Darren Mothersele

Software Developer

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How to Be a Cloud Survivalist (part 1)

Dec 11, 2013


This is the first in a series of posts where I document the process of implementing your own suite of cloud services.

With a little bit of effort you can quite easily set-up your own suite of cloud services to rival the likes of Google. If you’re concerned about communication surveillance programs, selling of your personal data to advertisers, security breaches, or maybe you just want to own and control your own data, there are some great options out there.

A few months ago there was an article in Scientific American by Wendy Grossman called How to Be an E-Mail Survivalist. In this article Wendy discusses the pros and cons of running your own email service. I’m going to ignore the fact that the article fails to mention any of the solid, robust, open source mail server projects, in favour of recommending some weird proprietary email server, as she makes a few interesting observations:

In the early 2000s it was the height of geek fashion to run your own e-mail server - then along came Gmail with two gigabytes of free storage and excellent spam filtering. Now even most people with their own domain names use e-mail provided by Google, Microsoft or their Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Wendy Grossman

I used to run my own mail server until Gmail came along. Prior to that I had the headaches, the "occasional day of pain" as Wendy calls it, when things stopped working for seemingly no reason. Back then I was stupidly trying to run everything on one server. Not a good idea!

But, then Google came along and offered their slick Gmail interface and their reliable email servers for use with your own domain. And, they gave it away for free. All you had to do was give away ownership of your entire digital life to them. A small price to pay for reliable email service?

### A small price to pay?

Maybe that seemed like a small price to pay at the time, but now I think we’re starting to realise the true costs. First up there’s the issue of government mass surveillance programmes. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, then you need to read this excellent article from the EFF, Busting Eight Common Excuses for NSA Mass Surveillance.

Next there’s the issue of T&Cs. Have you ever read one of these documents? What are you actually giving away when you tick that box and agree to the terms and conditions? Giving away ownership of data and the content you create? Agreeing that they’re not responsible if anything should happen to your data? Agreeing to sharing of your data with third parties? Remember that even anonymised data can be de-anonymised.

Then, there’s the security issue. The news is full of high-profile security breaches, like customer data being stolen from Adobe, DropBox, Evernote and posted publicly on the internet. I know there’s nothing to say you will be able to implement any better security than these guys, but at least you’ll be less of a target. More importantly though, it’s under your control, so you can be as militant or relaxed about security as you wish.

Fashionable again

I’ve recently been rethinking that decision to move everything to Google, and I’ve decided it’s probably about time it was fashionable to run your own email server again and take back control. But, now I’m expecting a lot more from my own set-up. It’s not just a reliable email service. I’m now looking for options to sync data (contacts, calendars, files) across all my devices, access them from anywhere, and share them with friends. Luckily in the self-hosted options have come along leaps and bounds in recent years so you can literally run the suite of entire cloud services that we’ve come to expect.

This will require some digging about in the technical details of how all this stuff works. I’ve explained here the technology I’m using and how I’ve glued it all together, but this is far from a complete solution. On the plus side you don’t have to compromise at all on functionality:

There is something extraordinarily empowering about firing up e-mail software, connecting to your own server and retrieving your messages. Being in charge of a fundamental part of your communications life can restore your view of the Internet as a modern marvel.
Wendy Grossman

There are a few downsides, which we’ll have to try and work around. One issue is that because your email is not coming from one of the big mail companies, there’s a higher chance that receiving servers will flag your email as spam. You also risk the chance of losing mails because of power outages or technical issues. There’s a few options to try and mitigate this which will be discussed in a future instalment when I look at backup and failure planning.

Tomorrow, in part 2, I’ll be building up a list of requirements and looking at the various options that are available.

Continue to How to Be a Cloud Survivalist (part 2)