Debian vs Ubuntu: Compared as a Desktop and as a Server


After our CentOS vs Ubuntu comparison and the requests we get, it’s finally time to compare Debian and Ubuntu. These 2 distros are used both as a desktop OS and as a server, so we’ll compare both use-cases.

Ubuntu is based on Debian Stable, so naturally, they are similar in many ways. However, they still have differences. Our comparison will focus more on the differences, but we’ll include the similarities too, so you can better compare them and decide which distro is better for you. This is a controversial comparison, so we expect as much input from you as possible. Leave a comment below, please.

For a quick overview, use this comparison table:





Debian


Ubuntu
Original Based on Debian (Testing branch)
Not recommended for beginners Arguably better for beginners
Uses free software only Uses both free and proprietary software
More stable Less stable (compared to Debian)
Unscheduled releases Releases run on a specific schedule
Stable releases have support for 3 years max. LTS releases have support for 5 years max.
Lightweight Requires better hardware
Desktop version has many desktop environment options By default, it uses the Unity desktop environment (soon GNOME)
Try a Debian server for free at Vultr Try an Ubuntu server for free at Vultr

For more details, scroll down.

General Debian/Ubuntu Comparison

Before going into the server/desktop-specific differences, we’ll go through the general differences that apply to each distro release type.

Ubuntu is based on Debian, so most software is usable on both distros. You can configure both distros to have pretty much the same features and software. Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support) is based on the Testing branch of Debian, not on the Stable branch. Though you can use the same software on both distros, note that the installation and configuration process is not the same.

Generally, Ubuntu is considered a better choice for beginners, and Debian a better choice for experts. Ubuntu requires little to no user configuration during the installation processes. Everything a beginner would need is pre-installed on Ubuntu and the OS installation itself is pretty easy to do with an intuitive installation GUI. Unlike Ubuntu, Debian requires more input from the user – configuring the OS itself and software installed on it.

Debian focuses on free (as in freedom) software only, Ubuntu uses proprietary software too. If you don’t really care about free software, then Ubuntu is a better choice for you. Granted, you can still install non-free software on Debian, but it will not be as easy to do as it is on Ubuntu.

Given their release cycles, Debian is considered as a more stable distro compared to Ubuntu. This is because Debian (Stable) has fewer updates, it’s thoroughly tested, and it is actually stable. But, Debian being very stable comes at a cost. You won’t be able to use all the latest releases of software and all the newest bleeding-edge technologies. At least not out of the box. As everything else, you can still configure Debian to include some packages that are not available by default.

Ubuntu releases run on a strict schedule. So, you know exactly when a new Ubuntu release will be available. Unlike Debian, where there is no specific schedule.

Ubuntu’s support lasts for 5 years for servers and 3 years for desktop. There are new Ubuntu LTS releases every 2 years. Debian’s “Stable” releases offer support for a year after the next stable release. So if a Debian stable release comes out every 2 years, and you started using a stable release at its launch, you will get 3 years of actual support/updates. If you want support for a longer period of time, you should go with Ubuntu LTS, instead of Debian Stable.


So that was our general comparison, now, let’s get into specifics.

Debian Server vs Ubuntu Server

When it comes to servers, choosing the right distro varies on your requirements.

In short, if you’re in an enterprise environment, you should go with Debian as it’s more stable and more secure.

If you need the latest releases of all software and if you use the server for personal use, go with Ubuntu.

All general differences also apply to the server versions.

You can try a Debian and Ubuntu server for free at Vultr.

Desktop Comparison: Debian vs Ubuntu

Debian is a lightweight Linux distro. The biggest deciding factor on whether or not a distro is lightweight is what desktop environment is used. By default, Debian is more lightweight compared to Ubuntu. So if you have old hardware, you should go with Debian.

The desktop version of Ubuntu is much easier to install and use, especially for beginners. On Ubuntu, by default, all choices are made for you and everything works out of the box. However, there’s an “expert mode” on Ubuntu, which lets you edit and configure pretty much everything, which is actually similar to the installation of Debian.

By default, Ubuntu comes with the Unity desktop environment (soon Ubuntu will switch back to GNOME). Debian has a wide variety of choices, so you can select whatever desktop environment you want to use. Except Unity.


We went through all the differences and similarities as objectively as we could. This is a controversial topic, so we expect your comments. If you have anything to add, leave a comment below!

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11 thoughts on “Debian vs Ubuntu: Compared as a Desktop and as a Server

  • nondrm5

    You wrote:”Given their release cycles, Debian is considered as a more stable distro compared to Ubuntu.”

    AFAICT you’re specifically referring to Debian’s Stable version here; current codename “Stretch”. For those who don’t realize it, Debian also has two other main staged versions; Testing (current codename “buster”) and Unstable (codename “sid”.)
    In terms of stability, and for the record, Ubuntu is nearly exactly like Debian’s popular Testing/”buster”.

