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I know I can install different desktop UIs on Ubuntu, but I am concerned because I read that there are sometimes risks like when the config files for one desktop environment are corrupted or modified by the secondary (I think it was xfce and unity ).

I've considered installing two OSes in my VM, the latest Ubuntu Studio and Ubuntu desktop 12.04 for performance reasons. This one looks like the most stable alternative but there would be a problem with having two workspaces. Honestly, I like both Unity and Xfce, and I need only one instance of my project files.

The second option is to install Ubuntu Studio which comes with Xfce and then install Unity 2D. However, I'm concerned if one will break the other.

What do you guys know about having drastically different desktop UI installed on one system? What experiences and risks should I be concerned about?

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The risk is that stuff will randomly not work, and you will have no idea why.

Hypothetically desktops should be able to share a system, and developers should ensure that having one desktop installed does not interfere with another. The problems appear when desktops rely on different software to implement the same services, and the developers of both desktops just say "well, it works on our desktop, you should just remove the other desktop".

One example: bug #984230 - the packages xfce4-notifyd (from XFCE) and notify-osd (from Gnome/Unity) are incompatible, and if you install XFCE and Unity at the same time, you will find that notifications in XFCE do not work as expected, because the notification service is activated by DBUS, and notify-osd always gets run instead of the XFCE version. notify-osd developers do not consider this a bug in notify-osd, and xfce4-notifyd developers do not consider this a bug in xfce4-notifyd, since both work fine when the other is not installed!

Another example: bug #889394 - having gnome-screensaver, xscreensaver and xfce4-power-manager installed at the same time. They both had the same timeout. The result of this was that after some time, one screensaver kicked in and turned off the monitor (dpms), but the other would just black the screen (no power off). So depending what order they got run, which was essentially random, the monitors would either stay on or turn off. One of the confusing thing about this situation was that both screensaver applications have different settings, so changing settings can result in no effect on what is actually happening.

Another confusing thing is that XFCE will try to lock the screen using xflock4, but it will always use xscreensaver if it is present, never gnome-screensaver, and you have no way of knowing this unless you look at the source code. And xubuntu-desktop depends on both xscreensaver and xfce4-power-manager, even though they conflict.

So, that is why I try to avoid installing more than one desktop, and instead install each desktop with its own full install on a different partition. You can install more than one desktop on the same system, but the developers of each desktop are less likely to care or fix bugs that only occur when two or more desktops are installed.

Some more incompatibilities to watch out for:

  • I guess my next step is to learn how to partition my disk. – poetryrocksalot Jul 25 '14 at 16:53
  • I used one big disk formatted as LVM PV, and then created LVM logical volumes on it. The Ubuntu installer supports logical volumes. Alternatively, with a bit more work, you can install to btrfs subvolumes, which has the advantage of the different installs sharing the same space (so no need for fixed partition sizes), and you can even deduplicate subvolumes to remove all the duplicate files created by each install. The LVM setup was good, 10GB is enough for a base install (not /home) and installers of all Linux distributions support LVM, so you can easily test other releases or distributions. – bain Jul 25 '14 at 17:06
  • How should I install the second desktop on the intended volume? The software center has an install button that mostly automates it, and I'm not sure what happens with two partitions. – poetryrocksalot Jul 25 '14 at 17:18
  • You can not do a new install from the software center. You have to download the distribution with the alternative desktop (xubuntu or whatever), then do a new install. You are basically installing Ubuntu twice, one time for each desktop, so that both are kept separate. It is more effort than installing two desktops in the same system, but it is the only way to be certain that they won't interfere. If you are not familiar with installing or repartitioning it might not be advisable. It takes me less than 5 minutes to do an install, but your experience may differ. – bain Jul 25 '14 at 17:50
  • If this all sounds like too much trouble, and you just want to see what Xubuntu or whatever are like, you can install into a VM using VirtualBox and then delete it when you are done. – bain Jul 25 '14 at 17:51
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They will not mess each other up except that if you do not like the xubuntu boot screen you would want to install it before unity. There are no security risks except for those inherent to the DE, like if there is a different vulnerability in each either one could be exploited, but other than that the sum of the parts for this is the total, and the only change from having one of them will be a new icon in the login screen to change between them.

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