My web apps and me

Registering a domain name: $10 per year
Hosting it with all the features you may need: $80 per year
Controlling your on-line life: priceless

To be frank, the main reason that I do not use Facebook or MySpace is that I am not very social to start with. But, believe it or not, I have a few friends and family member with whom I share photos and personal stories. Not to mention this blog for different kinds of friends and different kinds of stories (you are missing out on the cute toddler photos).

Rather than doing so on Facebook, MySpace, BlogSpot, Flickr, Picasa or whatever the Microsoft copies of these sites are, I maintain a couple of blogs and on-line photo albums on They all provide user access control and RSS-based syndication so no-one has to come to just to check on them. No annoying advertising, no selling out of privacy and no risk of being jerked around by bait-and-switch (or simply directionless) business strategies (“in order to serve you better, we have decided that you will no longer be able to download the high-resolution version of your photos, but you can use them to print with our approved print-by-mail partners”). Have you noticed how people usually do not say “I use Facebook” but rather “I am on Facebook” as if riding a mechanical bull?

The interesting thing is that it doesn’t take a computer genius to set things up in such a way. I use Dreamhost and it, like similar hosting providers, gives you all you need. From the super-easy (e.g. they run WordPress for you) to the slightly more personal (they provide a one-click install of your own WordPress instance backed by your own database) to the do-it-yourself (they give you a PHP or RoR environment to create/deploy whatever app you want). Sure you can further upgrade to a dedicated server if you want to install a servlet container or a CodeGears environment, but my point is that you don’t need to come anywhere near this to own and run your own on-line life. You never need to see a Unix shell, unless you want to.

This is not replacing Facebook lock-in with Dreamhost lock-in. We are talking about an open-source application (WordPress) backed by a MySQL database. I can move it to any other hosting provider. And of course it’s not just blogging (WordPress) but also wiki (MediaWiki), forum (phpBB), etc.

Not that every shinny new on-line service can be replaced with a self-hosted application. You may have to wait a bit. For example, there is more to Facebook than a blog plus photo hosting. But guess what. Sounds like Bob Bickel is on the case. I very much hope that Bob and the ex-Bluestone gang isn’t just going to give us a “Facebook in a box” but also something more innovative, that makes it easy for people to run and own their side of a Facebook-like presence, with the ability to connect with other implementations for the social interactions.

We have always been able to run our own web applications, but it used to be a lot of work. My college nights were soothed by the hum of an always-running Linux server (actually a desktop used as a server) under my desk on which I ran my own SMTP server and HTTPd. My daughter’s “soothing ocean waves” baby toy sounds just the same. There were no turnkey web apps available at the time. I wrote and ran my own Web-based calendar management application in Python. When I left campus, I could have bought some co-locating service but it was a hassle and not cheap, so I didn’t bother [*].

I have a lot less time (and Linux administration skills) now than when I left university, so how come it is now attractive for me to run my own web apps again? What changed in the environment?

The main driver is the rise of the LAMP stack and especially PHP. For all the flaws of the platform and the ugliness of the code, PHP has sparked a huge ecosystem. Not just in terms of developers but also of administrators: most hosting providers are now very comfortable offering and managing PHP services.

The other driver is the rise of virtualization. Amazon hosts Xen images for you. But it’s not just the hypervisor version of virtualization. My Dreamhost server, for example, is not a Xen or VMWare virtual machine. It’s just a regular server that I share with other users but Dreamhost has created an environment that provides enough isolation from other users to meet my needs as an individual. The poor man’s virtualization if you will. Good enough.

These two trends (PHP and virtualization) have allowed Dreamhost and others to create an easy-to-use environment in which people can run and deploy web applications. And it becomes easier every day for someone to compete with Dreamhost on this. Their value to me is not in the hardware they run. It’s in environment they provide that prevents me from having to do low-level LAMP administration that I don’t have time for. Someone could create such an environment and run it on top of Amazon’s utility computing offering. Which is why I am convinced that such environments will be around for the foreseeable future, Dreamhost or no Dreamhost. Running your own web applications won’t be just for geeks anymore, just like using a GPS is not just for the geeks anymore.

Of course this is not a panacea and it won’t allow you to capture all aspects of your on-line life. You can’t host your eBay ratings. You can’t host your Amazon rank as a reviewer. It takes more than just technology to break free, but technology has underpinned many business changes before. In addition to the rise of LAMP and virtualization already mentioned, I am watching with interest the different efforts around data portability:, OpenID, OpenSocial, Facebook API… Except for OpenID, these efforts are driven by Web service providers hoping to canalize the demand for integration. But if they are successful, they should give rise to open source applications you can host on your own to enjoy these services without the lock-in. One should also watch tools like WSO2’s Mashup Server and JackBe Presto for their potential to rescue captive data and exploit freed data. On the “social networks” side, the RDF community has been buzing recently with news that Google is now indexing FOAF documents and exposing the content through its OpenSocial interface.

Bottom line, when you are offered to create a page, account or URL that will represent you or your data, take a second to ask yourself what it would take to do the same thing under your domain name. You don’t need to be a survivalist freak hiding in a mountain cabin in Montana (“it’s been eight years now, I wonder if they’ve started to rebuild cities after the Y2K apocalypse…”) to see value in more self-reliance on the web, especially when it can be easily achieved.

Yes, there is a connection between this post and the topic of this blog, IT management. It will be revealed in the next post (note to self: work on your cliffhangers).

[*] Some of my graduating colleagues took their machines to the dorm basement and plugged them into a switch there. Those Linux Slackware machines had amazing uptimes of months and years. Their demise didn’t come from bugs, hacking or component failures (even when cats made their litter inside a running computer with an open case) but the fire marshal, and only after a couple of years (the network admins had agreed to turn a blind eye).

[UPDATED 2008/7/7: Oh, yeah, another reason to run your own apps is that you won’t end up threatened with jail time for violating the terms of service. You can still end up in trouble if you misbehave, but they’ll have to charge you with something more real, not a whatever-sticks approach.]

[UPDATED 2009/12/30: Ringside (the Bob Bickel endeavor that I mention above), closed a few months after this post. Too bad. We still need what they were working on.]


Filed under Everything, Portability, Tech, Virtualization