The Web is a public utility in all but legislation at this point. From the smartphone app revolution (for better or worse) to social media, government services and streaming. It’s all online.
Not everyone have to self host at home. There is nothing wrong with using a hosting provider, a co-loc, or a service like write.as, Bear Blog or Write Freely. Even Wordpress for that matter, if you want a lot of bells, whistles, and headaches (which is fine, don’t get me wrong, you do you in the online space). It’s a question of having options. Monopolies, oligopolies and monopsonies make the Web brittle. Us-east-1 goes down and suddenly half of the internet breaks. Use any of the plethora of Google services exclusively and they may be shut down on a seeming whim. For that matter, the needs of a local community group or group of gaming friends and a fortune 500 corporation are not the same, so having them both shoved into the same system with the same hardware seems insane to me.
Matt Webb wishes his web server were in the corner of his room – me too man, me too. But this is still something reserved for the tech fluent, an uphill battle even if using YUNOHOST. For those that do want to setup their own web facing thing – a forum, blog, weather tracker, web cam or community controlled gardening drone – there is an ever narrowing passage of opportunity.
Twenty-or-so years ago you could run your own email server, even with the ever growing spam tsunami. Now that email is concentrated among a handful of companies you can pretty much give up hosting your own if you want your emails to ever arrive at their destination — it is easier to simply drop or block 99% of emails sent from any source other than The Giants. See Carlos’ post for a deeper dive into this.
It’s not just email mind you. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often have clauses in their contracts excluding home hosting – not to mention the difference between upload and download speeds makes it clear you are supposed to consume (download) not create and share (upload) on your own.
Not that it is all doom and gloom and all services are evil. Twitch and YouTube have been a boon for anyone that wants to run an internet radio or video stream from home – which still requires you to stream from your own hardware. Gmail is guarded by the Google Security Ninjas (a level of security that would be hard to match at home). Social media is a dumpster fire, but is still a fantastic catalog for finding people and organizing events.
All of these services also mean you have to give away more and more of your control and are at the whims of opaque corporations (see what happened when Tumblr changed their policy on nudity, or the number of social media accounts that are banned or remain un-banned without rhyme nor reason). Cyber serfdom, standing in the digital fields while most of what is reaped goes to the laird.
In short, like most things we humans do, it is a chaotic mess.
It is still possible to host at home though. It is not as dead as DIY email just yet. Especially if you are hosting your own services with the intention of serving only you/your family/close friends – not the public at large. There are still challenges however.
As Steve points out, self hosting is a security challenge. Plenty of cyberdeamons out there, automated or otherwise, waiting for a chance to slip into your reality. Open one port and poof you are the latest bot in the botlords army – running herbal crypto casino spam from your toaster. Speaking from experience. So a minimal attack surface is key and having some security in place.
There are a hundred ways to put a machine on the internet. DDNS …, a VPN, running an Onion Hidden Service, something like Page Kite/ngrok or SSH tunneling possibly using sshuttle– these are just some of the options for remote access. Each with their own strenghts and weaknesses.
Big hairy servers are fun. The ever increasing electricity prices, and most people hoping to put their server in their homes, turbo fans running at jet engine speeds are not an option. Going with the old axiom “your home server is what ever you have laying around” it is possible to use an old laptop, or buy a relatively inexpensive (wow has prices risen as a result of the chip shortage) Raspberry Pi 4B – the tiny single board computer that launched a thousand hobby projects.
While we may be in a time of limited options for hosting, but we are drowning in application choices. Want to chat with your friends privately? Then you could setup a basic XMPP server, a full featured RocketChat, go old school with your own IRC server or setup a Matrix server with bridges to Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal and just about every other mainstream service out there. Most, though not all potential services have this range of options, complexity, resource requirements and features.
Circling back to the start of this post, it is clear that home hosting isn’t for everyone. Systems Administration is ever evolving and getting so complex it is hard to have as a hobby. One alternative would be to pay good money (never go for the cheap option for these kinds of things) for someone else to do it for you. But who trusts a stranger-from-the-Internet with access to their home network in this day and age?
As more and more people see the mess we’ve made of the Web, perhaps we will slowly bend the tech arc trajectory towards users and options again. If you still believe in optimism that is. Which I am slowly starting to, seeing the things that are happening around the world.
Inspired in part by those mentioned and partially out of sheer nerdiness, I think I’ll try my hand at some self hosting. Get some basic services up and running for “me and mine” – starting with adding remote access to my Bookstack so I can finally split my notes between my notebook (lab notes / rough drafts) and an organized wiki (how-to and “complete” thoughts for future reference). Maybe a Wallabag and/or ArchiveBox instance as well.
Until next time, stay safe.
// Cornelius K.
Post cover image is “Farm-yard” from Pictures of rustic landscape (1895) via OldBookIllustrations