💻 Back on my bullshit: Self-hosted Adventures ✉️

Thursday, May 16, 2019 :: Tagged under: culture engineering. ⏰ 10 minutes.

🎵 The song for this post is Bills, by LunchMoney Lewis. 🎵

Thin man in silly clothes saying "When you were partying, I studied THE BLADE. When you were having premarital Sex, I mastered THE BLOCKCHAIN. While you wasted your days at the gym in pursuit of vanity I cultivated INNER STRENGTH. And now that the world is on fire and the barbarians are at the gate you have the audacity to come to me for help?"

becoming this guy, for computers

I've been a lot more invested in ideas around Open Web and owning your own digital identity; the kick I'm currently on is not just leaving the Tech Giants for smaller competitors, but seeing what it would take to run my own versions of these things on servers I control.

Note that "servers I control" still means cloud servers by big companies; maybe in 5 years I colocate my own, with a thick waxed beard while wearing plaid.

Here's some write-up of where I am!


Up and Running!

These are services I got going with little effort, currently powering the PABLO EXTENDED UNIVERSE.

Core site/blog

You can see it at: https://morepablo.com

Replaces: WordPress.com…? Moreso than having my version of an existing product, having (and using, and maintaining) a personal website of any kind is a strange thing to do. The main person who comes to mind is jwz, and he's a web dinosaur. Man doesn't even use tabbed browsing.

(Kind of) replaces: Facebook. Not in a feature sense, but in a "here's what my life looks like" sense. I've posted a curated sense of life events here, either bigs ones (Asia trip, my year in review posts) or little ones (when I moved, a literal photo, Sapo getting sick).

also, LinkedIn and/or Medium. I see a lot of people try to develop their #PersonalBrand with their posts on industry or whatnot, but I would never host serious words on another website. Delivering text is the one thing the Internet has always been good at, and I've seen too many platforms go down or go bad to risk losing them.

How I did it: All the gory details are here, but the short version: I wrote a static site generator and have a GitHub repo with the sources, then push and serve from S3. It costs less than a dollar a month.

Should others do this? Host a site? Definitely! More personal websites! More RSS feeds! More comment threads with healthy communities!

Do it my way? Heavens no. Even if you're a software person and insist on doing it with a static site generator, at least do it with something like Jekyll and GitHub Pages. I wrote up some advice for blogging in 2013 that I think still holds up: most people should buy a domain and point it to a WordPress install.

Discourse

Discourse is an open-source app for communities, meant to replace old-school forum software for communities like Something Awful or Team Liquid. It's powering the comments of my blog posts, but also exists as a standalone site that, in theory, could be an online community with posts and discussions and things.

You can see it at: https://us.morepablo.com

Replaces: Disqus, mostly: the main motivation was to get comments on here somehow; I don't think it's amazing at that (choosing to add a comment means signing up, then getting redirected to the Discourse UI, which is confusing the first time you do it) but I think it's better than the alternatives.

arguably it replaces Facebook Groups but running a Community Site hasn't really been my focus.

(also, did you know phpBB is still a thing?)

How I did it: Of all the installations, Discourse's is probably the most straightforward: they flat-out only support Docker installation, so it more-or-less just works how they say it will. There's some light config in getting an email provider (I'm using Mailgun). Once installed, it's extremely configurable from the inside, and most extensions are easily Google-able (i.e. backups to S3, logging in with another company's SSO).

That said, their hardware requirements are, IMO, obscene. The smallest thing you can host this on, even for a tiny use case like mine, is $10/month. If you need a full-ass GB of RAM (2 recommended!) and 10GB of disk to run your app… my friend, I'll suggest you made bad choices somewhere in this pipeline.

("bad" is unfair: they want this to power communities with thousands of everyday active users. But, as we'll get to, I think the team's aesthetic for "good on the web" is "more code" whereas mine is "less code")

Also, one of the fun things about self-hosting is the promise of hacking the project to your needs later, and Discourse looks… complicated. I remember a lot of conversation around this eevee post where they talk about the horrors of trying to install Discourse without Docker, after Docker failed them, and how gross it was.

