Friday, January 30, 2015

Creating an Online Presence - Should You Self-Host?

This post is part of a series on creating an online presence.

If you have been following this series, and asking yourself the questions I posed, then by now you should have a pretty clear idea about:
You have a pretty good idea of what you want to accomplish.  The next important question is whether or not you want to self-host.

What Do I Mean By Self-Hosting?

When I say "self-hosting" I mean, essentially:
  • Register a domain name
  • Set up a way to host your site (e.g., via a webhost or on your own infrastructure)
  • Set up the pages/blog on your own, either through applications or coding it from scratch
For the purpose of this discussion, I will describe the alternative to self-hosting as site service, because if I say "site-as-a-service" I will want to abbreviate that as SaaS and probably confuse some people.

This decision will have profound impacts.  Fundamentally, you are trading difficulty & cost for capability & control.  If self-hosting makes sense for you, you should do it.  Let's figure out if it makes sense for you.

Paper Tigers, Straw Men, and Red Herrings

Alternative heading - Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Not surprisingly, people that want to sell you things related to self-hosting will shovel fear, uncertainty, and doubt on you to make their case.  They raise all sorts of paper tigers, straw men, and red herrings.  But let's focus on the common concerns and considerations.  We'll start with the concerns related to self-hosting and move on to benefits.

Self-Hosting Is More Difficult/Costly

There are exceptions, but if you self-host, you are going to need more money, resources, or time to realize your goals.  If you don't own infrastructure, you will need to pay someone, e.g., a webhost, to provide you with a way to host your site.  If you have the infrastructure, someone needs to maintain it.

This is not a showstopper, but it should not be dismissed.  It can be a trivial expense (averaging less than $10 per month) or a large ($100+ per month) one.  It can be relatively easy to set up. It depends upon your needs.

Self-Hosting Means New Operational Concerns

To one degree or another, when you self-host, you now inherit a new operational concern, availability of the site.  Yes, big sites can go down, but I have maintained web sites off and on for close to 30 years and I have spent many nerve-wracking hours trouble-shooting self-hosted sites for:
  • Availability issues with websites
  • Page-loading problems due to database issues
  • Disruption in features due to hardware issues
  • Sudden loss of functionality due to a major version change in an underlying site application or coding language
But, I have never had an outage with Blogger.  I have never had to submit support tickets to Google to get things working that suddenly stopped working properly.  But I have do to that many times for self-hosted solutions with webhosts.

It is common?  No.  Does it mean you should not self-host? No.  It's just something to consider.

If You Need Applications, Self-Hosting Means Application Maintenance

If you self-host and want to use a blog, photo gallery, calendar, or a content manager system (an application that can help you build web pages), then you are going to need to install applications.  You will also need to insure they are updated/patched properly to insure they 1) continue to function and 2) remain safe to use.

This does not mean you will be worrying day-to-day about application issues.  It does mean some work up front and some occasional/infrequent attention to insure the applications stay up to date.  It's not a showstopper but it is a significant consideration.  When someone finds an exploit in Blogger, Google's team of engineers takes care of it.  I don't have to worry about it.  I probably won't even notice there was ever a risk.

There are ways to simplify things.  Some webhosts will offer "one-click" installations of applications. This typically includes automated updates.  However, it can come with some very tight constraints. In my experience, that can include 1) no customization and 2) no access to the directory where it is stored.  If you are going to rely primarily on one-click installs, I would recommend not self-hosting if you can achieve your goals without it.  You are not fully taking advantage of the freedom you gain with self-hosting and still increasing the cost and complexity.

Site Services Include Many Bells and Whistles

There are a lot of things one can take for granted with a site service.  Many of those things would require you to assemble a host supporting applications to achieve if you self-host.  Many, if not most, folks use a number of supporting apps by default for WordPress; if they self-host, that can mean a fair amount of going and getting those apps and getting them set up and configured.  Not very difficult, but definitely more to manage.

Double-Edge Sword - Best Practices

When you self-host, you are the one choosing best practices.  But you need to figure them out and use them.  This is both a freedom and a burden.  If you use a site service, best practices are largely built into it.  But you may not like their choices.  Hence, it's a double-edged sword.

