Ubuntu Server Or Desktop? Some Tips For Making The Right Pick

This Thursday, the latest version of Ubuntu Linux will hit the streets. If you're looking for the perfect small-business Linux distro, this one just might fit the bill.
This Thursday, the latest version of Ubuntu Linux will hit the streets. If you're looking for the perfect small-business Linux distro, this one just might fit the bill.Later this week, Canonical will unleash both the desktop and server versions of its scheduled six-month Ubuntu Linux update. The server version of Ubuntu Linux 8.10 includes some new or improved features that add a great deal of value for business users:
  • Improved virtualization support, including the ability to build complete virtual machines, from the command line, in a matter of minutes.
  • More closely integrated anti-virus and anti-spam tools for mail servers.
  • Improved SATA software RAID support, including -- and this is potentially a life-saver for many admins -- the ability to boot from a degraded disk array.
  • The ability to create encrypted private directories that will remain secure even if the system is accessed locally or actually stolen.
  • Beefed-up security, including "software hardening" techniques that protect the system against security bugs in third-party apps, as well as a far more user-friendly firewall management interface.
The desktop version offers some interesting new features of its own, including:
  • The ability to install Ubuntu to a portable USB drive and to read/write data from that drive.
  • Improved compatibility with 3G wireless networks.
  • "Guest session" support that allows you to lend a system to a friend or co-worker -- for example, to check email or to look up something online -- while locking down most of your data files and applications.
At this point, you might be asking a very common question: What, exactly, are the differences between the Ubuntu Linux server and desktop releases?

The most obvious difference involves what you find on a "server" versus "desktop" version of the Ubuntu installation CD (or downloaded ISO image). The server version includes a long list of server software, development languages and related tools, networking apps, virtualization software, and other commonly-used apps that you won't find on the desktop distro.

Also, as you might expect, the desktop version of Ubuntu offers a very user-friendly graphical installer and installs the GNOME desktop environment by default. The server version assumes you're comfortable working at a command line, because that is exactly what it will give you by default. (You can always install GNOME or some other desktop environment with Ubuntu server; you'll just have to download the appropriate packages first.)

Finally, the Linux kernels used in each Ubuntu version differ in significant ways. The Ubuntu server kernel is optimized for running services rather than desktop applications (for example, by disabling pre-emption). In addition, the 32-bit version of Ubuntu server can address up to 64GB of memory, while the desktop version will address just 4GB of memory by default. And as noted above, the server kernel has been tweaked to provide extensive, and very robust, virtualization support.

In practical terms, does this mean that you should get the server version in order to run any server application? That depends upon how heavy a load the server will have to carry, what sort of PC architecture you plan to use and how comfortable you are working in a command-line environment.

If you just want to run Apache for light-weight Web server duty or perhaps set up a departmental file/print server, then my advice is to get Ubuntu desktop and then download any additional software packages as needed. By the time you're ready to move up to the server version, you're likely to be quite a bit more knowledgeable about just how and why to migrate.

And naturally, there is one other feature both versions of Ubuntu Linux will always share: The price.