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I am planning to keep the server running in text mode, but the client can ssh -X to the server and run GUI applications. How to start X server but not to the GUI desktop.

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In this scenario, the server does not need X running. When you do ssh -X you are telling the server that the X server is running on your local machine, and so the output from any gui apps should be sent down the tunnel to the X server running locally (the machine you are running ssh from).

You can start X without starting a desktop on the machine you are running ssh from by issuing startx from the command line (provided you don't have a command in ~/.xinitrc that then starts a desktop).

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