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 a snapshot of Debian (Testing), 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
OriginalBased on Debian (Testing branch)
Not recommended for beginnersArguably better for beginners
Uses free software onlyUses both free and proprietary software
More stableLess stable (compared to Debian)
Unscheduled releasesReleases run on a specific schedule
Stable releases have support for 3 years max.LTS releases have support for 5 years max.
LightweightRequires better hardware
Desktop version has many desktop environment optionsBy default, it uses the GNOME desktop environment (or Unity for older versions)
Try a Debian server for free at VultrTry 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 5 years for desktop. Enterprises get longer support. 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. Alternatively, you can use Debian LTS which will extend the support to 5 years.


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 (17.10 and onwards) comes with the GNOME desktop environment. Older versions use Unity. 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!

This post was last modified on January 5, 2019 5:00 pm

Categories: Knowledgebase

View Comments (60)

  • 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)

    • ¿Did you realize that he is comparing DEBIAN (stable) and UBUNTU (Stable/LTS)?
      You've included Debian Testing and Unstable and LUbuntu. You're really pointing bad to this.

  • ""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.

    • It is not recommended, but it is doable. Thank you for your input anyway. Maybe we should put up a disclaimer or a warning or something.

    • Using the same software is not the same as using the same repository. It is kind of obvious that you should not use Ubuntu repos/ppas on Debian, but you can surely find a Debian repository with the same software/version to install. For example, you can run PHP 7.1, 7.2, 7.3 from Sury's repo on Debian Jessie or Buster.

  • 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?

  • 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)

    • 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.

      • "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.

        • Update frequency IS a valid measure.
          If you consider stable is the uptime of a server, ok, that's it. But my experience is not on server, but apps. If you deploy an application for government running Debian Desktop and Ubuntu Desktop more than 1000 PC, updating too frequently on a lib might make your app need a re-compile and re-deploy. Debian really does better to not break your private app. And those who works for the government usually don't use too fancy stuff. They just use your private app. That's all.

      • I kind of agree, the frequency of upgrades will increase chances of messing up existing config scripts, but more updates mean more patches security and feature wise, and since it is a community that tests things vigorously you may avoid bugs. I have 2 servers for production, my debian which runs 4 container servers that I seldom update and has never crashed on me, performs faster than my ubuntu and runs on 260MB RAM, holds network traffic for all containers and the server itself, and my ubuntu which catches asthma on 2G of RAM and freezes while running apache alone because of the number of background processes it runs, I have run into issues more times than I can recollect, had to restart because of updates, had to take down for upgrades, lost configurations or had to reset config scripts because of updates, had to autoremove old kernels or packages after updates. Debian can run you the risk of vulnerability without you knowing beause you got carried away to patch your system then again debian vulnerability is rare. I would recommend debian for production for simple services like apache, database and stuff, and use ubuntu for development, virtualization and such

      • eThere is no doubt at all that Debian IS much more stable and reliable than Ubuntu. The reason is that software in Debian stable releases is much better tested than software in Ubuntu. You should understand that Ubuntu's releases are based on the development version of Debian which is not even meant to be used in the every day use except if you are a Debian developer. Debian stable releases are made every two years, Ubuntu's releases are made every 6 months. Even Ubuntu LTS releases are based on the development version of Debian and Ubuntu developers really do not use any more time to test the LTS release than normal releases. LTS on Ubuntu means just that, long time support. It does not mean that LTS releases would be more stable than normal Ubuntu releases. As I said Debian releases every two years and Ubuntu releases every 6 months. That means that Debian developers have four times more time to make the release stable and releable by testing the software well. And that really does result in the fact that Debian releases are much more reliable than Ubuntu releases. On the Debian web page there is a page with a graph showing the difference in number of bugs in stable, testing and unstable. If you look at hat graph then you will see that there really is a huge difference in number of bugs between Debian stable, testing and unstable. Debian stable has much less bugs than testing and unstable. I also read a lot discussions on several pages. I frequently see people saying that some software or e.g Gnome desktop environment does crash on Ubuntu at the same time the same software works just fine without any problems on my Debian computers. E.g I have not seen not a single Gnome crash on my computer since the release of Debian Stretch in the summer 2017 but I read frequently comments where Ubuntu users complain that Gnome crashes etc. So yes Debian really is much more stable and releable than Ubuntu.

    • ubuntu is less stable because its based on debian testing not debian stable, anyone can figure that out, anything that is being tested isn't a guarantee of the title being a secured distro, so its not a claim the auther was making its closer to being a fact.

    • "I have over 100 stable Ubuntu servers in production to prove you wrong"
      This does not prove anything. I have seen a very large corporation with tens of thousands of stable Debian. Just because you use something, does not make it best. This is a congnitive bias, I forgot what is it called.

  • 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).

    • 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)

      • "You’re comparing apples to oranges."

        Neither of the operating systems are fruit, hence your assertion is incorrect.

  • Please define "beginner" and "expert". Is this the difference in driving skill between a Kia and a Porsche 911? A TV dinner and a 7 course meal? So where does someone fit that has used Ubuntu for 8 years, and before that Slackware? As you cal tell, I take exception with the vagueness of the terms, and the fact that there is no in-between. Seems hard to believe that there are only 2 levels, but...

    Dave,

  • Have been using Ubuntu for a while but getting new custom PC and sounds like I'm ready for Debian. Like that its 'more stable' and 'lighter'. Thanks for the Chart and explanation!

  • I have Linux Mint Cinnamon. Would it be more advantageous to go to Ubuntu OS now that Ubuntu is going to Gnome?

    • If you prefer Cinnamon (I know I do!), stick with Mint. If you prefer a Gnome desktop, go with Ubuntu.

      • If your choosing your distribution by the Desktop environment you need to learn a little bit more about Linux. Maybe he wants to run GNOME on Mint, or Cinnamon on Ubuntu, it makes no difference. Your not stuck with the default on any distro.

        • While this is true in theory, in practice the default DE of a distro is often going to be more polished and stable than others. Installing GNOME on LM will cause bugs and instability. Even Mint devs discourage this practice iirc. Cinnamon on Ubuntu is also not going to behave as well as in Mint.
          So yeah, if you want the best Cinnamon experience - stick with Mint.

    • It makes no difference what desktop environment it comes with. You can put any one you like on any distro you want to run. What it installs with by default makes no difference.

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