Self-Hosting Can Free You From Some Terms Of Services Constraints

If you put content on a site service that does not meet their terms of services, they may take it down or even shut down your site.  You should be aware of this, especially if you plan to post content that you think would be questionable, but for that vast majority of people this is not a concern.  I believe that for more than 99% of people creating an online presence, the TOS of a site service would not be a problem.

On the other hand, services have built-in mechanisms to properly route audiences when you have, for example, adult content, and you might want that.  If you plan to post such content, it can be a benefit to have such filtering and routing.  I have no plans to create a "Technology After Dark" site, so I am good to go.

In general, content hosts are quite liberal and TOS concerns are not going to be an issue.  If TOS does become an issue, you can switch to self-hosting.  This would be another argument for using your own domain name (remember that is different than self-hosting) so you don't lost your audience when you transition.

Self-Hosting Gives You Much Greater Control/Freedom

You absolutely gain a great deal more freedom and control if you self-host.  I feel that this is the chief reason to self-host.
  • You can choose what code to use for your pages
  • You completely control the layout, look and feel, and access
  • You can add or subtract blogs, photo galleries, etc. in any way you like
  • You can fire up databases and do lots of fun and magical stuff
This may be vital for your goals and if it is, then you should self-host, period.  However...

Do You Need Complete Control of the Content and Branding?

If you create a site hosted by someone else, like Blogger, Webix, Weebly, etc., you can customize the layout, but there are limits.  And there may be some small bits you can't remove, like with Blogger the little Blogger navigation bar and "Powered by Blogger".  You can really strip down or customize it quite a bit, but those things are not going away.   That said, you can do a lot to give your site a distinctive and coherent brand appearance with a site service.

For most people, these are not significant obstacles to reaching their goals.  But let's say you are selling yourself as a master web designer.  Then you probably want to demonstrate that mastery by creating a site, and self-hosting makes sense.

Red Herrings

There are a number of topics used as red herrings in this discussion.  Some would suggest that you cannot make a professional-looking site if you do not self-host.  That's simply false.  And, in fact, when you let people loose on a site without constraint, you can end up with some very unprofessional results.  Either approach can produce professional or unprofessional results.

Some would suggest that if you don't self-host, the company providing your service may unexpectedly take away your blog service!  Yes, Google has retired services.  Yes, it is possible that they might retire Blogger.  There are mitigation strategies.  People have thought of this and solved this problem.  If you have the technical resources to self-host, you have the technical resources to deal with a surprise retirement of your service.

Some imply that you can't use your own domain name if you use a service.  Some even explicitly suggest that if you use Blogger you are stuck with  We know this is wrong. You can absolutely use your own domain name with a service like Blogger; just look at the address of this page.

And To Complicate It Further, You Can Go With a Hybrid

You can do a mixture of self-hosting and a service.  For example, you can set up a Blogger blog site and then add a page that points to an external link.  That external link can point to a page you have self-hosted so that you can do some cool out-of-the-box thing that Blogger did not allow, but you still get the benefits of using Blogger.

What Have I Done?

I have used all three.  They all made sense and I do not regret any of the decisions.  In each case, the choice made the most sense.  And in some cases, the goals change and the solution changed accordingly.

For my own personal presence, I initially started with a site coded from scratch, but I found that the content did not really demand it. I can do lots of great stuff with a website but I spend that energy on volunteer web application development.  When I decided to start blogging, I decided that my goals were best met by using Blogger, so I created a Blogger blog and pointed it to my domain name.  This site may become a hybrid, but for now it meets my goals.

What Should You Do?

Self-hosting can be liberating, fun, educational, and exciting.  It can also be tiresome, frustrating, confusing, and scary.

If a significant goal of your site one of the following, then consider self-hosting:
  • Demonstration of website expertise
  • Demonstration of online marketing expertise/branding
  • Heavily relies on data that you need to automatically collect, store, and present
  • Requires a a mixture of capabilities beyond what a site service can readily provide
  • Requires dramatic customization
Otherwise, I would seriously consider a site service.  Do what makes sense for you and your goals.

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