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Minimal desktop environment for linux servers

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 minimal desktop environment 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) minimal desktop environment on my server.

Ubuntu’s Unity Desktop has matured several folds in the recent times. The same can be said about Gnome 3 with the Gnome Shell. However, the drastic changes in their user interface has taken several users, including me by surprise. For someone who uses Ubuntu Server edition only on servers, installing the whole Ubuntu Desktop (Unity) or Gnome Desktop (or KDE or LXDE for that matter) does not make sense. Due to this reason I wrote an article several months back on how to install minimal lightweight gnome desktop for servers. Note that until Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx Gnome was still the default desktop on Ubuntu. While same steps can be applied to Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin, some steps require some modifications. With this is in mind, this post will explain how to install lightweight gnome desktop environment on Ubuntu Server 12.04.

Some argue that Gnome is not the lightest (in terms of RAM usage) desktop environment and I agree. LXDE or even Xfce is much lighter than Gnome, which itself is lighter than KDE. While my server is no way short on RAM, I rarely login into the Desktop Environment. Therefore, my requirement is on-demand but functional desktop environment. And minimal Gnome desktop fits this criteria. But I compared other desktops before my deciding.

For a complete and up-to-date Guide to Ubuntu get the Ubuntu Unleashed 2012 Edition: Covering 11.10 and 12.04

Install Ubuntu Server

The first step is to install Ubuntu Server. Grab the latest .iso files from here. Continue with the installation until the software selection screen. One of the neat updates in this release is the ability to configure wireless network during installation. Unlike before, I did not have to move my test laptop to my router for an wired connection.

Ubuntu Tasksel - Package Selection
Ubuntu Tasksel - Package Selection

Select the packages you would like to install. I normally install the Open SSH server for remote SSH access, LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) server for running websites/blogs, and Samba file server for network drive access (backup and storage).

Now that the installation of the basic headless server is done, let me proceed to the comparison of desktops. Purists argue that a headless server install is the most efficient and secure. While I generally agree with that, a properly setup server with a desktop environment while being secure can also offer convenience at the cost of a tiny bit of resources. But first update your package list:

sudo apt-get update

LXDE Core Desktop

The “Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment” is an extremely fast-performing and energy-saving desktop environment. Maintained by an international community of developers, it comes with a beautiful interface, multi-language support, standard keyboard short cuts and additional features like tabbed file browsing. LXDE uses less CPU and less RAM than other environments. It is especially designed for cloud computers with low hardware specifications, such as netbooks, mobile devices (e.g. MIDs) or older computers.

LXDE can be installed on many Linux distributions including Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu. It is the standard for Knoppix and lubuntu. LXDE also runs on OpenSolaris and BSD. LXDE provides a fast desktop experience; connecting easily with applications in the cloud. LXDE supports a wealth of programs that can be installed locally with Linux systems.

LXDE core package contains only the packages essential for base LXDE install. Since I am looking only for basic graphical desktop environment when I really need one (on-demand) a core install would suffice. You can add/install additional softwares if needed.

To install full LXDE desktop use the following command:

sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop

On the other hand, like me, if you are interested only in the LXDE core desktop, use the following command:

sudo apt-get install lxde-core

The screenshot below shows a typical LXDE Desktop:

LXDE Core Desktop
LXDE Core Desktop

As you can see, LXDE desktop uses only about 18% CPU and 168 MB of RAM. That is pretty efficient.

LXDE Core Desktop Resources Usage
LXDE Core Desktop Resources Usage

However, if you are like me and have always preferred the traditional Gnome type like. LXDE may not be the option for you.

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About the author


Anand is a self-learned computer enthusiast, a part-time blogger, and a Food Scientist by career. He has been blogging since 2010 on Linux, Ubuntu, Home/Media/File Servers, Smart Home Automation, and related HOW-TOs on htpcbeginner.com and smarthomebeginner.com.