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What are the actual meaningful differences between Ubuntu Server and Ubuntu Desktop, particularly for 20.04? I know people say among other things that Desktop has GUI by default and Server has text, and Desktop has end-user apps that Server doesn't, but these differences don't really matter as Desktop can be installed and configured to be the same way -- e.g. "systemctl set-default multi-user.target" and removing unwanted packages after minimal install.

What are the intrinsic differences between the two that cannot be addressed by configuring the machine with a reasonable amount of effort but could make Server intrinsically a better or worse choice (e.g. better performance or easier maintenance) than Desktop for server- and compute- centric usage, if any?

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I don't see any differences really, especially if you are only looking for things that "cannot be addressed by configuring the machine with a reasonable amount of effort"

They are both built on the same base, so start the same.

They include different packages and installers, but these differences are easily changed by configuration/package changes post-install.

Ubuntu Server uses subiquity as its installer, which allows the installer to select to use GA or HWE kernel stacks, whereas with Ubuntu Desktop that choice is made by the ISO used to install (before Focal anyway; now it's done post-install if you want a change; refer to documentation). subiquity is more modern and allows for greater choice (when compared with ubiquity [desktop installer] which may never be used again if all goes well on its replacement), but these install options can be changed post-install, I consider, easily.

If I wanted to know the differences... I'd grab the manifest of the ISOs I wanted to compare; and compare them.

All Ubuntu ISOs are built from packages, and the manifest shows the packages included in the ISO. It's a tool we somewhat regularly use when something goes wrong (I'm thinking here of dailies but the same applies to ISOs of the official releases, which are just the last daily/RC [release candidate] anyway), to check if something changed, i.e. were different packages pulled in & thus included, maybe because of a dependency change which caused it, etc.

Ubuntu provides manifests for all ISOs.

The flaw (or limitation) with the manifests, is the installers give users options they can pick which cause the packages on the ISO to all be installed, or only some installed (and if internet is available and download is available; updated packages may mean manifest package versions are not what you'll end up with anyway).

But to me they are the same.

If I had to pick a difference, it would be that Ubuntu Server uses netplan.io, where Ubuntu Desktop will use NetworkManager. It's not a major difference but it's about all I can think of, and, along with installer differences, are easily changed anyway if so desired.

Others of course will see it differently to how I do.

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    +1; Thanks for this current description of the differences between the Desktop and Server iso files. I like the option in the server's installer to select the GA kernel stack, even in point releases. I think this reduces the risk that updates will make a working system fail. – sudodus Jun 10 at 13:59
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    FYI: & RE: GA & HWE kernels: In my answer I was talking about Ubuntu Server & Ubuntu Desktop. Using Lubuntu as an example, Lubuntu 20.04 & 20.04.1 media used the GA kernel stack by default just like bionic, xenial and prior LTS releases, with 20.04.2 & later media use HWE kernels & stack. Ubuntu Desktop changed the GA/HWE behavior (all desktop installs default to HWE) with 20.04 where as all flavors did not, so if using a flavor please read the release notes, or just scan the manifest yourself. – guiverc 2 days ago

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