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From a book on Linux, I found the following text:

A typical Linux system will run six virtual consoles and one graphical console

  • Server systems often have only virtual consoles
  • Desktops and workstations typically have both

Could anyone explain these three words, please?

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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Précis

  • Server: Designed to concurrently provide (shared) services to many people.
  • Desktop: Designed for use by one person on their desk.
  • Workstation: Usually a more powerful desktop.

Server

Hardware

A server is a computer that is used to provide shared services to many people. In a business context, the server is usually kept in a room dedicated to this purpose (the server room). Servers are often dedicated to one purpose: a file-server provides shared file-storage services to a group of people. An email server provides email collection, transmission and storage services to a group of people. This does not mean that the information is shared (though it can be) but that the computer and the services it provides are concurrently used by tens, hundreds or thousands of people. Servers are typically housed in tower or rack-mount cases. Servers do not typically have a dedicated screen, keyboard or mouse attached - they are managed by other means or by using a KVM-switch to share one keyboard etc between large numbers of servers.


Apart from the above, computer hardware designed for server use in an enterprise is often distinguishable from desktop computers (including workstations) in some or all of the following ways:

  • rack-mount case.
  • designed for "lights-out" usage.
    • out-of-band management.
    • boot-up messages diverted to remote monitoring devices.
  • hardware RAID controllers.
  • SCSI variants more often than SATA.
  • front-accessible hot-plug disks.
  • greater backplane bandwidth.
  • higher noise levels.
  • redundant hot-swap power supplies.
  • support for SAN hardware.
  • basic or absent graphics capability.
  • often sold without a bundled keyboard or mouse.

There are home and SME "server" hardware devices which follow an almost opposite trend. They are designed to be very small quiet and unobtrusive and to sit on a desk or shelf. An example is the Excito Bubba, the size of a paperback book, sold without keyboard or mouse (it doesn't need one). These are also hardware designed specifically for a "server" rôle. There can be some overlap in form-factor with the "net-top" category of personal desktop computers.

Other usage

Obviously, in general this term means "one who serves" and can be applied to waiters in restaurants for example. This term is also used for software, for example the Apache project's HTTPD software is invariably described as web-server software. Some people associate the term most strongly with software.

Dictionary

Oxford says "a computer or computer program which manages access to a centralized resource or service in a network."

rack-mount serverpedestal server

Desktop

Hardware

A desktop computer sits on the desk of one person and is primarily dedicated to the use of a single person. Whilst it might be shared consecutively (e.g. in "hot desking"), usually only one person is using it at any given time. It doesn't matter if the main part of the computer is placed under the desk. Desktops are often in tower cases (sometimes horizontally under a monitor) or all-in-one cases combined with the display. A desktop computer usually has a dedicated display, keyboard, mouse and other peripherals directly attached to it.

Other usage

Other usage isn't especially relevant but the term can obviously mean the upper surface of a desk. It can therefore be applied as an adjective for objects designed to be placed on that surface.

Dictionary

Oxford says "the working surface of a desk. (also desktop computer)a computer suitable for use at an ordinary desk. the working area of a computer screen regarded as a representation of a notional desktop and containing icons representing items such as files."

all-on-one desktop compact

Workstation

Hardware

A workstation is a name usually reserved for a very high-performance desktop computer of the sort that might be used by scientists, engineers or on the trading floors of banks.

Other usage

The word "workstation" has a more general use. In some cases it means a position equipped for a worker. Sometimes furniture makers describe use this word in the description of their products. Some people use the term workstation to mean any personal computer. Sometimes the word is used to define a computer used, by one person at a time, for a specialised task.

Dictionary

Oxford says "a desktop computer terminal, typically networked and more powerful than a personal computer."

Workstation

images linked from hp.com and are probably (c)HP


Related Terms

All-in-One

Here are some examples of current all-in-one desktop PCs:

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Source? It seems outdated, especially the parts about all-in-one cases and workstations... –  Guffa Feb 20 '11 at 15:34
    
I am the source. Perhaps I am an outdated sort of guy? :-) Feel free to suggest improvements or to edit my answer. –  RedGrittyBrick Feb 20 '11 at 16:20
    
Sorry, this is not an accurate description on any of these terms, except, maybe Desktop. –  cinqoTimo Feb 20 '11 at 16:55
2  
I can't see any major problems with this answer. @Guffa, @cinqoTimo: can you be specific about what problems you find? –  CesarGon Feb 20 '11 at 17:52
    
I agree with CesarGon. I dont find any problems with the answer. –  jeffjose Feb 20 '11 at 18:17
show 10 more comments

As reported by the NOAD:

  • Server: a computer or computer program that manages access to a centralized resource or service in a network.
  • Desktop: a microcomputer that is suitable for use at an ordinary desk.
  • Workstation: a general-purpose computer with a higher performance level than a personal computer.
share|improve this answer
    
This is actually a better answer - although I disagree with workstation. A workstation is a computer that is designed to operate specific applications, often with a centralized datasource provided on a server, as opposed to a PC which is general use. There is no performance criteria. Actually, for cost reasons, business workstations tend to have less power than the average Desktop because of its limited scope. –  cinqoTimo Feb 20 '11 at 16:58
    
"Incredibly powerful and scalable, the T5500 delivers dual-socket workstation performance in a compact, quiet package" "Complex multi-threaded/multitasking application environments, including engineering, digital content creation and scientific computing." - Dell –  RedGrittyBrick Feb 20 '11 at 17:18
3  
@cinqoTimo: That is the generic definition of workstation. About the performance, Wikipedia reports that "historically, workstations had offered higher performance than personal computers". –  kiamlaluno Feb 20 '11 at 17:21
    
"a desktop computer terminal, typically networked and more powerful than a personal computer." -OED –  RedGrittyBrick Feb 20 '11 at 17:24
    
The definition of workstation is a little dated. It has grown, in most industries, to be much more generic than that. In common use (especially colloquially) it is simply antonymous (yes, that is a word) with "server". Although, as I mentioned in my comment a few answers up, in the CGI industry and a few other professional industries, the old definition (suggesting higher performance) stands. –  advs89 Feb 21 '11 at 21:25
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