packages which are present on your server. This is the first step for installing the desktop-based GUI on your Ubuntu Server. Use the following command to update the packages.

  • sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

If you get the option to choose yes or no or continue or exit, you need to press y and then enter to start the package update. After the installation is complete, you will need to check if you are working with the latest packages. After that, install the tasksel manager. Tasksel is useful when you want to install multiple related packages at the same time. Install the tasksel manager with the following command.

  • sudo apt-get install tasksel

Step – 2 Choose The Display Manager Which You Like

When you install a GUI, you need a display manager since this is the application that starts up the display server, launches the desktop, and keeps track of user authentication. You will be given a number of options for display managers when installing KDE-Plasma; by default, GDM3 is installed. Unfortunately, this display manager is quite resource-intensive and can cause your server hardware to overheat. Therefore, you should use much lighter display managers like SDDM, SLiM, or LightDM to conserve resources.

You can run multiple display managers on your server, but it is not advisable as more than one will again have a massive toll on your server resources. To install the specific display manager, you need to use the apt-get package manager command. In the given below example, we are installing SLiM and LightDM display manager on our servers using the apt-get package manager.

  • sudo apt-get install slim
  • sudo apt-get install lightdm

Step – 3 Select The GUI For Your Server And Install

To start with, GNOME is, by default, the GUI of the Ubuntu server, and if you look at its working and user interface, you will see it is pretty similar to the Apple ecosystem. If you are looking for a GUI which feels like it belongs to Microsoft Ecosystem, then you should go with KDE. On the other hand, if you are looking for the feel and the interface of a basic Ubuntu system, then you need to install the desktop environments such as Mate Core, Lubuntu, or Xubuntu.

We have provided the individual commands for each of the following Dekstop based GUI for the Ubuntu server below.

1. KDE Plasma

sudo apt-get install kde-plasma-desktop

During the installation process, you might have to select the default display manager. To determine the manager, use the arrow keys on your keyboard, and once you reach the selection, press enter. Once the installation is complete, you need to launch the KDE Plasma with the following command: sudo service display_manager start

Note:- Here, we have written display_manager for your convenience; you need to type in the name of the display manager which you have installed in your system.

2. Mate Core Server Desktop

sudo tasksel install ubuntu-mate-core

Once the installation is complete, run the display manager command: sudo service display_manager start

In case you want to quit the GUI on the Ubuntu server, you need to type in the following command: sudo service display_manager<em> </em>stop.

3. Lubuntu

sudo tasksel install lubuntu-core

After the installation is done, you need to launch the GUI using the following command:

sudo service display_manager<em> </em>start

To stop the Lubuntu GUI, type in the following command in your command line

sudo service display_manager stop

4. Xubuntu

sudo tasksel install xubuntu-core

To launch the Xubuntu write the following line in the command line

sudo service display_manager start

5. Xfce Desktop

sudo apt-get install xfce4 slim

Launch Xfce using the following command

sudo apt-get install xfce4 slim

How To Switch Between Multiple GUIs?

As we have said earlier, you can install multiple GUIs in your single Ubuntu server and toggle in between them according to your liking. But in order to manage and work with numerous GUIs, you need to know how to change between them instantly. To make the installation of multiple GUIs possible, you first need to install a display manager. Once the display manager is installed, you need to launch one of the GUI using the commands which we have written above.

Once the GUI starts running on your system, all you have to do is login and then press the f1 key to move from one GUI to the other. Keep in mind, you need to log in manually for each GUI once, and after that, the display manager will keep your settings for the current, and you can toggle in between with ease.

Top 5 GUI for Ubuntu Server

Given below is the list of the top 5 best GUIs for Ubuntu servers. In addition to this, we have provided our readers with their benefits and features.

1. GNOME Desktop

GNOME is the default desktop GUI which you will get with the Ubuntu server. It is a part of the operating system, and for a lot of developers and administrators, GNOME is sufficient to run and manage the server. GNOME is a no-nonsense operating system that allows its users to be focused on their tasks by providing them with a simple and intuitive graphical interface. It is recommended for those users who save a lot of documents from the online service because it is pretty efficient when it comes to integrating with online accounts.

