It started with a chai latte.
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, 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. 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. 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!