Most of us use services like Gmail, Feedly and Instapaper to get through the day -- but that means giving up privacy and locking into a service you don't control. Hosting your own services at home used to be reserved for nerds, but it's easier than ever. Here are the best services that you can host yourself.
Image by Brian Hagen
Hosting your own services still takes a bit of work, but the long-term benefits often outweigh the initial afternoon you'll spend toiling on your server to set them up. In some cases, it's about keeping your data private. In others, it's about having complete control. If nothing else, rolling your own service ensures that a major company can't shut it down. Here are some services we recommend checking out.
OwnCloud Instead Of Dropbox Or Google Drive
We've walked you through setting up OwnCloud before, and it's easy to do. Once you run through the five0minute installation process, you'll have your own privately hosted Dropbox-style syncing file service so you can access your files from anywhere. Even better, some of its newer features put it on par with Google Drive. Here's what you get with OwnCloud:
- Private cloud storage that's never seen by a third party
- Software to sync folders across Windows, Mac, Linux and smartphones
- Quick sharing of files, photo galleries and music
- Calendar syncing
- OwnCloud Documents for collaborative editing
- Free storage that's only limited by your own hard drive
Since we wrote our guide, OwnCloud has added a lot of extra features. The newest version includes Google Docs-style collaborative documents editing, a better interface, a syncing calendar, and an undelete option. Combined with the already built-in to-do lists, this makes OwnCloud a decent alternative to the entire Google Drive suite of features. Sure, it's not as powerful as Google Docs, but at least it gets your private data out of Google's hands.
Subsonic Instead Of Google Play Music
Google Play Music is a great place to upload and store all your music so you can access it anywhere. Unfortunately, Google is so notorious at shutting down services that it's hard to invest too much into it -- plus it's such a hassle to upload your music, deal with mismatched tracks, and so on. Subsonic, on the other hand, is an awesome alternative: host it on your own computer, and you can stream your library from anywhere -- exactly as it appears on that machine, no matching or uploading necessary. It's pretty easy to set up, too:
- Super fast setup on Windows, Mac or Linux that doesn't require technical expertise
- Access to your home computer's music library from anywhere on any internet-connected device
- Share access to your music library with friends and family
- Available in many different languages and is region-free
- Supports podcasts and automatic downloads of new episodes
The one downside to Subsonic is its interface. It's not pretty, and the mobile apps are fairly barebones. That said, Subsonic streams all your local music to any computer around the world for free, so it's hard to complain too much.
iRedMail Instead Of Gmail
First off: setting up your own email server is hard. It's going to take a bit of work and it's not as elegant as something like Gmail. That said, if you set up your own email server, you'll learn a lot about running a server, your email will be completely private, and you won't see ads every time you try to write an email to grandma. A private mail server also has a few other benefits:
- You have complete control over your information so a third-party can't use it for advertising or data mining
- Supports both SMTP or POP message services
- You can store messages as long as you'd like
- Since it's attached to your domain you can get whatever email address name you want
To get your own secure email server, with spam filtering, HTTPS access, and webmail access, you'll need to follow this massive four-part guide over on Ars Technica. Once you finish the setup, you'll have a self-hosted, completely secure, completely private email server that you run out of your house. It uses a number of different utilities to work, but Roundcube powers the front-end, which by itself is pretty easy to set up. If all that's a bit too daunting, iRedMail bundles most of Ars Technica's recommended utilities into one package, but you'll still want to go through Ars Technica's guide to get everything configured.
If the above options are looking a little too difficult, Mailpile is a project that's still in alpha, but it's already better looking than most self-hosted options, so it's worth keeping an eye on. If that's all too much work (and your main goal is to get Google's eyes off your data), you can at least take your email away from Gmail and over to your personal domain.
Tiny Tiny RSS Instead Of Feedly
When Google killed Google Reader, it gave us all a big scare. Thankfully, services like Feedly stepped in to take Reader's place, but that fear of RSS dying away still lingers. If you want to stop worrying about your feeds, Tiny Tiny RSS is an easy way to host your own feed reader. We've walked you through the setup process for Tiny Tiny RSS before so we won't talk about it again here. Here's what you'll get:
- A syncing RSS reader that you can access on any web browser on any device
- Custom themes to change the look
- Plugins to add functionality like sharing and special keyboard shortcuts.
