Using Linux without GUI

A GUI is only a supplemental component of a Linux system, and is not essential. Many System Administrators will elect to keep their servers as command line only, as a GUI is completely unnecessary for running a plethora of different services. Everyday users, however, will usually want a GUI to perform basic functions like web browsing, watching videos, etc.

In this tutorial, we will discuss some of the pros and cons of using Linux without a GUI, and look at scenarios where this type of configuration would be advantageous. You will also learn how to disable the GUI on popular Linux distros like Ubuntu and Debian.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • How to install Linux without a GUI
  • Pros and cons of using Linux without GUI
  • How to disable the GUI on Ubuntu and Debian Linux
Using Linux without GUI
Using Linux without GUI
Software Requirements and Linux Command Line Conventions
Category Requirements, Conventions or Software Version Used
System Any Linux distro
Software N/A
Other Privileged access to your Linux system as root or via the sudo command.
Conventions # – requires given linux commands to be executed with root privileges either directly as a root user or by use of sudo command
$ – requires given linux commands to be executed as a regular non-privileged user

How to install Linux without a GUI

There are plenty of Linux distros that do not come with a desktop environment installed by default. If you do not want to run a GUI on your system, you can install one of these Linux distros. If you change your mind later, it is simple enough to install a desktop environment of your choice some time in the future.

Keep in mind that most Linux distributions that do not come with a GUI pre-installed are geared towards server use, since the vast majority of desktop users will obviously want a GUI. Some Linux distros without a GUI installed by default are:

To keep your system GUI-free, you may have to select the applicable prompt(s) during installation of the above systems.

This installation prompt for Debian asks us whether or not we want to install a GUI
This installation prompt for Debian asks us whether or not we want to install a GUI

Linux without a GUI – pros and cons

The main advantage of running Linux without a GUI is that performance will be better. A desktop envrionment can tie up valuable system resources in order to render the fancy graphics and effects that come with running a GUI.

With today’s advanced hardware, is the performance impact still a relevant concern? In most cases, probably not. However, for lightweight devices like a Raspberry Pi, you will definitely see better performance if you decide to skip installing a GUI.

The real reason why so many Linux systems run without a GUI is because they simply do not need one. Everything in Linux can be managed from the command line. As long as the system is not being used for leisure activities like web browsing and watching videos, there is no need for a GUI. For servers, there usually is not a need for a keyboard, monitor, or other periphals, either. Most system administrators will manage the servers remotely with SSH or a similar protocol.

Advantages of running Linux without a GUI:

  • Better performance
  • Less that can go wrong
  • Can be managed with SSH only, no monitor needed

Disadvantages of running Linux without a GUI:

  • No web browsing
  • No videos or images
  • Keyboard only control

How to disable GUI

The following command will disable GUI on boot hence upon the reboot the system will boot into multi user target:

$ sudo systemctl set-default multi-user

To enable the GUI to start automatically upon system boot, change the systemd target to graphical:

$ sudo systemctl set-default graphical

Closing Thoughts

In this tutorial, we learned about the pros and of using Linux without a GUI. Servers usually do not need to run a GUI, as they provide a very small range of functions. Although there is a performance impact when running a GUI, this is irrelevant for the majority of today’s systems.

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