    You wrote:”The biggest deciding factor on whether or not a distro is lightweight is what desktop environment is used. By default, Debian is more lightweight compared to Ubuntu.”

    AAMOF Ubuntu’s Lubuntu version can be just as lightweight as default Debian.
    Lubuntu keeps it lightweight with the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE)

  • piper

    “”Ubuntu is based on Debian, so most software is usable on both distros””

    I cringe and face palm every time I hear/read this

    This is a great way to break your Debian system (check out irc for results)

    https://wiki.debian.org/DontBreakDebian

    “Ubuntu, Mint or other derivative repositories are not compatible with Debian!
    Ubuntu PPAs”

    Most of Ubuntu’s packages stand a large chance of being incompatible with the Debian not only because of differences in the name, but, also file locations, this, in itself is a road to disaster.

    I think the author should use a search engine, irc, official sites, and research why you shouldn’t use ubuntu .debs or PPA’s in debian.

  • Rick

    I have found that for applications where dead stable is wanted that Debian is hard to beat. I don’t find it necessarily more difficult to use than Ubuntu. Once you get it setup and going it just works. It also works with minimal fuss and updates. The latest everything with lots of things setup for you? Maybe not. But Stable? Yes!

    DId I mention that it just works?

  • johnny

    You claim:
    “Debian: More stable
    Ubuntu: Less stable (compared to Debian)
    In short, if you’re in an enterprise environment, you should go with Debian as it’s more stable and more secure.”

    We use Ubuntu on over 100 enterprise servers. How is it any less secure or less stable than Debian? Do you have proof of such a claim? You can’t just say a thing is more stable or more secure. You should probably provide some evidence to back up your claim.

    In truth any disto is as secure as you make it. As far as stability, I have over 100 stable Ubuntu servers in production to prove you wrong.
    (Full transparency, I use and love both Ubuntu and Debian)

    • ThisHosting.Rocks Post author

      Ok, so it’s obvious we needed to add more disclaimers and warnings now. 🙂

      The update frequency alone will make Debian Stable more stable than Ubuntu. And of course, we fully agree that both distros are stable and can be used in an enterprise environment. We actually use Ubuntu ourselves.

      • johnny

        “The update frequency alone will make Debian Stable more stable than Ubuntu”

        Update frequency is not a valid measure of stability. If that were the case, a distro where the maintainers only patched (provided updates) once a year (or never) would be the most stable distro ever, based on your criteria.

  • CFWhitman

    I wouldn’t say that the article is inaccurate, but some of the points could use some clarification or additional information.

    -Debian uses free software only by default, but some proprietary software is distributed through the Debian repositories if you enable the non-free repository for the distribution version.

    -Debian is supported for usually about three years by Debian itself. However, the Debian LTS project takes over security support for whatever the remainder of a five year period is, so you effectively get five years of some kind of support. This is not support from the project itself, but the LTS project is associated with Debian, so it is good additional information to know.

    When it comes to Linux distributions used for servers, “stability” means that the behavior of any of the software won’t change unexpectedly. That is so that scripts or configurations for services, etc. will behave as you expect them to with no changes over time. Without this, a new feature could change the behavior of a program breaking a script or a configuration so that a service stops working, or stops working correctly. That is why stable distributions are better for servers. There are a few things (such as the kernel) that receive updated versions in Ubuntu LTS over its lifetime that only receive security updates in Debian Stable, so from that standpoint, Debian is a little more stable.

    As far as how likely the server is to experience crashes or similar problems, it’s also true that Debian Stable tends to be more tested before release than Ubuntu LTS versions. However, Ubuntu LTS versions tend to stabilize from this point of view fairly quickly after release.

    Debian tends to be lighter weight than Ubuntu even when using the same desktop environment. So Debian with Xfce is lighter than Xubuntu, Debian with LXDE is lighter than Lubuntu, etc., even though those Ubuntu variations are lighter than Ubuntu with Unity (and Lubuntu in particular is pretty light altogether).

    • johnny

      Agree with most of your comments but this:
      “Debian tends to be lighter weight than Ubuntu even when using the same desktop environment. So Debian with Xfce is lighter than Xubuntu, Debian with LXDE is lighter than Lubuntu, etc., even though those Ubuntu variations are lighter than Ubuntu with Unity (and Lubuntu in particular is pretty light altogether).”

      You’re comparing apples to oranges. You don’t have to install Lubuntu to get Ubuntu with LXDE. You can install LXDE packages directly. Or Xfce packages directly instead of Xubuntu. If that’s the case how would Debian be “lighter” than Ubuntu now that it’s really using the same desktop environment? (not playing devil’s advocate, it’s a serious question)