It’s Easy. But Is It Easy Enough?

Self-hosted apps are having a moment, but people are still a little freaked out by them. Could a Flatpak-style approach to self-hosting help matters?

By Ernie Smith

In the past year or so, I’ve really started to embrace self-hosting more seriously, in part because it’s gotten a lot easier to do. (One of my most popular posts of last year was also about self-hosting, which helped.)

I think the thing that originally got me into it was switching my internal dev setup to use Docker. At first, I was using Docker Desktop on Hackintosh and stuff like Plex, then I got a hold of a small mini PC that I use as a Linux box.

Eventually as I got further into that ecosystem, I found a bunch of tools that made life easier. I have become a big fan of Cosmos, a front-end tool that makes apps easy to manage. I’ve kind of come to the point where I see using docker-compose as an extremely easy tool to manage my little apps as needed.

I am by no means an expert at software maintenance, but I think self-hosting has gotten very easy thanks to containerization. Sure, sometimes issues might emerge, but they are generally pretty fixable. For one thing, it makes it so that you don’t necessarily have to understand the underlying code to set up the app. (Though, obviously, it would be nice.)

However, one thing I’ve learned of late is that what’s easy to me is not easy to others. I saw a fellow writer recently turned off by the idea of hosting Ghost because they heard it was difficult to manage. To me, it’s very much not. To launch it on DigitalOcean, for example, all you need to do is sign up for DigitalOcean and press a button, and boom, you have content management system.

On top of that, a local installation is literally two commands. As long as you have Node.js installed, it is basically painless.

But one person I was back-and-forthing with in response to that insight wasn’t having it. They raised concerns about the docs stating it wasn’t suitable for production use. I tried to explain that a local installation isn’t suitable for production use because it was a local installation intended for testing. And I got the impression that they were basically unwilling to read the docs at all, even though Ghost is one of the easier apps to install—certainly easier than Mastodon, for example.

Some people are just resistant to learning new things, and the command line is a new thing.

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The thing is, though, I have heard this argument more than once. My pal Jared Newman made this point when I discussed Immich, which is good enough that it could be the Plex of photo management. As he so perfectly put it:

I've been wanting to try this. But would it kill any of these self-hosted photo solutions to offer a fully-contained install instead of just being like "lol good luck with Docker"

As easy as I find this stuff, I’ll be the first to admit he’s right. Docker has lowered the barrier to entry to self-hosting for a lot of people. The problem is, it hasn’t lowered the barrier quite enough.

Why isn’t installing a self-hosted app as easy as just double-clicking an app and pressing “install,” like a Windows app?

Angry Laptop User

What I imagine the angry Github user feels like when he can’t find an exe file for the Python script he wants to run. (Bermix Studio/Unsplash)

This is not the first time this has come up. In fact, back in February, there was a very good meme post on Reddit where someone was complaining that they could not just download an executable from GitHub. There is too much profanity for me to directly quote it, but his complaint comes down to this: He wants an application on GitHub, but it isn’t compiled for his needs, because it’s literally code intended to be used in a command line, not a graphical application.

It’s a snotty post that deeply misunderstands the role of programmers and tools (and may or may not be legit), but it makes sense that it exists, because we have two parts of the software ecosystem that are popular but are completely at odds with one another: The app ecosystem, in which everything is packaged neatly, and the FOSS ecosystem, where everything is like a LEGO kit, asking you to put it together on your own kitchen table.

Recently, Linux has seen a very strong improvement in uptake. The rise in specialized applications like the Steam Deck has likely helped, but I think one of the biggest factors that kind of goes unspoken is the way that Flatpak has made it a lot easier to be an end user in the Linux ecosystem.

For those not familiar, Flatpak is effectively a package management tool that distributes applications in a sandboxed environment that is consistent across distributions. This is great for end users, because it offers a layer of abstraction from traditional packaging tools, which differ between distros and add a layer of confusion to using Linux. I admit that this is highly simplifying, but it plays a similar role to Docker for standalone apps on the Linux desktop.

Flatpaks, with the help of distribution tools like Flathub, have revolutionized the distribution of Linux apps in many cases. It just works, no matter if you’re living in Arch, Fedora, or Ubuntu. You can try a distro and your desired apps will just work. That is a great quality-of-life improvement that makes Linux just a little bit easier.

Maybe we need a Flatpak for self-hosting—a way to sort of hide the weird parts of our self-hosted tools? Plex is not a perfect tool, but I think it has a bigger profile than similar apps of its type because it does this exact thing. But not every self-hosted app has the budget of a Plex. Which is why another abstraction could solve the FOCL (fear of command line) problem.

“Just give me an app,” the normies say, to scoffs from the power users. But this time, maybe the normies are right.

It would be a real shame if the benefits of self-hosting passed people by because the first step scared them off.

Packed Links

The thing Elon doesn’t understand about bots is that they’re financially motivated to post, which is why charging a fee just to access Twitter is stupid.

This past week has been a great week for big-name mega-viral videos, between Conan O’Brien’s saucy debut on Hot Ones and Ryan Gosling’s revival of SNL’s legendary “Papyrus” sketch, in which he plays a man who goes crazy because of Avatar’s use of the Papyrus font. As a font nerd I am never going to not miss a chance to talk about how great the original “Papyrus” sketch is. Having a direct sequel rules.

A sad nod to Blur, which didn’t get an especially Tender response from the crowd at Coachella. If I was there, I would have sung along. True story: One of my greatest feats as a fan of music was calling a radio station and getting them to play a Blur album track in the ’90s.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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