Why I’m Starting to Self-Host Apps

The death of Google Reader came at an interesting time for me.

Over the past few years, I’ve been scanning and making digital copies of my parents’ and grandmother’s photos. See, when I lived with my parents for 10 months right before my wedding, I lived in the basement. There I found a few old boxes with thousands of photographs that were not organized into albums, nor were they organized into boxes. We’re talking just piles of photographs in old cardboard boxes.

All it would take is one flood or one fire, and all those memories would be gone. As I dove deeper into the boxes, the photos became older and older. I watched myself transform into a child, a toddler, a baby. So did my brothers. So did my parents.

And, remarkably, so did my grandmother.

With photos dating back to 1917 (the earliest photo I’ve found as of this writing), I made it my personal mission to back up these memories for future generations. Each photo file was organized into a folder, and then burned onto DVDs as each box was completed. I organized each photo into decades.

In addition to that, I wanted to create an easily-accessible, searchable online database for friends and family members to look up photos quickly.

That way, instead of trying to convince everybody in the house to huddle around the kitchen table and go through thousands of photos (over 8,000 scanned in as of today), we could bring them up on a computer, phone, or even the TV, so that everyone could see them, and we could browse and search for specific photos or events.

After much searching years ago, I decided to use Google’s Picasa online photo storage service. With Picasa, I could tag faces, creating collections of photos for each member of the family. Then I would tag the photos different events and types, and you could cross-reference your way to any kind of collection you wanted. I also bought tons of storage for $5 a year to ensure I had plenty of room. It was pretty great.

Then, of course, Google+ came along.

In my opinion, Google+ is starting to ruin what Google had going for itself. Because Google is trying to force users into the social network that most people, frankly, don’t want to be a part of, Picasa began automatically redirecting to Google+ Photos. Hey, that’s fine. I don’t mind the Google+ interface one bit.

But suddenly, tagging faces couldn’t be done so easily. Now the people in the photos had to have a Google+ account to be tagged (like Facebook). Hmm. Well, my grandmother who died in 1998, or my grandfather who died in 1989, or the long list of relatives no longer with us in these pictures don’t have Google+ accounts, and I’d be hard pressed to convince them to at this point.

The process stalled. I still was uploading pictures to Picasa (there’s a link at the top of Google+ Photos to go back to the old Picasa, but you have to click it EVERY TIME YOU TRY TO GO TO PICASA), but I stopped tagging faces and photos. I knew a new solution needed to be found, but I hadn’t taken the time to look.

Then, Google announced they were killing off Reader.

Suddenly, my photos didn’t feel so safe anymore. Sure, they were backed up, but it was a punch to the face to realize, Hey, I’m putting literally 100 years of family memories in the hands of one company. They could easily just decide not to do it anymore!

That’s when, after migrating over to Feedly, I decided to start looking into other options for photo storage. But there are lots of options, and you’re never quite sure how long any of them will be around, really.

Then it dawned on me: why not on my own website?

Unlimited, flexible, customizable photo storage for free (well, for me anyway)

I already have web hosting – I pay for it once a year to run this site (though I’ve signed up for a couple years of service upfront). As Lifehacker explains, owning your name online is really useful, so I intend to own this for as long as I live.

I thought about adding a new website to my hosting plan. Maybe “meitnerphotos.com” or something. But after reading a bit, I realized that I can have unlimited sub-domains on my site for free!

What’s a sub-domain? It’s a completely-separate website you can use underneath your domain name. So my domain name is “tommeitner.com”. A sub-domain for, say, an online notebook would be “notes.tommeitner.com”, instead of “www.tommeitner.com”.

Knowing my way around WordPress, I found a WordPress photo album that is endlessly customizable, set up a new sub-domain for pictures, and installed WordPress, along with this plugin. Then I downloaded all 8K photos off of Picasa and uploaded them into the new website.

So why is this better?

If you’re not crazy about using a free service because of privacy issues, this one’s for you. Self-hosting allows you to password-protect your whole album, if you want, and you can choose to not let your site be searchable by Google (which I did).

It’s flexible, and I can make the albums look however I want, with new themes and configurations. And there’s nobody to go out of business – I hold complete control over these albums. As long as I want them there (and pay the hosting and domain fees, which amount to under $100/year), they’ll stay there.

Your free options run by someone else will be full of ads, or they will use your information to sell to ad agencies. Also, it’s cheaper than paying for a “premium service” that would provide the same thing (see Pancake below).

And because you’re running it yourself, you’re essentially immune to the company’s failures. Pancake runs my invoices now. If they go out of business, I still have all the files on my sub-domain, so I can keep using the program as long as I want. I won’t have the support of the company to answer my questions, but I won’t have to rush to find an alternative.

What else can you self host?

Short answer: almost anything. There is a service called ownCloud that lets you turn a sub-domain into a Dropbox-style service. I installed Pancake to a sub-domain to run all my invoicing for my business. The Pancake files were a one-time fee of $49, which offer everything I need, including online payments and recurring invoicing, along with unlimited clients. My Freshbooks account limited me to 25 clients and cost me over $200 a year. See how the math plays out?

You can self host an RSS reader, like Google Reader. You can self host your own email (something I’m tempted to do at some point). Or a web-based calendar. Or a project management tool. Or video streaming. Or, most recently, a streaming music service. A quick Google search can help you find a lot of stuff.

It takes a little bit of technical know-how, but virtually everything that you want to set up will come with support. And you learn by doing. I didn’t know anything about how to set up a website, FTP files over to a server, or set up a MySQL database. But your hosting company (HostGator for me) usually will provide great step-by-step instruction.

Is it worth it to you? I can’t answer that. But to have complete digital backups of my family’s memories, unlimited invoicing without recurring fees, and a wealth of other opportunities all rolled into one payment of $100/year? Yeah, that’s worth it to me. Especially since I’m already using it.

What do you think? Ever dabbled into self-hosting? Think it’s great/stupid? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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