Introduction

Want to add a desktop environment after you install Ubuntu Server? It can be easily installed.

By default, Ubuntu Server does not include a Graphical User Interface (GUI). A GUI takes up system resources (memory and processor) that are used for server-oriented tasks. However, certain tasks and applications are more manageable and work better in a GUI environment.

This guide will show you how to install a desktop (GUI) graphical interface on your Ubuntu server.

Prerequisites

  • A server running Ubuntu Linux Server
  • Access to a user account with sudo or root privileges
  • The apt-get package manager, included by default

Update Repositories and Packages

Start by updating the repositories and package lists:

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

Press Y and hit enter when asked if you want to continue.

update of the repositories and package lists

This ensures you are working with the most recent software updates.

Next, install the tasksel manager utility:

sudo apt-get install tasksel

Now it is time to install a desktop environment.


Note: Tasksel is a utility for installing multiple related packages at once. See the documentation for more details.


Select a Display Manager

A display manager is an application that starts the display server, launches the desktop, and manages user authentication. The default GDM3 (used with KDE-Plasma) is a resource-intensive display manager. If you need to conserve system resources, consider a lighter display manager, like SDDM, SLiM, or LightDM.

By default, only one display manager can manage a server. They can run simultaneously only if configured to manage different servers. This article assumes that you will be using a single default display manager.

To install a specific display manager, use the apt-get package manager:

To install SLiM:

sudo apt-get install slim

To install LightDM:

sudo apt-get install lightdm

The SDDM display manager can be installed from the tasksel menu during the KDE installation.

Choose a GUI for Your Server

GNOME is the default GUI for most Ubuntu installations and is (loosely) based on the Apple ecosystem.

KDE is another popular GUI, (loosely) based on the Microsoft ecosystem. If you want to have the look and feel of a regular Ubuntu system, choose one of these desktop environments.

GNOME

To install GNOME, start by launching tasksel:

tasksel

A colorful interface will launch. Use the arrow key to scroll down the list and find Ubuntu desktop.

gnome desktop on Ubuntu

Use the Space key to select it, press Tab to select OK at the bottom, then press Enter.

The system will install the software and reboot, giving you a graphical login screen generated by your default display manager. In our case, it’s SLiM.

Enter your login credentials. Use F1 to switch between GUIs if you have multiple interfaces installed.

Below is a typical GNOME UI environment.

slim graphical login screen

KDE Plasma

To install KDE Plasma, use the following Linux command:

sudo apt-get install kde-plasma-desktop

You may be prompted during the installation to select a default display manager. Use the arrow keys to make a selection, then press Enter.

system settings kde on Ubuntu

Launch KDE Plasma with the command:

sudo service display_manager start

Instead of display_manager, type the name of the display manager you have installed (e.g., SLiM, lightDM, SDDM). Enter your credentials and log in.


Note: These traditional Ubuntu Server GUI applications require substantial system resources. They may impact the functionality of your server. If you need to maximize your server resources, consider one of the lighter GUI applications listed below.


Mate Core Server Desktop

Mate is a popular and lightweight graphical interface. Install it by executing the following command:

sudo tasksel install ubuntu-mate-core

Wait for tasksel to complete the action. Once complete, launch the desktop interface with the command:

sudo service display_manager start

Instead of display_manager, type the name of the display manager you have installed (e.g., SLiM, lightDM, SDDM). You’ll be prompted to log in.

mate core desktop server running

To exit the GUI, open the command line and enter:

sudo service display_manager stop

Note: You may need to press Ctrl-Alt-F1 to get back to the server’s command line interface. Also note, this process automatically installs and uses the lightdm display manager.


Lubuntu Core Server Desktop

Lubuntu is a very lightweight GUI. Use this application if you need a graphical interface, but want to minimize the impact on system memory and processor.

To install Lubuntu, enter the following:

sudo tasksel install lubuntu-core

Alternately, you can install from the tasksel menu with the command:

tasksel

Use the arrow keys to highlight the Lubuntu GUI you want to use. Press the space bar to select, then Tab to the OK button and press Enter.

Launch the GUI with:

sudo service display_manager start

screenshot of the lubuntu gui

Exit the GUI by opening a terminal window and entering the following:

sudo service display_manager stop

Xubuntu Server Core Desktop

Xubuntu is a derivative of Ubuntu that uses the Xfce desktop environment.

Install Xubuntu by entering the following:

sudo tasksel install xubuntu-core

Launch it by entering:

sudo service display_manager start

installation of Xubuntu desktop environment

Xfce Desktop

The Xfce desktop environment can be used by itself. It’s designed to be responsive, lightweight and user-friendly.

Install Xfce with the following:

sudo apt-get install xfce4 slim

Launch Xfce by entering:

sudo service slim start

Xfce desktop environment


Note: The Xfce GUI is compatible with the SLiM display manager only.


Switching Between GUIs

If you have several GUIs installed you can select which one to use. Once you start your display manager, you will be prompted to log in. However, that screen also allows you to pick which GUI you want to enable.

login screen to select guis

The image above represents SLiM’s login screen. Switch between GUIs by pressing F1. The interface will toggle between sessions (or GUIs). Log in once you toggle to the GUI of your choice.

Conclusion

There are many GUI desktops available for Ubuntu Server. Most can be installed using the apt-get package manager or the tasksel tool, as detailed in this guide.

If you’ve worked extensively with conventional operating systems, it can be challenging to have to work in a command-line interface. Fortunately, Ubuntu – like many Linux systems – is open-source, thus there are many GUIs available.