Should others do this? Probably not. I wanted comments (which are fundamentally dynamic) and I wanted an S3 static site, so Disqus or something similar were contenders, but I didn't want to put people in front of shady shit or have their comments owned by a VC-backed company. Alternatively, I could have done something like Staticman, which was technically nifty but pretty circuitous and I didn't like using a GitHub account as a datastore. This seemed like the least-bad option. I might put real effort into building a capital-C community with it sometime.

Pleroma

Pleroma is a microblogging site connected to the Fediverse, allowing any instance to set their own rules. You've probably heard of its more famous sibling, Mastodon.

You can see it at: https://toots.morepablo.com

Replaces: Twitter. Quitting Facebook hasn't been as hard as I feared—I occasionally miss an event invite, and it's weird having no immediate "follow-up" to meeting someone new in social settings (I didn't normally friend people, but it was nice knowing that I or they could).

Twitter, on the other hand, is something I use and love to use every day. It's a nightmare machine that frequently exacerbates my mental health issues and puts me in bad places. But it's also a great source of news and incredibly funny.

Its benefits can't absolve that it's structurally doomed to fail. They've taken billions in funding and don't produce the revenues they'd need to make their investors happy. Frankly, they're not even close. Their CEO is a babbling dipshit (seriously, try to make sense of this interview). They never took Gamergate seriously, nor does it take white supremacy or election tampering seriously. Many great engineers I respect have left and poke a lot of barbs about how fucked its culture is. Many of us were sad when Vine died, we've watched Tumblr lose the sparks it had, and Twitter's time is coming. It's when, not if.

I want to put my money where my mouth is and move sooner rather than later to a world where we can run our own Twitter, with our own values. In a Fediverse instance, one can kick users, ban instances, set rules, and/or otherwise govern themselves. One could build Moments if they damn felt like it. I wouldn't turn Likes into "florps". Folks who don't like the rules can leave and/or start their own instances. All this sounds better than asking Shitty Daddy Jack to fix the bad social network. And no ads!

How I did it: This was also pretty straightforward: spin up a box, run a bunch of commands. I also found it easier since it's a Phoenix app, which I've been using for a personal project, so it's in my wheelhouse. I don't know what the Mastodon install looks like, but the number of running instances is encouraging.

Should others do this? Likely not; if you wanted to make the switch, I think the lowest-friction path would be to make an account on the canonical Mastodon instance, mastodon.social. It's likely to exist as long as the project does, and Mastodon's experience more closely matches Twitter's (I also just learned you can move an account if you decide to switch instances, which is a cool feature).

I chose Pleroma mostly for the reasons their intro post. If you want to try this out, feel free to make an account on my instance, but be warned it is an adjustment. For mobile, the Twidere client lets me look at and post to both my Pleroma feed and Twitter, so it's easier to wean off.

The main reason people might not want to do this—it's lonely. Every time I log into Twitter there's great stuff there, whereas I'm still feeling out who's in the fediverse. This whole topic merits its own post, but I'm not giving up yet.


I'm a failure (services not running)

These are things I want, and spent about an hour on, before giving up for a bit. I have every intention of getting these up but it's not obvious when.

Mail servers

I feel like it'd be a cool flex to have an email address like el_jefe@morepablo.com. All my email has always gone to someone else's server.

Replaces: GMail. Google is holding a ton of the world's email, and even if you're not on GMail they still see it in replies and forwards. Email is a cockroach that won't die: it's been our Internet Driver's License for a while. Nobody is promoting adoption of open APIs or protocols for everyone to use like they used to; everyone is fighting to create walled gardens, email will probably be one of the last protocols of the Old Open Days to hang on. But it won't be worth anything if it all belongs to one company.

My failures/what I've tried: Holy shit, email is a pain in the ass.

I've been working through this blog post, which is fantastic and I've been using as a reference walking through the process. I'm very grateful for it! But I got tripped on a few things:

I intend to go back to it, but this will be more than a single "outing," as it were. Luckily, it's non-urgent.

Lazy way out: A template for "what more of these projects should look like" is Mail In A Box. It's a bunch of bash scripts that are highly prescriptive and which, in theory, make installation of your value prop happen in a single command. The lazy way out is to give it its own instance, and run this with minimal changes. A less-lazy-but-still-good thing I might do is look at its actual setup scripts and run the ones I want, omit the ones I don't (as previously mentioned, I don't want DNS, nor do I need a webmail client, I'm fine with just the server and point something like mutt or Thunderbird into it and K-9 Mail).

