Can you afford to rely on free services?

Along with the outcry after Google’s announcement to kill their popular Reader service, people have started to realize the danger of using online services. Yes, they’re incredibly convenient, and they’re often free, but they do have a cost all the same. That cost is risk: online services are outside your control. It follows that any data you place in these services are also outside your control!

Essentially, we are trading convenience for risk. How much risk are we willing to accept? Have we ever considered how much risk we can afford to accept?

I wrote in 2007 that “online” is a way of life, it may even be a fact of life, and there is less and less sense in staying “local”. We’ve learned a few things since then; there can be very good sense in staying local after all! Which of your online services would seriously damage you if they went away overnight? You should consider trustworthy alternatives for those.

Jan Moren shares his concerns about using online services, and I’d like to share my thoughts in response to his blog post with my audience as well:

I completely understand and agree with Jan’s concerns about having our personal data “out there” and outside our control. It’s convenient, but not very safe. The challenge is that safeguarding your stuff is hard work, and if anything needs adjusting/updating/repairing then you are the responsible person so you must have the time and the skills to fix it.

The average IT user is not a fully trained system administrator, so maintaining one’s own server is risky. But what is more risky: relying on your limited IT skills, or relying on third parties? That’s an individual assessment of course.

Most people obviously choose to rely on application providers like Google. Hard-core geeks run software they’ve written themselves on their own hardware in their own home. There’s a balance between those two extremes: some people run their own installation of open-source software on rented servers in a data center.

The latter seems like a sensible balance between control and responsibility: you’re in control because you decide what services you run. In light of Reader’s upcoming retirement, renting a server to run your own services can be smarter than relying on third parties.

However, there’s still a significant cost to this. You have to install and maintain the software yourself, or pay a data center to do it for you. But at least you don’t have to worry about the hardware itself; replacing faulty hard drives or power supplies, ensuring Internet access and firewalls and so on.

You might have noticed a small flaw with renting a server: you’re still relying on a third-party! The upside is that you’re actually paying that data center, so they can be presumed to be more stable than free online services. If that’s not safe enough for you then you’re probably among those who will soon have a server humming in your closet at home.

It all boils down to just two questions:
1) How lazy are you? Being lazy makes you vulnerable.
2) Are you skilled enough to not be lazy? You need skills to become self-reliant.

Finally, if you’re ready to rent your own server, I recommend DreamHost* unless you want a data center outside USA in which case Linode could be an interesting choice because you can choose among six data centers worldwide. The major reason for choosing a data center near you is faster data upload. (I receive no commission from these link – I’m just a satisfied customer.)

* referral link.

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