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Lightweight desktop environment for ubuntu server

Your server speed, cpu usage, memory usage, and overall Linux performance depends also on the amount of system resources your desktop environment is using. A lightweight desktop environment or a minimal desktop, will consume less resources and therefore make more resources available for serving purposes. Many system administrators argue that headless server is the best way to go, as a GUI desktop environment is only a convenience for newbies to make certain tasks easier. Nevertheless, I like to have an on-demand (therefore no little or know resource wastage when not needed) lightweight desktop environment on my server.

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While I am not a big fan of what is happening in the Ubuntu world these days (Unity, termination of support for Kubuntu, etc.), I still run my Server on Ubuntu 10.04. Typically servers are headless but I like to have a minimalistic gui desktop installed in case of emergencies or for specific purposes.

There are several ways to install Ubuntu Desktop.

1. Full Ubuntu Desktop

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop

This install the full-fledged Ubuntu Desktop with all its bells and whistles, which I normally would not use on a 24/7 server that is not used as a traditional desktop. It also uses more RAM and power, which is not energy efficient for a server.

Ubuntudesktop | Smarthomebeginner
Full Ubuntu Desktop

2. Lightweight Ubuntu Desktop

sudo apt-get install --no-install-recommends ubuntu-desktop

This install a Ubuntu Desktop without all the bells and whistles of Ubuntu Desktop (i.e. without libreoffice, firefox, evolution, etc.). This is still an over kill for a server if you ask me. So I like to go the more minimalistic way listed below.

3. Lightweight Gnome Desktop

sudo apt-get install xorg gnome-core gnome-media gnome-system-monitor gnome-applets gnome-system-tools gnome-utils gnome-app-install sysv-rc-conf gdm

This will install a very minimal gnome just enough to boot the server into a graphical environment for emergency purposes. Then, run the following command (optional):

sudo sysv-rc-conf

You will be presented with a screen that shows services and what runlevels they are configured to start on. Find 'gdm' and uncheck the boxes for runlevels 2 and 3. If you want graphical login to be enabled then skip this step.

Sysv Rc Conf | Smarthomebeginner

You will have to restart the server after the install. Now you can start the graphical Gnome desktop on a need basis by typing:


After this, do not forget to update and upgrade:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

This setup consumes minimal power and RAM and you still have a graphical environment to use when you need it.

Update: For a more recent guide (Ubuntu 12.04), please check this post.

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Anand is a self-learned computer enthusiast, hopeless tinkerer (if it ain't broke, fix it), a part-time blogger, and a Scientist during the day. He has been blogging since 2010 on Linux, Ubuntu, Home/Media/File Servers, Smart Home Automation, and related HOW-TOs.