Do you like the functionality of Google Docs, Flickr, Zoho, and Basecamp but don’t like paying subscription fees? Or, are you worried about the applications losing or deleting your accounts?
There’s a simple solution – host it yourself.
While hosting your own applications seems it’s only within the realm of techies, even non-techies can achieve application hosting prowess with some simple steps.
Find a VPS Host
The first step to hosting your own applications is to find a host provider that meets your needs.
What your are looking for is a host that:
- Has virtual server plans
- Uses Linux
- Has Fantistico installed
- Have an FTP program
The reasons for the above list are quite simple and let’s look at each in detail.
Has virtual server plans
A virtual server allows you the functionality of having your own dedicated server without some of the programming and maintenance requirements. Personally, I like cPanel WHM< as the control panel for the virtual server. You don't need to know the technical specs of cPanel WHM; you just need to see what VPS control panel your host is using. With a virtual server, you can set up and control multiple domains. This is important as once you learn how easy it is to host your own applications, you might have might have sites such as:
- Personal blog
- Personal applications (that’s not on your blog domain so it has a bit more security)
- A friends and family forum
- Company applications
- It becomes simple to quickly expand how many sites you want to run, and the possibilities of each
Please note that you should use a different host than domain registrar.
While many arguments can be made about windows vs linux hosting, for free hosting applications for non-techies there are two main reasons to use linux:
- Many freeware apps are easier for non-techies to install on linux
- .htaccess will be your best friend
Sites such as Source Forge are open communities of developers and create applications that are easy to install yourself.
.htaccess can be used to set up redirects, password protect files, use includes, and handle some CGI. This is the only ‘programming’ that you will have to learn. However, it’s really not programming, it’s simply writing some instructions for your server. Most of what you’ll want to learn is already on the net and you are just a couple copies and pastes away from having a complete .htaccess file.
Has Fantistico Installed
This is the key to installing your own apps for non-techies. Fantastico is a preinstalled program that sits on your VPS and allows one click installs of many of the top free applications on the web. In fact, applications are so easy to install, you may find yourself installing several types of similar applications just to see which one will become your favorite. Have you always wanted to try Drupal, Joomla, or Mambo but didn’t know where to start? Now it’s easy; a few clicks and your applications will be installed and ready for testing.
Have an FTP program
While you can use a stand alone FTP program, if you are truly a non-techie, you might want something even simpler. FireFTP is a plug-in for Firefox that let’s you run your FTP program within your browser.
Choose Your Applications for Instillation
Once you have your domains setup, it’s time to install some applications. For Fantastico installs, the setup is this easy:
- Choose where the application will live (subdomain, folder, etc)
- If it’s a subdomain, then create the subdomain in your control panel (which is generally a couple clicks, one open form, and a submit button)
- Navigate to Fantastico
- Choose the application you want to install
- List the install location (dotproject.example.com)
- Hit the install button
- Follow any additional instructions (username, passwords, email notification, etc)
I would suggest starting with dotProject. This is a fantastic project management software with additional plug-ins and an active community. Once its installed, then you can start to create projects around all of the other software you want to install and test.
Here are my favorite Fantastico installs:
- WordPress for blogging
- SMF for bulletin boards
- TikiWiki for groupware (Wiki, Blogs, Images, etc, in a single application)
- Coppermine for photo sharing
- phpAdsNew for ad serving
- Moodle for learning environments
Here’s the full list of Fantastico application installs.
That’s It – Your New Apps are Installed!
Did that sound way too simple? If you already have a hosting account, a website, and Fantastico on your servers – it really is that simple.
If you don’t, then you do need to buy a domain name, choose a host provider, become familiar with your host’s control panel, and if you go the VPS route, learn a bit about that control panel as well. However, learning these interfaces is no more difficult than learning any other desktop application. There’s no programming required, just a familiarity with the settings and what they control.
When deciding on which applications you wish to run on your servers, there are some additional considerations that should factor into your final decisions.
How active is the open source community?
Some products are complete and do not need new development. Other products have large communities releasing new features, plug-ins, and security patches. In addition, if your company is relying on some of these applications, you might wish to pay a developer to add some custom functionality to these applications.
As a general rule, if you are non-techie installing and running these applications do not store sensitive information within these applications.
You may wish to pay a security expert to check on your server security and make sure that your applications are as protected as possible. For less sensitive information, many control panels also have some method of password protecting files.
Some applications are free for you to install yourself; however, there are commercial versions that you can upgrade to if your business requires even more from the application. It’s worth investigating if the program is supported by a community or an actual business behind the scenes. An example is Open Office. The application might be similar to a free version of Microsoft Office; however, Sun does have a business model around giving away a free product. (Related article: Wired’s Freemium by Chris Anderson)
Total Needed Space
It’s hard to beat Picass’a 400GB of image hosting for a measly $500 per year. However, most people aren’t hosting hundreds of gigs of files on the web. If you’d like to get a quick snapshot of how many files and file sizes each of your folders contain on your PC to form a webhost comparison, download Windows Directory Statistics.
Advantages of Using Hosted Online Apps
It should also be said that there are definite advantages to using 3rd party hosted apps, such as:
- You automatically have access to new features when they are developed
- Tech Support
- Cross product integration (ZoHo is getting good at this, Google has a ways to go)
- Usually receive more total space
- Generally low cost or free options
- Generally good security
- Generally good backup of your data
Advantages of Hosting Your Own Apps
Conversely, there are advantages to hosting it yourself, such as:
- Your account shouldn’t be deleted
- You don’t have to pay for multiple licenses, installs, etc
- You can backup your data whenever you want
- You can try out many types of software to see what you really like
- If you need more space, just buy a larger hosting plan
- Experimentation. When hosting your own apps, it’s easier to just play with some apps to see which one really fits your needs
- Easy to brand as your own business
Personally, I use a mix of 3rd party hosted and self-hosted. dotProject fulfills my project management needs; and since I always have 25+ projects running, I don’t want to pay a 3rd party by the project list. However, I also like GMail; but want to maintain some branding control, so I use Google Apps for some of my email.
Final Notes on Open Source Applications
I’m a fan of open source software, especially for non-programmers who do rely on others for improvement. For small businesses and personal information usage; nothing can beat free. However, always know when the software or information is so critical that you should be either paying for the software support or paying an individual to monitor your servers and open source software. That’s just good business.
Free is nice. Having all your business records hacked is not.
However, if you want to create a forum for your friends, run a blog, keep the big ‘to-do’ list semi-updated, put the house projects in a project management environment, or even put up a shared calendar for your employees to use, nothing beats some free open source software.