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Complete, Concrete, Concise » Ubuntu 12.04 Server » Ubuntu 12.04 Server – How to Install a GUI

Ubuntu 12.04 Server – How to Install a GUI

This tutorial is for Ubuntu 12.04 Server. While the instructions are probably the same for other versions of Ubuntu Server (and, maybe, for other Linux Server distros), I make no guarantee.

In previous versions of Ubuntu, there were small differences between the kernel used for the Server and Desktop versions. In Ubuntu 12.04, there is no longer any difference.

The main difference between the two versions is that Ubuntu 12.04 Server is a bare-bones, no frills, down to the metal version of Ubuntu – which makes it the perfect version if you want to run Ubuntu but completely customize it to your tastes without the overhead / bloat of everything that goes into Ubuntu Desktop.

NOTE: Ubuntu Server is a pure command line driven system – at least until you add a GUI

The Basics of Getting a GUI

To get a GUI running you need three things:

  1. graphics server
  2. display manager
  3. window manager

The graphics server just draws. Nothing it draws has any meaning or significance to it. The only option here is xserver-xorg (eventually, there is hope that wayland will be an alternative to X). Installing xserver-xorg accounts for about 66 MB of the size totals given below.

The display manager manages the graphics server (but this is all behind the scenes). The only thing users notice about the display manager is the login screen.

There are many display manager options, but I recommend lightdm-gtk-greeter or unity-greeter. If you want to have an Ubuntu style login screen, then install unity-greeter instead of lightdm-gtk-greeter (most of the instructions I give use the lightdm-gtk-greeter if the package does not automatically install a display manager). Even if a package installs a display manager, you can always add unity-greeter to the installation code to get the Ubuntu style login screen.

The window manager is responsible for the way the actual display looks and interacts with the user. Again, there are many options, I only recommend a few of them.

The most Commonly Recommended Method

Most sites recommend installing the ubuntu-desktop. Unfortunately, that defeats the purpose of having installed Ubuntu Server 12.04 in the first place – you may as well have installed Ubuntu 12.04 Desktop in the first place.

The Contenders

GUI options can be divided into three groups: light weight, medium weight, an heavy weight.

The amount of disk space taken up may vary depending on what you have installed on your system. If required libraries and components are already installed on you system, they do not need to be reinstalled. For example, if you already have Openbox installed on your system, installing Fluxbox or Blackbox will only add a few MB to your hard disk – not ~100 MB each.

The setup I used for testing is:

  • bare minimum Ubuntu 12.04 Server – no additional packages installed. It uses about 667 MB of disk space
  • installed as a guest in VirtualBox 4.1.16
  • 8 GB hard drive
  • 1024 MB memory
  • 4 CPU cores

NOTE: many of the light weight and medium weight installs don’t include any applications – not even a terminal.

Many require additional packages to be even moderately useful.

If you need to access the command line and no terminal has been installed (very common for most of these installs) press Ctrl + Alt + F1. To return to your GUI, press Ctrl + Alt + F7

In Linux, Ctrl + Alt + F1 through Ctrl + Alt + F6 provide access to 6 command lines that are always available (you do need to login). You can then install additional packages using apt-get.

In Linux, Ctrl + Alt + F7 through Ctrl + Alt + F12 provide access to running X Servers. Normally, there is just one running and it is found at Ctrl + Alt + F7

For Users Running Ubuntu Under VirtualBox

In many cases it will be necessary to install additional packages in order to be able to install the VirtualBox Guest Additions.

(1) Find the kernel version by running:

uname -r

from a command line.

It should return 3.2.0-23-generic-pae (but, if the kernel has been updated or you are running a different kernel version, the numbers will be different). You will need this to install the correct header files.

(2) Enter the following in a terminal:

sudo apt-get install make gcc linux-headers-3.2.0-23-generic-pae

The text following linux-headers- should be the result returned by uname -r.

