Running my own server again

A year and a half ago, my brother gave me a Raspberry Pi 3 as a birthday present, suggesting that I should use it to run my own server.

I used to run my own server. A friend who liked to build such things had built it. It had two ethernet ports, one connected to my cable modem and the other connected to my WiFi router, and it was running OpenBSD (then the most secure OS easily available) and was configured to serve as a firewall.

I used it as a server in other ways. I put an extra disk drive (40 GB!) in it where I could store files that I might want to access from elsewhere. (In particular, when I went to Clarion I copied my latest draft of my current story there each evening, in case of catastrophic computer failure.)

It didn’t require much upkeep, but it required more than none—which turned out to be more than I wanted to devote to it. At some point a serious security flaw was discovered in the OpenBSD release I was running. By then most desktop machines had built-in firewalls as did most routers, and I had Time Machine as a backup solution. It seemed safe to give up my server, and easier than updating it.

In the years since then, the use of cloud services has become ubiquitous, to the point that practically everything I do ends up in the cloud—my photos go to both Flickr and Google. I also use Dropbox (where I have Scrivener stash a backup copy of everything I’m writing) and I stash some amount of my music at both Google and at Amazon.

That’s all great—those services are well backed-up, and the servers are very likely running the latest security patches—but I really like the idea of having my own data on my own machines. But I want that without giving up the advantages of having my data in the cloud. Hence wanting to have my own server.

All that as prequel to my brother coming to visit this past week, and helping me get my Raspberry Pi server up and running.

Once the basic install of Raspbian was up and running, I went ahead and ordered a bit of hardware for it. I got a short ethernet cable to connect it to my router, so that it doesn’t have to do WiFi for basic connectivity (although WiFi and Bluetooth are built in). I also got a slightly more powerful USB power supply for it, mainly because I also got a portable USB hard drive that takes its power from the USB port, meaning that the power needs to be available to the Raspberry Pi. Finally, I got a case for it, so that I don’t just have a naked circuit board sitting on my dresser.

This time the hard drive is 1 TB rather than 40 GB.

For cloud functionality I’m following my brother’s example and running syncthing, which has the advantage of being able to handle being behind a NAT and not having a port exposed to the outside world. I’m running it on my Android phone as well and sharing my photos with a third place: my server. The server then shares them with my desktop machine, so they’re available to use. (That’s how I got the photo above: Taken with the phone and then transferred to the desktop within about a minute.)

I’m still sorting out my sharing strategy. I don’t want to share my whole Music folder with my phone, because it would use all the space there. (I’ll probably end up making a folder with an “essential subset” of my music to share with the phone.) I don’t think I want to share my whole Documents folder on my desktop machine, but I’m not sure yet. For the time being I’m sharing a folder I call “Active writing” with the files I’m currently working on, on the desktop, the server, and my laptop. That way they’ll be available wherever I want to work on them.

Other things are tougher. I’d like to have my own calendar server, but that doesn’t seem easy. I should go back to my post on the google-free option and see what else I was thinking about that I might now be able to implement.

For now, though, I’m pretty happy.

My previous server was rack mount width and maybe four or five inches tall, about the size of a stereo component. This one is maybe 3 inches by 5 inches, rather smaller than the hard drive it’s sitting on.

Using tt-rss

I’ve experimented with various alternatives to Google Reader for quite a while now. I used The Old Reader for a while, and then Hive Reader for a while. Both had limitations. (Hive is still in beta, and isn’t quite ready for prime time. TOR is closer, but had various issues, probably the biggest being that it doesn’t get feeds updated promptly enough.)

I had earlier tried using tt-rss, which also isn’t quite there yet, but has a different set of issues.

It requires a server. Steve had tried to cobble together an instance that ran on the server where we host our websites. It had just almost worked, but kept bumping up into the limits of running as a cron job, rather than a daemon. It eventually had several bad days in a row (which we later traced to an unrelated heavy load on the server), and we gave up.

Now Steve has installed an actual server machine in his house, and is running a tt-rss instance there, and has made me an account on it.

Running on an (essentially) dedicated server with a (reasonably) high-speed connection to the internet, it’s now doing a fine job of keeping all my feeds up to date. I’m having some minor user interface issues, but nothing that would keep me from using it as my rss reader for the foreseeable future.

So, I have officially switched over. You can follow the interesting stuff I share via a feed from that site, and have updated the “interesting stuff” item in my sidebar to draw from that feed.

The Google-free option

Zen Habits has a fresh post up on becoming Google-free. It’s a pretty good look at the key resources that Google provides—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Picasa, etc.—and for each one provides Leo’s choice for a replacement, along with mentioning a few other alternatives.

On the one hand, this is just the sort of thing I’m a bit too prone to worry about. For me, security, privacy, and reliability are right up there with functionality. On the other hand, it had scarcely crossed my mind that I’m so reliant on Google that becoming Google-free was an important issue. So, seeing Leo’s article prompted me to give it some thought.

To me, the more fundamental issue is choosing to keep your data on your own hardware or to keep it in the cloud.

It used to be that the cloud was a loser on all four issues (security, privacy, reliability, functionality). In just the past few years, the cloud has made great strides in the latter two. I haven’t seen a careful analysis, but my sense now is that the cloud is about as reliable as your own hardware, albeit with different failure modes (less chance of a bad disk drive losing a bunch of data, more chance of the provider deprecating the tool or simply going bust). Functionality is a different kind of question—all you care about is whether the tool provides the functionality you need—but my sense again is that tools like Google Docs do fine at providing the most important functionality.

On issues of security and privacy, though, it seems to me that the cloud can never win. Well, maybe in one narrow sense: Servers in the cloud can be professionally managed with security in mind, so there’s a better chance that security patches will be applied promptly and less chance that they’ll be configured in an insecure way out of carelessness or ignorance. Except for that, though, all the cloud can offer is an unenforceable promise of security and privacy—and it rarely offers even that.

Because of that, I’ve always ended up choosing to keep mission-critical work on my own hardware. I use various cloud services, but they’re all in some way either publishing or else secondary.

Where what I’m doing is publishing (such as this blog, my account on Flickrmy account on Twitter, and so on), the privacy issues are moot—I’m explicitly making the stuff public. I still care about security, but my security interests are closely aligned with the provider’s security interests, so I feel reasonably comfortable relying on the provider to get security right.

All my uses of cloud-provided tools are non-critical. I have a Gmail account, but it’s a backup account for use when my main email account is unavailable for some reason. I have a Google Docs account, but I only use it occasionally to view a Word document or make a graph with the spreadsheet facility. I don’t use Google Calendar (I use iCal). The one Google tool that I’d really miss if it disappeared is Google Reader which I use every day, but even losing that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. I could go back to reading blogs on the websites themselves (!) until I picked out a new RSS feed reader. My latest backup of my subscriptions was really old (I just now grabbed a current one), but I’d be able to recreate the important ones easily enough.

The upshot is that going Google-free seems to be a non-issue to me. I could do it in five minutes and scarcely feel the loss. I’m glad to have been prompted to think about it, though.