Running a server at home

I keep a server running at home 24/7 for ten years now. It started with a small 486 CPU based PC running NetBSD 1.1. Back then no ISP rented out servers and hosting your own machine in an ISP’s data center was very expensive. Running my server at home wasn’t that cheap either because of the analog leased line required for the permanent Internet connection. But it was really cool to have your own website, a permanent feed into your news system and mailing lists which operated in realtime.

Over time I got more bandwidth for less money and upgraded both the software and hardware of my server. These days it is a Pentium M CPU on a desktop motherboard with four SATA drives and a RAID hostadapter running NetBSD 3.0_STABLE. It provides mail service for my family and a few friends, hosts my websites (including this Blog) and is the fileserver for most of the computers at home. Running these service myself provides me a lot of flexibility and better service compared to the offerings of a lot of ISPs. But it also requires work to maintain the infrastructure and reliable Internet connection which provides fixed public IP addresses (what makes it more expensive).

A lot of other people prefer renting a server in a data center these days. There are numerous advantages of course:

  1. Less noise and heat at home.
  2. More bandwidth.
  3. Somebody else maintains the hardware (although you might have to pay for that).
  4. Your don’t depend on the reliability of your home Internet connection so much.

One of my fellow workers recently rented a server from the Hetzner Online AG because he doesn’t trust his cable connection at home – I wouldn’t trust it either :-). And foolish as I am I argued with him and told him that my DSL link is reasonably stable.

The universe does of course not forgive such bold statements and punished me. Two major BT outages within 24 hours, a power fluctuation this morning (no machine rebooted but the DSL modem lost the connection) and two more connection failures during the afternoon tought me humility. Only after I decided to write this Blog entry and admit my defeat the universe forgave me and stopped playing yo-yo with my DSL.

Despite the advantages and the problems in the last 48 hours I will continue to run a server at home. Besides the effort of relocating my server I also prefer to have certain services (e.g. the fileserver) at home and not in a data center, mostly for performance reasons. And splitting the services between two machine would only cause more work. My hope is of course that in a not so distant future you can get a 1Gb/Sec low latency Internet connection into your home which allows you to use a server in a data center just like the one you used to have under your desk at home. Such a setup would provide the advantages of both solutions and open new opportunities. I’m stilling dreaming of nice thin clients which I could give to my familiy members for reading e-mail and surfing the web. And if they have problems with their Windows PCs afterwards I can simply refuse to fix them. 🙂

Old Habits Die Hard

As part of my effort to reduce the complexity of my IT infrastructure at home I’m currently reviewing which parts of it I really need and which I don’t. My intention is to have to spend less time in front of my computers at home. And if I spend time in front of them I want to do things which I enjoy rather than routine work.

One of the things which I reviewed was whether I really need to have a news system on my server at home. I’ve been running an own news system for a long time. It started with running the Universal Message System on my Amiga many years ago (probably in 1993). Echomails from the FidoNet were the first newsfeed into that system.

A few month later I got Usenet news (and Internet e-mail) via an UUCP uplink operated by another student from the local university. After I bought my first PC in 1995 and installed NetBSD on it I discovered that the bundled Taylor UUCP performed much faster and more reliable than the UUCP software I was using on the Amiga. So I decided to let the PC handle the UUCP connections. But because I still wanted to read Usenet news on my Amiga using IntuiNews, a GUI client for UMS written by Markus Stipp and me, I needed a way to exchange news between the Amiga and the PC. And so I installed Cnews, a news system for UNIX under NetBSD.

A year later my Amiga developed a hardware problem which made it very unstable. I therefore decided to use one of my NetBSD PCs as my main mail and news client. After quickly replacing ELM with Mutt as my e-mail client I begun using Knews for reading news. And Knews didn’t like the primitive NNTP daemon provided by Cnews very much. I decided to install INN as news server which seemed like a bold venture back then. If I remember correctly I spent indeed hours to get INN to compile (luxurious things like configure scripts where not known at that time) and run under NetBSD and to configure it afterwards. But when I was finished I had a nice and fast news system and Knews finally ran smoothly.

Knowing how to administer an INN installation turned out to be useful. At times I looked after four INN installations (work, major customer, home and the uplink for home) which fortunately didn’t require much effort after the initial installation. But after changing my job and my ISP for my home Internet connection only a single INN installation remained. And I’ve kept that INN running to this day.

But I recently wondered whether I really need that INN on my server. My current ISP provides NNTP access to a large news server which even offers german language newsgroups. And while feeding NetBSD mailings list into newsgroups seemed like a good idea initially it didn’t work out too well. I usually forget to start a newsreader to look at them and when I do there are often too many messages to handle. And running a news server also requires somebody providing you an uplink for it. The Individual Network Berlin e.V provided me with that service in the last few years. But because they have to cover their expences and I had to pay the a monthly membership fee.

Saving money and work by stopping to stopping to maintain by own news system? That sounded like I great idea and I started to shut the INN down by termination my membership of the Individual Network Berlin e.V. and asking the administrator of my backup news uplink to pull the plug. But in all that enthusiasm I also felt a bit of a loss. It was like throwing away a worn out piece of clothing which was once your favourite thing to wear. You know that it is the right thing to do but a part of you don’t want to let it go nevertheless.
I guess it is just that old habits die hard …

NetBSD meeting in Cambridge

Yesterday we managed to have the second NetBSD get-other in Cambridge in a pub called the Carltom Arms. Besides the usual suspects (NetBSD developers and users living in the area) Cherry Mathew showed up. He is currently visiting Cambridge and set the ball rolling by asking for NetBSD people in the area who are up for a beer.

Like the first meeting it was a nice and relaxed evening. We talked a lot about geek stuff like NetBSD (no surprise here), WLANs, ISPs and DSL routers of course. But because Gavan Fantom brought his lovely fiancÊe we also covered a lot of non-technical topics like the quality of fish and chips in Cambridge or which country has the worst taxi drivers. 🙂

I really enjoyed the meeting and it was good to experience some positve NetBSD spirit after the recent commotion.

Taking comfort in the Unfairness of the Universe