This may use up to 129 MB of disk space.

There is a reason why GNOME, KDE, Lxde, and Xfce are the most popular GUIs. They are well developed and reasonably familiar, although GNOME and KDE are moving to a different user interface paradigm.

Those desktops can usually be customized to look and behave the way you want by installing themes and configuration tools.

Many of the other alternatives listed are either highly specialized (e.g. Xmonad, Dwm, Xmii and others) are keyboard driven environments and are for power users.

Other GUIs are quaint throwbacks to the late 1980s / early 1990s.

Why no Screenshots?

I’m not including any screenshots because:

  1. many of them aren’t that interesting
  2. it would make this article even longer than it is

I expect you to do due diligence when choosing a GUI by further investigating before installing.

NOTE: take any screenshots you find with a grain of salt. Oftentimes, they have been heavily customized and don’t represent the out-of-the-box experience.

Case in point: Unity is a customized version of GNOME

Light Weight Options

I consider these GUIs “light weight” because they use the least amount of disk space – generally, less than 200 MB. They are also likely to be completely bare bones and not install any additional applications.

awesome

A minimalist windowing environment designed for power users who like to navigate using the keyboard. It seems to be based on Dwm. You will find the main menu in the top left corner.

More information about awesome, using it, and configuring it can be found here

sudo apt-get install awesome lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 111 MB of disk space.

Blackbox

An early style GUI.

Right-click on the desktop to get a menu.

sudo apt-get install blackbox lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 92.5 MB of disk space.

Dwm

A very minimalist windowing environment designed for power users who like to navigate using the keyboard. You will need a tutorial to get started. A tutorial for Dwm can be found here.

Press Shift + Alt + q to exit.

sudo apt-get install dwm lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 105 MB of disk space.

Fluxbox

sudo apt-get install fluxbox lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 101 MB of disk space.

icewm

A mid 1990s style GUI.

sudo apt-get install icewm lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 98.8 MB of disk space.

LXDE Core

sudo apt-get install lxde-core lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 175 MB of disk space.

LXDE

This will install lxdm and an alternate display manager (LXDM).

sudo apt-get install lxde

The installation will use 216 MB of disk space.

Openbox

After logging in you will be presented with nothing but an empty screen.

Right-click to get a menu.

sudo apt-get install openbox lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 110 MB of disk space.

TWM

A minimalist windowing environment designed for power users who like to navigate using the keyboard. You will need a tutorial to get started. A TWM tutorial can be found here.

sudo apt-get install twm lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 93.7 MB of disk space.

Wmii

A minimalist windowing environment designed for power users who like to navigate using the keyboard. You will need a tutorial to get started. Two different tutorials can be found here and here.

sudo apt-get install wmii lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 93.1 MB of disk space.

Xfce

sudo apt-get install xfce4 lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 225 / 229 MB of disk space.

Medium Weight

I consider these GUIs to be "medium weight" because they use a moderate amount of disk space - generally, greater than 200 MB and less than 1 GB. Some may install some additional applications, but the system is, generally, still going to be far from a fully useable, full fledged desktop.

GNOME Session Fallback

GNOME Session Fallback is the minimal GNOME window manager. It does not rely on any 3D hardware acceleration and most closely resembles the traditional/classic desktop experience.

sudo apt-get install gnome-session-fallback lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 668 MB of disk space.

If you want to have the Ubuntu look and feel (without Unity), add ubuntu-artwork to the installation line. Or you can install ubuntu-artwork afterwards.

To allow installing VirtualBox Guest Additions, you will also need to install make and gcc

GNOME Shell

This will install the GNOME shell, but it will not look like Ubuntu because it doesn't have the artwork, widgets, themes, etc. GNOME Shell requires 3D hardware acceleration - if not available, it will default to GNOME Session Fallback.

sudo apt-get install gnome-shell lightdm-gtk-greeter

The installation will use 499 MB of disk space.

