Don't Self Host


Self hosting is all the rage in the privacy community. No matter what recommendation you look at, you’ll see self hosting as the primary tool you can use to make you a privacy master. What is not said is all of the downsides of self hosting, especially for technically savvy people. Even if you are technically proficient enough to run your own services, you probably don’t want to.

My Self Hosted Experience

When I first got into digital privacy I experimented with simple self hosting. I generally take the approach of buying the cheapest item possible when experimenting. To that end, I purchased the Odroid HC1 and installed NextCloud PI. I slowly migrated over most of our cloud data to the device: files, calendar, and contacts. In general the device performed well and suited our needs.

The first issue came when the device would unexpectedly lock up and not respond except for a hard reboot. It seemed to occur at random without known cause. It was a few weeks later that I learned that viewing a folder with a lot of photos would trigger the hard crash. The issue was that NextCloud needs to generate the thumbnails for all the photos in the folder on the fly and that process caused the device to exceed memory limits. The OS available for the device, Armbian, only supported a 2GB pagefile size and the physical memory was 2GB.

After learning this, I went and bought computer components to build a robust server. In particular, I made sure to by 32GB of ECC memory and dual NVME and HDD drives to be setup in RAID 1 array in Btrfs. I also started using BackBlaze C2 as a remote backup of the data; encrypted before upload of course. At the time I also got a fiber connection to my house with a dedicated IP address so I could attach a domain name without using a dynamic domain name service. I was adding other services to my server and even looked into using it as a mail server with Docker Mailserver.

I might have continued to use this setup had we not moved. In the process of moving, I wanted to move my server ahead of our actual move so we weren’t without service during that time. A few months before the move, I set it up at my parent’s house. That’s when things really went wrong. My parent’s network suddenly stopped connecting to my server and I had to ask my brother to move it and connect it with a new cable. Additionally, their modem died in the interim which lead to further disruptions. At one point my wife and I couldn’t sync our calendars which caused a bit of confusion and coordination trouble. I was eventually able to get services restored, but that was when I knew I needed to find a new solution.

The Replacements

The most important service to replace was calendar and email. My self hosted email solution was barely functional anyway. Most email providers block emails from new IP addresses or your IP address you’re sending email from used to be used by a less scrupulous operator who was blocked. That, and missing anything from the DNS record for validation like a SPF record will likely get your emails quarantined.

I evaluated several email+calendar replacements as I detailed on the messaging services I use. Needless to say moving to Zoho Mail greatly reduced and simplified my self hosted tech stack. To turn off NextCloud I only had to get a data storage alternative. I evaluated using secure cloud hosted storage, but that is prohibitively expensive. I eventually settled on buying a Synology NAS as the primary live network storage and backup.

There are still a few self hosted services which I have yet to migrate, but are not pressing at the moment. Namely they are Vaultwarden and FireFly III. With Vaultwarden, I just need to take the time to migrate and pay for Bitwarden. For FireFly III, Reckoner will replace it once stable.

It’s Not Just Me…

Other people have had problems with self hosting. I found a few posts on Mastodon which make my point.

Your ISP

Post deleted by @nateb

When I moved I went from having fiber to having cable again. Where I used to pay for 300 megabits/second symmetric (which is really handy for streaming from your home lab), I now only have 25 mbs upload and 500 mbs download.

You’ll Encounter Weird Issues

Perhaps someone else would find this useful.

Setting up Nextcloud on Proxmox via the OVA image. download.nextcloud.com/aio-vm/

Used the instructions here itsfullofstars.de/2019/07/impo which work great until...

Everything went smoothly until booting and getting stuck on "Booting from hard disk".

The solution was adding an UEFI disk and setting bios to UEFI.

Hopefully that helps someone else.

No matter how vanilla your setup is, you’ll encounter some issue which will not be easily resolvable with a Google search. It’ll require some ingenuity and backups. On the topic of backups, keep many and make them often, especially when self hosting.

Integration is Hard

@jwildeboer I believe that while single-user instances are good for technically inclined users who want to enjoy all the freedoms and burdens that come with self-hosting, but I also think that large instances with a stable financial backing (hopefully directly from their users) are also good for non-technical users who want stability.

Small instances where one guy maintains a server for 20 people will leave the users hanging when the admin decides they've had enough.

I’ve moved my account back over to mastodon.social. It’s all very empowering to have your own server but it seems to come at the cost of missing out on interactions and what people have previously posted.

When you self host, you increase your privacy by controlling your data. However, the converse is also true. It becomes harder to share data you want to share with others. Most people aren’t technically savvy and will resist using a new tool just for you. Even if you figure out how to securely share same data with those you want to, be careful that permissions are correct. You can easily expose more than if you went with a big tech provider!

So Never Self Host?

While I have given plenty of reasons not to self host, there are a few good reasons to self host.

  1. The cost of a privacy respecting service is prohibitively expensive
  2. You want to learn more about how networking and cloud systems work
  3. You want absolute control over your data

The point of this is not to dictate what you should do to better improve digital privacy, but to present a different point of view. I was originally all about self hosting everything. However, it’s important to know all of the downsides with a choice.