Do you want to install the GUI on your Ubuntu server? You can totally do this in most scenarios and I will discuss the steps in detail in this tutorial.
But before I see that, let me tell you why the server edition does not come with the GUI and in which cases you can install the GUI on your server.
Why does the Ubuntu server not have a GUI?
If you compare the Ubuntu desktop with the server, the main difference will be the lack of a GUI, i.e. the desktop environment in the server edition. Ubuntu Server is essentially a simplified version of the Ubuntu desktop without the graphics modules.
It is intentional. A Linux server intends to use system resources on running services. The graphical desktop environment consumes a lot of system resources and for this reason, server operating systems do not include a desktop environment by default.
You can run an Ubuntu server on 512MB of RAM, but an Ubuntu desktop will need at least 2GB of RAM to function properly. It is considered a waste of resources in the server world.
Do you really need to install a GUI on your server?
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of ââdoing everything using the terminal commands. Most people are conditioned to use a computer graphically after all.
You can choose to install a desktop environment on your server and use it graphically. This is not how most people do it, but it is an option.
But it only works if you have direct access to the server. If you run it on a physical machine like a server, desktop / laptop or devices like Raspberry Pi. You can also install it on a server running in a virtual machine if you have direct access to the host system.
If you have a server deployed using a cloud server provider like Linode, DigitalOcean or AWS, installing GUI will not be a good idea. If you have a remote server that you want to manage graphically, you can use tools like Webmin or Cockpit. These tools allow you to use and manage your servers graphically in a web browser. It consumes much less system resources than a full-fledged desktop environment.
How to install the GUI on the Ubuntu server?
Once the basics are clear, let’s see the steps to install a desktop environment on an Ubuntu server.
You will need the following:
- Ubuntu server configured and running with at least 2 GB of RAM
- Administrative privileges (you need to run sudo commands)
- Internet connection (you will download and install new packages)
In my case, the Ubuntu server is installed in a virtual machine and I have direct access to the host machine. I used the same method on an Ubuntu server installed on a Raspberry Pi.
Prepare your system
First, since you are going to be making system wide changes, let’s update and upgrade everything to make sure our system is running the latest packages:
sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade
Installing the Desktop Environment
After the updates are removed, you can continue installing a desktop environment.
There are two ways to do this:
- Use apt to install packages
- Using a Debian tool called tasksel which helps to install multiple packages in a coordinated process (tasks)
Either will allow you to install the full desktop environment you choose as a full package, just like installing the desktop version from scratch. By that I mean you will get all the default apps and tools that you get with the desktop version.
If you want to use
tasksel you need to install it first using the following command:
sudo apt install tasksel
Once this task is completed, you can use
tasksel to install the desktop environment (also called DE).
By now you probably know that there are several desktop environments available. You can choose the one you like. Some desktop environments need more system resources (like GNOME) while others use less system resources (like Xfce, MATE, etc.).
It is up to you to decide which DE you want to use. I go with the GNOME Desktop since it is the default Ubuntu desktop. Later, I will also share some tips for setting up different desktops.
If you use
tasksel run this command:
sudo tasksel install ubuntu-desktop
if you want to use only apt, run this command:
sudo apt install ubuntu-desktop
Depending on your connection speed and your hardware, this process will take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.
I want to stress that both actions will result in the complete installation of the GNOME desktop environment. I ran both commands for the sake of this tutorial and ended up having the exact same results.
Installation and configuration of the display manager
After this process is complete, you will need a component called a display manager, also known as a “connection manager”. This tool will be responsible for starting the display server and loading the desktop while managing user sessions and authentication.
By default, GNOME Desktop uses GDM3 as its display manager, but it’s a bit heavy on the resource side. You can use something lighter and more resource-friendly. In this case, let’s go with lightdm, a platform independent display manager. Install it with apt:
sudo apt install lightdm
When installing lightdm, the system will ask for a default display manager as only one can run at a time, although you can install more than one.
Just choose lightdm in the list and press
sudo service lightdm start
If you want to check which display manager is configured in your system, you can run:
and you will get a prompt similar to this:
If everything went as planned, you will have a loaded home screen.
Enter your credentials and your desktop will be up and running.
If you want to stop the GUI, open a terminal window and type:
sudo service lightdm stop
Installation of other desktop environments (optional)
Earlier I said we can choose different desktops, so let’s take a look at some alternatives.
BOYFRIEND is a lightweight desktop based on the GNOME2 core code, it is fully open source and a very nice option.
To install MATE, you would run:
sudo tasksel install ubuntu-mate-core
sudo apt install ubuntu-mate-core
Lubuntu / LXDE / LXQT
Lubuntu is another lightweight option that I recommend if your system is running low on resources or you’re giving new life to an older computer. Install it using this command:
sudo tasksel install lubuntu-core
sudo apt install lubuntu-core
Xubuntu / Xfce
sudo tasksel install xubuntu-core
sudo apt install xubuntu-core
I’m leaving a few other desktops, like KDE, Cinnamon, and Budgie, not for anything bad, they’re all great desktops too and you are free to install them however you like.
How to remove the GUI from the Ubuntu server?
If you find that the desktop environment is using too much computer resources, you can remove the packages that you installed earlier.
Please keep in mind that this can lead to dependency issues in some cases, so please take a backup of your important data or create a system snapshot.
You know how to remove packages from Ubuntu:
sudo apt remove ubuntu-desktop sudo apt remove lightdm sudo apt autoremove sudo service lightdm stop
Restart your system now. You should be back to the normal command line connection.
Installing a GUI for a desktop is possible but not necessary in most scenarios. If you are not too comfortable with the command line, use a server distribution like YunoHost which is built on Debian to give you a server that can be managed through GUI.
Having said that, if you are installing a system from scratch, I recommend that you use a desktop version and skip the extra steps afterwards.
With this information, I leave the comment section to you. Are you using the GUI on a server? Did you have any issues while taking this tutorial?