Freedombone Blog / The state of self-hosting in 2018
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What is the current state of self-hosting? What are the problems with it? Who does it, and why? But first of all what is it?

A Definition

Self-hosting means running software which is designed for use over a network, which is usually the internet. The term applies to the client/server paradigm only, since if you're using peer-to-peer software then it makes little sense. The types of software which run over a network are typically things like email, blogs, wikis and social networks.

The Status Quo

Hosting network software yourself on a server which you own or control typically takes a couple of forms.

Firstly the more traditional form is where you are renting a computer, or shared space on one, which is owned by some company and exists in a warehouse. In that manner you can run your own website and maybe some other systems, depending upon what the commercial service permits. In the first couple of decades of the history of the web running your own personal website in this type of manner was what comprised most of the web.

The second type of self-hosting is where you own some computer hardware and it runs in your own home. This is the old laptop in a closet or behind the sofa scenario. To do this you typically needed to have more technical knowledge.

Problems

What are the problems with this, and why did users begin moving to web 2.0 systems from the mid 2000s onwards? Maintaining your own server software was, and remains to some extent, quite tricky and requires some non-consumer level of technical knowledge. As the web grew it needed to become more accessible to a wider range of people, including those without detailed knowledge of how the technical side of things works.

A minimum knowledge requirement for self-hosting would be something like:

This is really systems administrator level knowledge which can take quite a lot of effort and time to obtain.

Who does it?

In the past mostly computer hobbyists, some software developers interested in devops and people doing systems administration as a job or who were trying to get into that line of business. In future hopefully this demographic can be expanded, but it depends upon the extent to which administration can be turned into a consumer-type user experience with minimal "friction".

Why self-host?

In the last ten years it has usually been easier to use web 2.0 "software as a service" type silo systems. Those are centralized and usually supported by advertising. But over time it has become increasingly clear that this is a bad model which can have some very bad outcomes. A single silo trying to govern the whole world is obviously not going to work out well. Throw advertisers into that mix and things get even worse. People need to govern themselves, so it would be better if individuals or communities controlled their own network systems and services, then they get to decide what the rules should be and manage their own affairs democratically.

What's the future for self-hosting?

The most likely future in the next five years is something like a small box which plugs into your internet router, which can then be administered from a laptop or mobile phone. It would also be possible to have the internet router be a home server, but people only usually replace their router if it breaks so we should probably assume that a strategy based upon new types of routers is not likely to see much adoption.

In the past owning and running a server was fairly expensive. This isn't the case any longer. Many people have old unused computer hardware which would be good enough to run a network system. Even many cheap single board computers are capable of doing that, and they consume not much electrical power so having them run continuously is not much of a problem. So the cost barrier is going away.

Having a nice administration app which is simple to use is something that's needed for the future. There is currently a FreedomBox app for Android, but its functionality only provides one part of what's required. A realistic assumption in the next five years is that many people will only have mobile phones and that they may not own or have access to a laptop or desktop machine.

A limitation of single board computers in the past has been their relatively slow EMMC or microSD memory. Single board computers are beginning to emerge which have USB3, and with the rootfs on a USB3 drive I/O performance increases by an order of magnitude. So once USB3 becomes the standard on single board computers then that could be a game changer.

Using domain name systems other than the conventional one will also make self-hosting dramatically easier. If you host services on onion or I2P or SSB addresses then that gets around a lot of the cost and complexity of obtaining domain names or certificates, and also may help with NAT traversal issues. What's needed here is a slick way of giving your domain to other people if it's not human readable. Possibilities are some kind of pet names system, QR codes, NFC wearables or other short range signalling systems available on mobile phones (bluetooth, etc).