I am trying to understand the layers of the Linux GUI system.

I am running a netbook with Lubuntu, and I was told it's running LXDE as desktop environment. However, there are processes with 'gnome'. Aren't both incompatible? I thought that when I have one desktop environment, I could not run other desktop environments. There is also a process with XFCE, (power manager). Why is it running a process from another desktop environment?

And how can I change any module of the graphical system? I have openbox and lightdm running. Could I try to install something different, lighter? (if that's possible at all).

Is everything covered by these modules: x.org, openbox, x11, and LXDE? Respectively, display server, window manager, communication protocol, and desktop environment?

How can I know what is running in a Linux system? Are there any command line commands to discover it?

  • See ps command.
    – enedil
    Mar 29, 2014 at 22:25

1 Answer 1


The userland GUI stack begins with the Xorg server, which manages hardware -- both the display and input devices -- and provides the foundations of a windowing environment. It is a server whose clients are GUI applications that appear in a window. I believe the name was originally derived from one of the X shaped cursors (but treat that as apocraphal, see vonbrand's comment below); the earliest versions of a Unix based X Window server date back to about the same time as the orignal Microsoft Windows and Macintosh systems. You can run X all on its own, but you need to configure it to start some applications or else you are left with an empty screen and a mouse manoeuvrable X. Not so interesting.

Xorg is common to most general purpose linux distributions, though there are some (bleeding edge) alternatives available. The next layer in the stack is the Window Manager (WM), at which point linux becomes heterogeneous -- there are a wide variety of window managers available. Their primary purpose is to provide a unified interface to Xorg for the user; they are responsible for titlebars, borders, and arranging and controlling (maximize, minimize, iconify, etc.) all the windows on the desktop. They may also include specialized applications of their own, such as taskbars, and provide application independent menus. Many, but not all, window managers can be used on their own as together with X they provide the essentials elements of what most people would consider a graphical desktop.

About 15 years ago a third layer began to appear, the Desktop Environment (DE). These built on the more fanciful aspects of window managers and provide various kinds of integrated services. They have as their centrepiece a suite of applications including a file browser and GUI terminal -- previous to this, these existed only as independent entities. DE's usually use stripped down and simplified window managers which are responsible strictly for window decoration and management (i.e., they build upon a clear delineation of responsiblities).

With regard to mixing and matching applications associated with specific DE's, it is usually possible. GNOME is tied into a larger infrastructure parts of which are very commonly used by linux applications, so your system will inevitably have bits and pieces of GNOME related software running regardless of what WM and DE you use.

  • 1
    As I understand the history, there was a previous windows system naturally called W (from Stanford?), and when MIT got around to it, they had to be "one better," thus X.
    – vonbrand
    Mar 30, 2014 at 2:00
  • That desktop environments' applications can work under other environments isn't exactly a coincidence, they work on it at FreeDesktop
    – vonbrand
    Mar 30, 2014 at 2:03
  • So even if you install a WM without a DE, you still have DE software running? Would that explain why when I installed xfce and tried to remove the gnome dependencies, the system broke down?
    – Vass
    Dec 18, 2014 at 12:52
  • @Vass If they were required for Xfce, the package manager shouldn't have let you remove them. If you tried to circumvent the package manager...whoops, it's there for a reason. Either way, you could try forcing a re-install of Xfce and see if that fixes whatever it is that's wrong.
    – goldilocks
    Dec 18, 2014 at 14:20
  • 1
    @Vass Yeah, you can configure the DM to start whatever you like; it should be per user (so, e.g., one user can use KDE by default and another openbox, etc.).
    – goldilocks
    Dec 18, 2014 at 14:40

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