Why Self Host

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The MAG Self Hosting Project: Why Self Host?

Brief Summary

For the chronologically challenged, this is a brief summary of what this is all about. In mid 2008 we found out that we had to move our web sites and email services from WeaverWeb, the company we had happily been using for a number of years. We looked at a number of options, but decided to buy a server class computer and bring all of these services in house. The philosophy is called "Self Hosting". The bottom line is that MAG will not thereafter be reliant on anyone except themselves for these services. Nobody outside the organisation can change their company policy, go out of business or otherwise alter what they had been supplying to us and in so doing bring down all or part of our system.

Big Hosters vs Little Hosters vs Self Hosting

Most small web sites have historically been housed or "Hosted" on one of a large number of machines owned and operated by a separate company who's purpose it is to do just that. These "Hosting Companies", over the last few years, have been feeling more and more pressure from the small number of their kind that have grown into mammoth operations with thousands and thousands of customers. When a hoster is this large they can reap some quite significant economies of scale in their installation and use of computing equipment. However, the real value to their customers is not in how things rumble along on a daily basis, but how the hsoter responds to problems. For many, if not all of the major hosters this is the downside of their mass layout approach; the administration burden rises very slowly with the increasing numbers of customers, but the customer service burden rises in direct ratio, and it is the customer service operation that will be the major discriminator for the customer. When something goes wrong, the customer will want it fixed as soon as possible. They will want someone they can hear and understand on the other end of the line, who will take their problem on as if it was their own and see it through to a satisfactory completion. This was always was the smaller hosters did well. WeaverWeb, run by Darryl Weaver was in just exactly this bracket; a small company who looked after their customers. The big problem however, is that you don't find out how useless your new, slightly cheaper, hugely bigger hosting company really is until it's too late. The small hosters lost sales to the big boys and finally, one by one, they have been folding; accelerated by the 2007/8 credit crunch.

You log in as You

Under the traditional hosting company regime, when you ask MAG for a web site for your region or local group, you would be goven a username that was reminiscent of the name of the site; eg magwr for Western Region's site. While this works perfectly well, it does have some disadvantages, the main one being that the system does not inherently link the owner of the web site credentials to an actual person. The onus is on the administrators at Central to keep a track of this, and they can only do this if they are told that the password has been handed over to someone new. As an ongoing process, the plan is to gradually replace site specific logins with logins for named individuals, to which their sites are linked. In practice the only difference for the webmaster is that the username will change and the folder they find their site data in wonce they have logged in will change, otherwise nothing else is different. The advantage comes in being able to split up the responsibilities within the site among different people without using a shared login. Shared logins have so many disadvantages that it would take another whole article to lay them out; so just trust me "Shared Login Bad".

As an example, in Ottery St. Catchpole MAG, Gwen can log in using her own username and password and can go to the "Local Dealers" pages and keep them updated as is her mandate, but she cannot update any of the other pages on the site either accidentally or maliciously. Bill can look after the events list, while Alison, the main webmaster, looks after the rest.

Every account comes with free email

Once the linkage between people and roles is made, linking those roles to specific email addresses becomes much much easier. In our above example of Ottery St. Catchpole MAG, we can now link ottery-st-catchpole-rep@mag-uk.org to ALison, ottery-st-catchpole-events@mag-uk.org to Bill and ottery-st-catchpole-dealers@mag-uk.org to Gwen. The same username and login that gets them into the web upload area, can connect their email software to their email account. If they want to send mail out as themselves, they can, but importantly there is nothing stopping Alison from sending mail as being From ottery-st-catchpole-rep@mag-uk.org.

Web sites and email are now both kinds of free

The software we are using on the new MAG internet server is based on the Open Source concept, it is Linux based. While not going to far into what this means, I will say that the software was written for and then freely given to, the community in general. it is free of any licensing implications. Nobody can come along in a year or so and say "You know what, I've changed my mind, you now owe me £1000 a month for using this stuff." This means it is free as in "Free Beer".

However, because we are using Linux and are self hosting, we also free to use it as in "Free Speech"! Bear in mind that MAG is a political pressure group. At the moment, everything seems to be going reasonably well with respect to our relationship with government. They propose stuff, we are consulted and the discussion is perfectly amicable for the most part. Let's imagine a day when they decide that, no, bikes are just too dangerous to be allowed to go on and in fact, this is now government policy and anyone protesting about it is therefore a terrrrrrrist. If they wanted to shut us down, they would have a very small set of targets to aim at. There is no hosting company to strong-arm. If they got us chucked off our ISP, we could simply pop back up on another address overseas at the same name; the behind the scenes giggery pokery to get that to happen is non-trivial, but the user would see us exactly as they do today.

Another more iminent threat would be of the powers that be making all our email traffic available to the very people we are negotiating with. Under recent proposals (2008-09 or so) the Home Office would like to create a massive database of every email, text and phone call made in, to or from the UK. Under existing powers this is already happening, but in order them to get the data, they jave to go to the ISP with a court order for each every different person. Under the new proposals, every Tom, D & H that takes the Queen's shilling would have access to this behemoth and would be able to run some very sophisticated traffic analysis on anyone in the UK. As it stands today, we very often get tips and tip-offs from within the councils that reall really help us. If their every mail was to be logged and analysed, that might very well make those council employees too fearful to help us. The way that the mail service is set up on the new machine, if both parties have accounts on this system or one has an account on another comparable system, the mail does not pass within range of any of the logging equipment; in fact it goes, completely encrypted, straight from the senders own machine to the MAG system. Nobody outside can even see who sent it, let alone what's in it.

A lot of thought and experience has gone into the choices for this machine. If there is something that you as a MAG member are concerned about, please contact the author and I'm sure your mind can be put at ease.

 Originally written
 By: Andrew Meredith <meredith@mag-uk.org>
 On: Tuesday, 18-Aug-2009 00:00:00 BST