Thus, it makes it easy for the user to access all their data from one place. GNOME, in a lot of ways, works quite like Windows. As a result, with just a single click, you can check the new messages, launch an application or open up the list of applications and tools which are installed in the OS.

2. KDE Plasma Desktop

KDE Plasma is one of the desktop GUIs which can be installed as an optional GUI in multiple Linux flavors. One of the recent examples of KDE being used as a default Linux server GUI is when MX Linux launched their version of KDE Plasma. One of the big reasons for using KDE plasma as your desktop GUI is its adaptability for customization. You can make tons of changes to the UI, and it will work perfectly fine and perform all the tasks that you require from it. Likewise, there are a number of tools that you get when you install the KDE desktop in your system. A user can easily make a connection with their smartphone using the KEP GUI.

If you install the older version of the KDE GUI, you won’t be able to explore all the features and benefits which KDE has to offer as they lie dormant under the hood, and it takes only a professional or an enthusiast to find them all. With this GUI, a user will have no limitations whatsoever when it comes to defining Qt-based solutions. We can see that KDE and Xfce take a similar toll on system resources when comparing their performance and resource consumption. If we look at the features, KDE surely beats up Xfce by a considerable margin.

3. Mate Desktop

Mate is a revamped GNOME 2. It allows users to navigate through the attractive desktop environment via traditional metaphors used in Linux and other operating systems based on Unix. Moreover, Mate desktop GUI is under active development in order to add support to the latest and upcoming technologies. While still giving users the experience of the well-versed traditional desktop interface. There are tons of applications, including Caja, Pluma, Eye of Mate, Atril, and more which makes it a better choice for GUI desktop than GNOME 2.

Caja is the primary file manager of Mate, and it is used for browsing the directories present in the system, as well as launching and providing preview of files to the user. Likewise, a user can make changes in the icons of their Mate desktop using Caja. Lastly, the Mate comes with a terminal that can open more than one window at once. Thus, a user can manage different configurations or profiles on their desktop at the same time.

4. Xfce Desktop

If you are looking to keep your Linux server desktop to minimal resource consumption, then Xfce GUI is the solution you need to install on your server. But one thing you need to know is that the stock Xfce desktop is non-user friendly, and navigating through it might be difficult for newcomers. But with the use of distros, you can easily make changes to its stock version and make it more intuitive and easy to operate. In addition to this, it is a great GUI for bringing in a new life to legacy hardware systems. This is the main advantage of Xfce, and it is pretty lightweight and snappy when it comes to performing regular tasks.

The developers of the Xfce tried to cut down the optional features, which are of no use but are only present to make GUI look and feel better. The user experience of Xfce varies differently as it is based on the distros the individual installs over the Xfce. The whole interface is so simple and easy to use that you might think that the operating system is undoubtedly missing some major features, but in truth, you are getting everything that you need to run the Ubuntu server to its maximum potential.

5. Xubuntu Desktop

Last on this list is Xubuntu desktop GUI which comes with a Whisker menu. This file manager will provide you all the information that you need about the installed applications once you launch them. The Whisker also has Windows-style buttons for shutting down, restarting, and logging out from the system. It can be customized according to the user’s needs, and you can even change the size of the windows by dragging it.

The only thing that is missing from Xubuntu GUI is the minimization of the opened window or tab. For new users, this GUI desktop is an excellent OS as it comes with most of the software and programs that you need. On the other hand, old users that are already using Ubuntu will find Xubuntu to have similar features and navigation. This GUI needs a better default window for this GUI; everything else is just perfect for both newcomers and veterans alike.

Wrapping Up

So this is how you can install a desktop (GUI) on your Ubuntu server using the command on the command line. There are multiple GUI versions available, and it is up to you to decide which one you prefer and which provides better functionality. GUIs can also be installed by other methods, but using the command line is the most efficient and fastest way.

So go ahead and install the GUI you like and manage your Ubuntu server with ease and added simplicity.

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