Already got a domain? I challenge you to reclaim your server.

It started with a chai latte.


Not this particular bowl of chai (from La Boulange in San Francisco), but one equally as potent.

The other day, I was poking around the list of apps available for automatic installation for Domain of One’s Own participants. I have experience with WordPress, Moodle, phpBB, MediaWiki, and YOURLS, but there are 100+ other applications that I’ve never used or seen, let alone installed and configured. I thought to myself,ย I should probably check out a few of these apps so I can provide some guidance to people who are looking to set up their site, and don’t know where to get started.

I decided to start with the image galleries (which I’ll write about later), as that was something that would have immediate application as part of my own infrastructure. I also decided to make myself a cold chai latte, as I’d been up late the previous night getting sucked into a game on Steam. Within an hour, my brain was vibrating in my skull (or at least it felt like it), and I had gone from wanting to set up a single image gallery to planning on ditching my third-party shared hosting in favor of a virtual private server (VPS). I could tell I’d made the chai a wee bit too strong, but made an agreement with my overcaffeinated self that if it still seemed like not-the-worst idea when I came down from the buzz, I would go for it.

A couple of hours later, I signed up for a VPS through Linode, an old-gold provider with a reputation for great customer service. I considered using Digital Ocean, an upstart with great pricing, but decided that the customer service at Linode would be worth the additional cost. I’ve got server admin experience from my days working at that other school, so running my own server isn’t completely new to me, but I like knowing that if I really screw something up, I’ll have help.

The point of getting a VPS was several-fold. First, I don’t want to spend even a moment thinking, will my host allow this? Will I be able to get the right PHP modules installed? etc. As my own server admin, my only limitation is the amount of time and effort I am willing to spend on making this work. Secondly, in doing some work to help out a friend and colleague earlier in the summer, I got frustrated at how rusty I was. I worked hard to build this skill in the past, and then it just sat there for a few years, atrophying. I wanted to get myself back into shape on that front.

To be clear, though, becoming a server admin doesn’t need to feel intimidating. When I first started several years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. To be safe, I picked an operating system (Ubuntu) that had a low barrier-to-entry, a great user community, and lots of online documentation, and slowly but surely started to feel more comfortable. Now it’s a lot easier to get started. Providers like Linode and Digital Ocean will give you a server with not just the operating system, but the whole LAMP stack used by most hosts, automatically installed. You don’t have to worry about the hardware, they take care of that part.ย There are also great instructions about securing your server and hosting websites that walk you through the whole configuration process, step by step. It couldn’t be much easier.

For those who are totally new to web hosting, buying a domain name and hosting it on a third-party provider (like HostGator, Bluehost, DreamHost, etc) is absolutely a big step. It’s exciting, but also a little bit scary, sorta like moving away from home for the first time. For those of us who have had domains and hosting accounts for a while, buying yet another domain isn’t particularly thrilling or notable, it’s just another transaction.

As an ed-tech practitioner, I think it’s important for us to push ourselves in the same way we push the people we support.ย And so I issue a challenge to those of you who are already comfortable with third-party hosting: consider expanding your reclamation. Get yourself a VPS, and take control not only of your domain, but the server it lives on. Push yourself to experience that same slightly-nervous-but-excited feeling we love seeing in students, and actually learn something new about the way the web works. Let me know how it goes!

Posted in edtech and tagged , , , , , , , , .


  1. Good for you for continuing to push yourself to learn new things. I look forward to hearing about more discoveries, and failures…yep those too…in the future.

    If this is what happens after one cup of chai on a random Thursday morning, one only wonders what having a little caffeine in your system EVERY day while being at DTLT might look like.

    No wait, now I am scaring myself. Carry on…

    • I think that a daily chai would mean I’d just get used to the caffeine, and it would take an ever-increasing amount to get the same effect. Not sure that would be good for anybody ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for the support! I hope, if nothing else, to help demystify the notion of running a small server. Not to diminish the importance or professionalism of good sysadmins; not just anybody can manage institutional-level servers for a living, for a lot of reasons. But honestly, even though it sometimes sounds really intimidating, it just takes a little creativity, and a little practice, to do it for yourself. It’s like the difference between cooking for yourself at home, and running a restaurant. Just like I think anyone can learn to cook a few basic dishes, I truly believe that anyone can be their own sysadmin. And, quite frankly, it would be awesome to see more people who don’t fit the sysadmin stereotype get into the business of literally running the world.

  2. You ought to give Zpanel a try. I’d be curious to see it in action. For me, having a GUI interface to take care of the basics of managing a web host (subdomains, DNS records, etc) is a necessity. I love having access to the root but day to day I don’t want to have to edit zone files and Apache configs in order to do basic operations (which opens up the possibility that I screw things up and all sites go offline while I scramble to fix). The idea of using an open source control panel (if it doesn’t suck) and possibly building on it would be really interesting.

    • I’m trying specifically to stay away from a CPanel-like experience. Linode does have a place in their management panel to add domains to your server, and then where those domains pull from is handled through Apache. It’s a one-time setup, something you only have to handle day-to-day if you’re constantly adding domains, and I think most people would actually be surprised to know how easy it is to do this via the command line. A GUI is more comfortable for most people, sure, but I’d argue that if you’re comfortable, you’re not really learning ๐Ÿ™‚

      • To me it’s about efficiency more than comfort. I have no problem letting cPanel do the heavy lifting if I’m not losing out on an experience. I’m still a baker, even if I made my cake using store-bought flour rather than milling my own. Understanding how .htaccess works, php.ini, my.cnf configs, and other such things I think are really valuable pieces of having your own server and really diving in. But for the low-hanging fruit like adding a vhost to setup a subdomain I just don’t see any real value to doing it in the command line (unless there are really fancy ways to configure it in Apache that you can’t get by using the GUI, which I’d be curious to know about).

        • I guess my point is that manually doing this stuff isn’t really heavy lifting. It might be a little more efficient to use cPanel, but by doing so you lose the opportunity to realize — hey, this isn’t really that hard. And little by little you gain confidence in trying other things that might seem hard at first, but just take a little bit of practice to master. It’s the same concept, I’d say, that’s behind Domain of One’s Own. Owning your own website might seem intimidating, but actually it’s not that hard, and it opens up a world of possibilities. Similarly, running your own server via the command line might seem intimidating, but actually it’s not that hard, and it opens up a world of possibilities.

          • I think that’s a good point about owning some of this stuff, and spending the time to learn it. What’s more, I like your point about being willing to be uncomfortable—just like we’re asking our faculty too.

            Also, more than anything, I love you are blogging it all! That is learning out in the open.

    • False binary alert! ๐Ÿ˜€ I personally am doing this because I think pushing myself into new territories, reminding myself of what it’s like to be a learner and to be slightly uncomfortable with what I’m doing, will actually make me a better edtech-er. We’ll see whether that ACTUALLY happens, but in any case that’s the goal.

      • Is the UMW VS Oberlin binary false too? Get uncomfortable with us, and ditch the comfort of your alma mater. Let GW Bush said, “You are with or against us!” ๐Ÿ™‚

        • LOL, if you were in my meetings today you would realize that volunteering for my alma mater is ANYTHING but comfortable. The squirrel and the eagle might be natural enemies, but this crunchy-granola hippy will have them singing Kumbaya together in no time …

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