- An Android app for reading on the go
- An XBMC client for reading on the big screen
As long as you're either running your own server or have a web server like Dreamhost, setup is pretty straight forward. You'll know your data is kept private and you won't have to worry about anyone shutting it down.
Prosody Instead Of Google Hangouts, iMessage Or WhatsApp
Messaging apps are very useful, and you have a lot of options to choose from. However, they could disappear or suffer from an outage at any moment. Likewise, while it's unlikely, instant messaging services are easy to spy on. So, if you'd prefer to skip the outages and not worry about Google data-mining your private chats, a self-hosted solution like Prosody is a good option.
Prosody uses a standard XMPP communication server to run a chat client on your computer. This means you can chat with anyone using an XMPP server like Jabber using any chat client that supports it (which includes our favourites: Pidgin on Windows, Adium on Mac, Pidgin on Linux, Imo on Android, and IM+ on iOS). Prosody also has a few other benefits:
- Prosody is incredibly easy to install. Just download the app, configure your settings, and you'll be up and running in about 10 minutes. If you'd like a video guide, check this one out.
- Private hosting means you don't have to worry about outages
- It's region and platform agnostic, so you can use your account and server anywhere for the foreseeable future
If Prosody isn't your thing, you have a lot of other options for servers on every operating system.
OpenVPN Instead Of A Third-Party VPN Service
There are a lot of companies out there that want to sell you their VPN services, but as long as you aren't trying to use a VPN to access services in another country, we recommend running your own for total control. A VPN is awesome for security and privacy, whether you're at home or browsing on a public Wi-Fi network. Considering you'll want to keep it running all the time, paying for service gets pretty expensive, so it's not a bad idea to set up your own just to save money. To do so, we like OpenVPN. OpenVPN has all kinds of benefits:
- It's free
- It gives you a secure internet connection from anywhere
- You can access your home computer and its files from anywhere
- Since you run the VPN, you don't have to worry about whether it's trustworthy or not
We've walked you through the setup process before. It's pretty easy to do, works across platforms, and you don't need to worry about picking a trustworthy third-party VPN service. Once your VPN is running, you'll have an always-on system at home that secures your browsing no matter where you are.
You can also use a Raspberry Pi instead of a desktop computer if you'd prefer a low-cost and low-energy alternative.
Wallabag Instead Of Instapaper Or Pocket
Read it later services like Instapaper and Pocket are awesome ways to save articles for reading later, but they're not very customisable. Worse, if you lose access to those services, you'll also lose access to those articles. If you'd prefer to host your own similar service that makes backups of all those great articles, Wallabag is easy to set up and you get everything you need out of the box:
- Wallabag strips down articles to make them more readable
- Includes customisable themes to change the look
- The mobile viewer makes reading from anywhere easy
- Quick links to share to social networks
- An RSS feed to keep your bookmarks accessible from your RSS reader
- Bookmarklets to easily add articles to Wallabag
Use Your Own Server Instead Of MediaFire
Dropbox (and OwnCloud) are great for sharing files, but sometimes you want a service that's made just for sharing one thing right now, not a full-blown syncing server. Like a lot of the services on this list, setting up your own benefits your privacy first and foremost. In this case, file lockers like MediaFire or RapidShare are constantly shut down, so making your own guarantees that those files will stay available. For that, we have our own custom solution for creating a drag-and-drop file service. All you'll need is a web server like Dreamhost with FTP access and PHP 5 installed. You'll get:
- Drag and drop file sharing on Windows or Mac
- Easy access to shared files and links
- Full control over how long a file is shared and hosted for
This project is on the tougher end of things, but it's especially beneficial since similar services can't stay in business for long. Once it's set up, it works great, but the initial time it takes to set everything up will take a good chunk of an afternoon.
In the end, hosting your own services is really about control. You control the privacy. You control when it's up and running. You control who has access. Sure, it takes some work to get it all going, but you'll never have to rely on someone else again, which by itself is a fantastic reason.