Alternatively, you can use gdm (GNOME Display Manager) instead of lightdm-gtk-greeter, this will increase used disk space to 502 MB.

To allow installing VirtualBox Guest Additions, you will also need to install make and gcc

GNOME Shell with Ubuntu Look and Feel

If you want GNOME to have the look and feel of Ubuntu, minus Unity, then you need to install ubuntu-artwork. In that case you might also prefer to install unity-greeter as well (this adds 1 MB to the installed size).

sudo apt-get install gnome-shell unity-greeter ubuntu-artwork

The installation will use 499 MB of disk space.

Alternatively, you can use gdm (GNOME Display Manager) instead of lightdm-gtk-greeter, this will increase used disk space to 502 MB.

To allow installing VirtualBox Guest Additions, you will also need to install make and gcc

KDE

This will automatically install kdm (KDE Display Manager), so there is no need to install lightdm-gtk-greeter.

It will also install a web browser (Konqueror), file manager (Dolphin), text editor (Kwrite), and a few other applications.

sudo apt-get install kde-plasma-dekstop

The installation will use 528 MB of disk space.

Lubuntu Core

This will install LXDE, the Lubuntu artwork and a few extra applications. It will give you the look and feel of Lubuntu Desktop without the weight of all the extra applications bundled with it.

sudo apt-get install lubuntu-core

The installation will use 657 MB of disk space.

Xubuntu Core

This will install Xfce as well as the artwork and settings for Xubuntu. It will give you the look and feel of the Xubuntu Desktop but without the weight of all the extra applications bundled with it.

sudo apt-get install xfce4 xubuntu-artwork xubuntu-default-settings

The installation will use 268 MB of disk space.

XMonad

A very minimalist windowing environment (the display is completely blank). You will need a tutorial to get started. A tutorial can be found here.

sudo apt-get install xmonad lightdm-gtk-greeter

For a minimalist environment it uses a lot of disk space.

The installation will use 523 MB of disk space.

Heavy Weight

I consider these GUIs to be "heavy weight" because they use the greatest amount of disk space - all over 1 GB.

These are full fledged desktop environments that come with numerous bundled applications.

GNOME

This will install gdm (GNOME display manager) an alternate display manager.

sudo apt-get install gnome

The installation will use 1.5 GB of disk space.

Ubuntu Desktop

This will install the Ubuntu Desktop. The end result will be the same as if you had installed the desktop version of Ubuntu 12.04 (minus the restricted components - which you can install later).

sudo apt-get install ubuntu-desktop

The installation will use 1.5 GB of disk space.

Kubuntu Desktop

This will install the Kubuntu Desktop. The end result will be the same as if you had installed the desktop version of Kubuntu 12.04 (minus the restricted components - which you can install later).

sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop

The installation will use 1.3 GB of disk space.

Lubuntu Desktop

This will install the Lubuntu Desktop. The end result will be the same as if you had installed the desktop version of Lubuntu 12.04.

sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop

The installation will use 1.2 GB of disk space.

Xubuntu Desktop

This will install the Xubuntu Desktop. The end result will be the same as if you had installed the desktop version of Xubuntu 12.04.

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

The installation will use 1.4 GB of disk space.

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2 Responses to "Ubuntu 12.04 Server – How to Install a GUI"

  1. Sunish Menon says:

    Why are Lubuntu Desktop and Xubuntu Desktop classified under Heavy weight? Are they bulky? They claim that they are light weight. And Lubuntu works smoothly on my Atom diskless clients.

    1. admin says:

      By “light”, “medium”, and “heavy” I am talking about how much disk space they will occupy. I should clarify that in the text. Thanks for the feedback.

      From a CPU / GPU perspective, Lubuntu and Xubuntu (based on lxde and xfce, respectively) are quite light weight.

      However, installing them will add over 1GB to your hard disk because they install more than just the GUI, they also install many, many applications.

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