My adventure into self web-hosting (Part 1)

If you had asked twenty-something me how he thought forty-something me would be hosting his website, he’d have predicted I had a rack of small servers in my attic, as part of a grid-computing business. (That’s what we called “cloud” computing back then.)

He’d have been disappointed to find out I’m using a shared web-hosting service, but that may change.

“The end of the day, remember the way, we stayed so close to the end, we’ll remember it was me and you ’cause we are gonna be…”

Over the Cliff

It all started when my article, Data-Mining Wikipedia for Fun and Profit made it to the top of Hacker News and stayed there for three hours. I was careful to try to not overburden the system by switching on an HTML cache. This way, visitors would only be served up static files without the server having to run the PHP code or talk to the database. Despite that, the server went down and I had to post a sheepish comment with a link to a mirror.

It was clear I was out-growing my current web-host. Despite my precautions, it couldn’t handle being popular for a few hours. Not only that, I’m a software developer and I wanted to develop software. The only practical choice on this service was PHP and I had long decided that life was too short for that.

I started looking at VM services as the natural next step on the ladder, but it was a chance discussion, again on Hacker News, that gave me an idea.

Clifford Stoll: “a heavy load on my raspberry-pi web server told me something was happening…”
Me: “your web server is a Raspberry PI, and its holding up while being on the HN front page?”
CS: “Hi Bill, Yep. Cloudflare is out front, so the actual load on the rasp-pi is mitigated by their content-delivery network.”

Suddenly, the idea of hosting a web server in my attic became real again. Reality had long since taught me that residential ISPs were no good for serious web hosting – but if there was a service that could deal with the bulk of GET requests and it could cover the occasional outage on my side from its cache, that’d change everything.

“Can you deal with my GET requests?”

Tunnelling

At the time, that Raspberry-Pi web server was on his residential ISP with a public IP address. That arrangement wouldn’t work for me as my own ISP didn’t allow their customers to run services like that. However, in that same comment thread, the very CTO of Cloudflare (John Graham-Cumming) mentioned to him that they had an new service that allowed their customers to VPN out to Cloudflare, making such port-forwarding shenanigans a thing of the past.

(As a not-quite a declaration of bias, Cloudflare are on my list of companies I would like to work for should my current day-job come to end. I am not (yet) an employee of Cloudflare and they’re not paying me to write this in any case. By the time you come to read this, that might have changed.)

This service is completely free. While I like not having to pay for things, it does make me a little nervous. This particular service isn’t going to be injecting ads into my site and I do understand how the free tier fits into their business model. But still, I’ve been burnt by free services suddenly disappearing before and you get no sympathy if you’ve become dependent on them. I kind of wish I could give them a few pounds each month, just in case.

Leaving such concerns to one side, I had a plan. Acquire a server and install it into one of the slots on my IKEA KALLAX unit the TV is sitting on. Plug it into my ISP’s router and once that’s running, install a web server along with the VPN software. I’ll finally be in charge of my very own web server, just like the twenty-something me thought I’d be.

“If I get to know your name, well I could trace your private number, baby. All I know is that to me, you look like you’re lots of fun. Open up your loving arms, I want some, want some. You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round…”

Quiet!

I had acquired a second-hand PC for this purpose but once I got it home it was way too noisy. I needed a machine I could leave switched on 24/7 in the lounge where we watch TV. My server would have to be really quiet.

I also considered a Raspberry Pi, the same hardware Clifford Stoll used, but I wasn’t going to only be running a few WordPress instances. I had an idea I wanted to develop and I’d need a database with plenty of space for that to work. An SD card and maybe some USB storage wouldn’t cut it.

I’m not in particular hurry to buy it as I still want to plan some more before the new machine starts taking up space. It was while I was reading reviews for various machines when I had the craziest of crazy ideas.

“And as we sit here alone, looking for a reason to go on. It’s so clear that all we have now are our thoughts of yesterday. La, la la la…”

It comes with Windows

Any PC I could buy is going to come with Windows pre-installed and fully licensed. I was always going to replace it with a variety of Linux, but I wondered, why not keep the copy Windows?

Before you all think I’ve gone insane, there are a few benefits to doing it this way. I use Windows a lot for my day job so I’m familiar with its quirks and gotchas. Even though there’s a dot-net for Linux, my development machine runs Windows so there would be fewer surprises when the development machine runs the same OS as the production machine. For the handful of WordPress sites I wanted to run, there were docker images available. Finally, because it won’t be directly connected to the scary internet I wouldn’t have to panic when there’s an update.

But even as I’m writing this, I feel I’m going to regret doing it this way. I just know I’ll be writing part six of this series and it’ll be all about installing Linux on that server machine because there’s just one stupid thing I couldn’t get working on Windows. We shall see.

A foreshadowing?

Join me for part 2 of this series, where I’ll be experimenting with getting WordPress running from a Docker container. Wish me luck.

Picture Credits:
📸 “Kee-kaws”, by me.
📸 “Duke”, by my anonymous wife.
📸 “Haven Seafront, Great Yarmouth”, by me.
📸 “Quiet Couple” by Judith Jackson. (CC)
📸 “Blisworth Canal Festival, 2019”, by me.

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