Mikail
mika's business blog

mika's business blog

My journey to more privacy with self-hosted, open-source services (+ tool tips) [alternatives to slack, intercom, gdrive, etc.]

My journey to more privacy with self-hosted, open-source services (+ tool tips) [alternatives to slack, intercom, gdrive, etc.]

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Mikail

Published on Feb 10, 2021

11 min read

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Have you ever been concerned about data security when using an online (cloud) service to store your data, process emails or communicate with your team? Then this is the right article for you. I'll show you my tools and what you'll need to set them up.

TL:DR If you're only interested in the tools I use, you can jump to chapter 4

1. Now where did I start?

Before starting this journey I was a heavy Google Service User. Using almost every possible service in the Google ecosystem to the fullest. Google does a great job making superior and easy-to-access tools for the most use cases. Especially the fact that all services are very well interconnected is practical and can be a huge time saver. But when it comes to data security, I've always had a bad gut feeling here. And that had less to do with a fundamental mistrust into cloud services than with the fact that I could not trace where exactly my data was stored. It was like a black-box. You put data into a folder and it get's stored - somewhere. I thought it wasn't right to give up control of the most valuable asset of our time. So I asked myself the question: Can I replace all cloud services I have been using so far with equivalent self-hosted, open-source alternatives?

Spoilers: Yes it is possible! And it can also save you (or your company) a lot of money.

2 . The prerequisites

For making this transition you don't need to be a computer scientist or programmer. We live in a great time, where a lot of services have been made very accessible. I will give you some tools on the way. So what do you need to start?:

  • (most important) willingness to get used to a new environment and adapt existing workflows slightly if necessary
  • An own server (vServer or dedicated Server) via a trusted hoster

That's all we need. Now let's start:

3. Setting up the server

In the past, setting up and, above all, maintaining an own server could take up an enormous amount of time (or money) and has created a major barrier to entry. However, this point is the foundation of everything. Security can only be guaranteed on an up-to-date system. You should make sure that this is ensured. What are the possibilities, if you have little knowledge in server management and have no administrator in your team:

  • A lot of hosters offer a "managed" - Service for their customers. Here, updates and the initial setup are taken care of by the hoster for a higher monthly fee (Starting at ~30-35€/month). Nowadays the monthly costs are absolutely manageable and a very good solution for all those of you who don't want to deal with this topic.

  • Using a Service (SaaS) like Cloudron: This service is getting installed upon the installation of your operating system and takes care of all system updates and application updates. The application also gives you the possibility to easily one-click install and manage all desired applications. I've been using this service now for a long time and can say it works great! I'm not getting payed for recommending these guys but for me this was an absolute game changer (up to 2 Apps are free. after that yearly it costs 15€/month)

In the following, I will explain the setup and administration using Cloudron. Linux Admins simply use the installation instructions or docker containers of the applications.

4. Now which tools to use?

Cloud Storage = Nextcloud

  • A big one for me. I want my data to be secure and accessible by all my devices with a dedicated app (like GDrive). For me this was an easy one and I'd go with Nextcloud.
  • The functionality of Nextcloud is enormous and makes it an equivalent replacement for my Google Drive. Nextcloud has its own calendar management, mail client, office solution with the possibility to work collaboratively, chat client with video call function, the possibility to activate end-to-end encryption and much more. So this covers a huge chunk of every software I need for myself and my business.
  • I installed Nextcloud via Cloudron with the app package. Saves me about 120€/year

Team Communication = Mattermost

  • For business communication I used a pro version of Slack. In the transition to a self-hosted mindset I found a great open-source alternative which I use in a productive environment every day. The app is called Mattermost. Another great alternative I found is called RocketChat.
  • The functionality is almost completely identical to that of Slack. For me a no-brainer.
  • Installation via Cloudron app package. Savings: ~400€/year

Password Manager = Bitwarden

  • For saving passwords I have been using Bitwarden for a long time. Since it's open-source I have also transferred this program to my server
  • Installation via Cloudron app package. Savings: ~30€/year (compared to LastPass)

Surveys = Lime Survey

  • As an alternative to services like surveymonkey I've found and implemented the open-source tool Limesurvey
  • The feature set of Limesurvey is almost identical with the one's from surveymonkey
  • Installation via Cloudron app package. Now I wasn't the biggest surveymonkey user but comparing the free to run Limesurvey with the lowest surveymonkey subscription this can save you up to 400€ a year.

Time Tracking = Kimai

  • For tracking my time and the time of my team members I've implemented an self-hosted app called Kimai
  • In comparison to apps like Toggl it lacks some minor features (e.g. dedicated phone app) but it does track the time without any issues and that's all that counts for me in a time-tracking app.
  • Installation via Cloudron app package. Savings: ~200€/year

VPN Service

  • Open-VPN for connecting to, while using public Wi-Fi when travelling
  • Limit features when compared to services like Proton-VPN. Mainly because you're limited to one (your) server. But for creating an encrypted, trusted tunnel it works very good
  • Installation via Cloudron app package. Savings: 48€/year

Ticket Management Software (Customer Support, Communication Channels)

  • Very good tool to use here is called Zammad
  • Zammad has everything I'd think of for implementing a multi-channel ticketing system. Very comparable to Zendesk Support features.
  • Installation via Docker (manual installation required). Savings can be huge regarding your customer-agent size. I would say 120€/month +
  • Cloudron has osTicket as an open source solution for one-click installation. I find that Zammad has the better user interface, that's why I go with this one but for easy setup osTicket definitely is an option you could check out.

Conclusion

At the beginning I thought that I'll never be able to switch a majority of my productivity applications to open-source alternatives. Especially after working with easy to use cloud-service tools for a long time. But I was wrong. Doing my research I discovered a lot of great and well-supported tools. My workflows are still as efficient as before while having more control over where my data is stored and how this data is processed. This gives me a piece of mind and saves me a considerable amount of money along the way.

I encourage everyone to try this out. But I am also aware that this guide is not for everyone and that many people want to stay with their familiar cloud service. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Everybody has a different approach to data protection and everybody is free to decide for themselves.

I would also encourage you (if you have the opportunity) to support the developers of the open-source tools you use. With donations or by helping to develop the software. In the end the whole open-source idea is based on a give and take. Endnotes

Do you use open-source applications? I'm also thankful for your feedback, tips and thoughts. If you have further questions feel free to ask them in the comments.

 
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