Laziest way out: Buy GSuite Apps and point the nameservers for my domain at it, lol. That's what I did with Ghostlight when I was trying to get that project off the ground.

Should others do this? I beg anyone who can and/or is interested to federate their email, but loooooool email is not an easy protocol.

SourceHut (sr.ht)

Screenshot of SourceHut.

SourceHut is billed as "the hacker's forge," providing a self-hosted solution to many server needs for developers: repository hosting, continuous integration, mailing lists, code review, ticket tracking, and wikis.

Replaces: GitHub. Someone on Twitter wryly noted that we were so excited to decentralize version control systems, only to centralize again around GitHub. For years I've hosted private repos on BitBucket, and while my beefs with GitHub are less than most of the other companies I'm moving away from, I'd still like to promote decentralization, owning my own data, and independence.

My failures/what I've tried: I rolled up my sleeves ready to do an install and hit my head on the classic Open Source issue: "I'm not on the primary developer's blessed stack." In this case, I was hoping to put this on an Ubuntu box that's running Pleroma (there's space, it's already got Postgres); but the EZ install packages are only on Arch or Alpine.

Trying to install from source seems like it's "only" a few steps, but I ran into failures that required more knowledge than I had (and felt like acquiring at the time) with Python's setuptools and reverse-engineering the dev's personal machine. For example:

The current plan is to try to get it to run locally on my Mac, which should familiarize me with it enough to debug issues when I run it, from source, on a Linux box. Right now I'm boxing blind. This also familiarizes me with its finer points if I want to hack at its functionality.

Reverse-engineering someone else's local dev: it's Open Source in the early 2000's, baby!

"Lazy" way out: GitLab Most people wanting to host "their own GitHub" host a GitLab instance, which looks like it's taking a lot more cues from GitHub. It's a more mature project and maybe has a simpler install, but I suspect its requirements are high and that it also probably wants 4-5 components.

Alternatives: lol, idk. Fossil repos also host their own websites and docs, but that's committing to a different tool just for a site. For a while, Phabricator was the game for the full-on Hacker's Forge, but that'd require PHP and MySQL, and looks suited for Big Teams and all that.

Still to come

These are services I hope to maybe spin up, but haven't prioritized or tried properly.

OpenLDAP, integrate with as many of these as possible

The OpenLDAP worm. Click for full size.

I really, really, really miss silly little mascots for Open Source projects.

Currently, to use these, you'd need to create:

Ideally, there'd be a centralized idea of "identity" so you can be logged into one site, but have avatar and credentials/permissions for all of them set as needed. The closest thing I could find is OpenLDAP, which would at least work with the email and Discourse.

This use-case is, frankly, probably just me: I don't know how many people want to leave comments and participate in the forum and have a Pleroma account on my instance and work with the SourceHut stuff.

LDAP looks like a large can of beans (its got a 312-page O'Reilly book), but I'm going into this trying to learn as much as I can. It's stuck around while many New Hotnesses haven't. Suggestions welcome if you've got them.

VPN

VPN can be useful for a few reasons: hiding where you're from, evading tracking even further, or getting over the restrictions of another network you happen to be on (e.g. there are coffee shops in San Francisco that block GitHub to prevent people from coding there, or if you wanted to watch YouTube in Turkey at various points in the past decade).

It just seems like a cool thing to have, Outline looks like a good fit here.

RSS

I read feeds on Feedly now, but there's a lot I don't love about it. Maybe I throw up a Tiny Tiny RSS instance to hold news from my favorite sites.

Others?

How about chat? An IRC server with a ZNC bouncer? Or ejjabberd? Or skip "open protocols" and go for Matrix? Zulip?

How about Instagram? I was never much of a user, but PixelFed looks cool.

The longer journey

Old tweet of mine where I speculate on starting a hipster business to run personal servers for people with a lot of this software.

Here's an easily-clickable link to the site I'm referencing there.

The dream, of course, is to write either a set of scripts like Mail In A Box does (or, sigh, a container) so anyone can fill in a single config, buy a domain, and be part of something larger.

Every journey begins with a single step, and here are some of them I'm trying to take 🚶🏼‍♂️

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