If you’ve ever considered self-hosting a server to run one or more services instead of using existing web-based providers, you’ve likely pondered if it was worth the hassle. Here’s why it is.
What Is Self-Hosting?
Before we dive into some of the reasons self-hosting is great, let’s get everyone on the same page just in case they’re unfamiliar with the term and the practice.
Self-hosting is when you—either using a computer on your local network at home or a remote “bare metal” server host you’ve purchased—host your own services for various purposes.
Instead of using a backup service like Google Photos or iCloud, you host your own backup and viewing platform using Nextcloud Photos, PhotoPrism, or such. Instead of using a password management system like LastPass or 1Password, you host your own password manager like BitWarden.
If you can think of a service you currently use on the web and/or pay a subscription fee for, there is likely one or more self-hosted alternatives to replace it. For example, still not over the death of Google Reader after all these years? Why not host your own RSS aggregator like Sismics Reader that nobody can ever take away from you?
Now, before jumping into compelling reasons for self-hosting, we’ll be candid and honest with you. Self-hosting isn’t for everyone, and there are plenty of good reasons not to not self-host.
If you don’t desire to be your own server administrator and to treat this like a sort of continuing education hobby wherein you learn a lot about all sorts of techy topics along the way, that’s OK.
There’s nothing wrong with farming it out and paying for a third-party solution that fits your needs. But if you’re at all inclined to take a more hands-on, custom, and privacy-oriented approach to your needs, it’s worth every bit of the effort.
Self-Hosting Is the Ultimate Privacy Power Move
When you use a third-party service for your needs, whatever those needs may be, you’re always taking on a certain degree of privacy risk.
When you upload files to a cloud provider, you really don’t know how secure those files are or what the provider may or may not do with them. Will they scan them in some way? Will they delete files that match the hash of the copyrighted file, even if you have the right to use and store that file? Who has access to your files? How many people can access your photos, documents, and other files in a company with hundreds or even thousands of employees?
You’ll never really know. You simply have to take the word of the company in question that nobody is looking at your stuff and everything is secure.
We all accept that, to a greater or lesser degree, because it’s nearly impossible to live in the modern world without some sort of digital footprint and various connections to different social media, webmail providers, and storage companies, but it’s worth stepping back and asking yourself if the convenience of a given service is worth giving that service access to some or all of your digital life.
Further, the legal processes for gaining access to your data are very different when you personally control that data on the hardware you own versus effectively leasing space from a third party to use their services.
If you frequent internet forums where people discuss digital privacy concerns and self-hosting tips and tricks, they might come off as a bunch of paranoid folks, but in the end, they’re not wrong. We all trade a lot of our privacy away for the conveniences web-based services provide.
You Have Total Control Over the User Experience
Sure, self-hosting isn’t a walk in the park. You will never set up a self-hosted alternative to a service with the same ease with which you could just visit the third-party version of that service and sign up with your email address and/or pay a subscription fee.
But you have total control over the self-hosting experience. What hardware you run it on, what software you choose, when you update (or don’t update) that software, and so on. How many times have you used a third-party service and they changed the layout, the look, or even the business model, and you were left with a product you didn’t really like or at a price point you didn’t want to pay? Or, the worst-case scenario, the parent company shutters the project or even goes bankrupt. Then you can’t use the service or access your data (and who knows where your data ultimately ended up when the company dissolved).
If you’re self-hosting you can exert control over those things. You can use a fork of an open-source project if you don’t like the changes in the main release. You can take your data and switch to a new service with ease. You can choose not to update something if a big change in a project breaks a crucial feature you like.
You’re not just stuck at the mercy of whatever a huge company decides to do or not do, and if you’re running the software on your own home server, then the lights only go out if you decide to scrap the project, not because Google, or some other company, decides that the service isn’t worth keeping around anymore.
Security Is Easier Than You Think
A big concern many folks have when it comes to self-hosting is security. No doubt about it; that’s a very good thing to think about (and have concerns about).
If you’re trying to host a service for your extended family, effectively replacing Google in their lives, you have a bit of a challenge on your hands. At that point, you’re a small-scale provider unto yourself, and you have all the headaches that come with being such.
But self-hosting for just yourself or your immediate family in your home is a lot easier, and the security concerns are significantly lower.
For my own self-hosted services, for example, I have my network configured so that the only internet-facing exposure is a Wireguard VPN server. All my devices—phones, tablets, laptops, etc.—when I am away from home, connect through that VPN server so that they operate as if they are on the local network.
There are various ways to handle secure connections to your self-hosted projects, but it’s tough to beat just using a VPN to create a secure tunnel back to your home, especially for basic personal use. If you opt to host services you want others to use (such as a Minecraft server, for example), many people opt to set up a reverse proxy.
Both Slow and Fast Internet Makes Self-Hosting Worth It
You might be inclined to think that your home internet is too slow for self-hosting or, conversely, that it’s so fast that self-hosting is a great fit.
Paradoxically, both are true. If you have really slow home internet, especially a slow upload speed, it’s not going to be a great experience trying to self-host a large media server using, say, Plex to stream movies to yourself on the road.
However, because most self-hosting activities happen at home, if you self-host something like photo backups or such, you enjoy broadband-like speeds when using the self-hosted service on the local network. You can’t say the same if you’re trying to use a remote host like Google Photos over a very slow home internet connection. But local file syncing like Nextcloud will work great.
And, on the opposite side of the problem, if you have a very fast home internet connection, such as a synchronous gigabit fiber connection, you can (and should!) take advantage of that. Your upload might not be fast enough for you to host all the services you want to host for 500 people, but you’re not hosting for 500. You’re hosting for yourself and perhaps a few family members.
When I use self-hosted solutions on my personal connection, even bandwidth-intensive ones like streaming HD movies, I’d never be able to tell I wasn’t streaming right from Netflix or one of the big services.
It Pays for Itself
I don’t know about you, but over the years, it sure feels like all the subscription fees have slowly piled up. Even putting aside things like streaming services, when you start tallying up all the “little” things like cloud storage, cloud-based security camera accounts, password managers, to-do list apps, this, that, and the other thing, you’ll find you’re easily spending hundreds of dollars a year on all the various services you use.
If you’re willing to repurpose an old PC or even build a low-power home server (which can be done pretty inexpensively given that you’re skipping the high-price components like a cutting-edge CPU and not even installing a GPU) your setup can easily pay for itself within a year.
After that, you can take the money you would have spent on all those cloud services and either use it elsewhere in your budget or set it aside for future home server upgrades and additional storage as you need it.
You don’t have to go all out and build some powerhouse machine. Many self-hosting options that aren’t storage or processing power intensive, such as hosting your own VPN, password manager, or a myriad of other lightweight processes, can be run off a Raspberry Pi. For the cost of a Raspberry Pi and a few dollars in electricity a year you can host the services you need.
Further, you may find yourself hosting services you find useful but that you didn’t want to pay for. Maybe you wanted an uptime monitor, but you didn’t want to pay a yearly fee for one. Or perhaps you wanted something that couldn’t easily be purchased, like a tool to automatically archive web, video, or podcast content. Need inspiration? Check out this list of cool projects big and small you can self-host.
Once you have a home server setup and can easily add to it, especially if you’re using a container system like Docker, you’ll likely find yourself searching for fun things to add to it. Speaking from personal experience, I know that half the fun of the self-hosting adventure is discovering all the cool things you can self-host.
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