Running a personal server, a physical one, at home, to serve content over the Internet, sounds like an antiquated idea. Over the last 15 years we have virtualised and commoditised everything to do with sharing stuff on the web: Flickr, then Instagram for photos, Github for code, Medium for blog posts, LinkedIn for CVs, and so on and so forth. Even if one wanted to set up and maintain a server, AWS, GCP, DigitalOcean and countless other cloud platforms are happy to provide a virtual one for a few dollars a month.
Choosing to run one’s own isn’t an obvious choice, but there are a few reasons why you might want to consider that:
- Efficiency: if you would like to have your media collection or other content available on the go, but mostly use it at home, then having it served from a storage unit at home will reduce the WAN traffic, bandwidth and overall energy usage.
- Privacy: when you store any private content with a third-party provider you trust that they are not going to look at it (end-to-end encryption is still uncommon with cloud storage providers). The risk is perhaps small - to my knowledge there haven’t been any widely publicised cases of personal data leaks due to cloud storage service insiders - but if you want the peace of mind, store the data on your own hardware.
- Independence: we’ve let the Big Tech effectively monopolise the Internet. If you believe in small web, that serves the diverse population of users rather than shareholders of massive corporations, then the thought that you have a presence on the web without paying Microsoft, Google or Amazon is quite pleasant.
- Fun: setting a system up from scratch, configuring all the services and ensuring it runs smoothly can be fun! Actually, if it isn’t for you, you’ll be better off paying someone else to deal with this. Willingness to tinker is essential.
- Cost: even though cloud VMs are really cheap, depending on the configuration you choose, you might be able to set a server up for “free” (disregarding the cost of the electricity consumed by the always-on device), for example using an old, spare laptop.
It is really convenient to have others manage your data, worry about the availability, the backups, publishing. It’s sensible to pay someone to do it, and use your time for something more rewarding. Even better, a lot of services will happily manage your data for free! But is it really free? There’s the obvious angle of serving us “relevant” ads, but the consequences of ceding the processing of our data to opaque systems designed to maximise the profit for their creators is that we might be sacrificing much more than our attention. The recent AI craze is one example: our data ends up in the training sets of various machine learning models, something we might not have knowingly assented to, and that could lead to loss of privacy or income. More generally, we are still like a primitive tribe that does not understand that land (information, in our case) can be valuable, and the value and artifacts derived from it might be out of our control. Keeping the data on our devices and controlling what is shared can help mitigate these risks.