Practical Privacy — Virtual Private Servers

There was a time, not too long ago, where running your own server was a monumental task. The challenges were many, including cost, performance, and technical knowledge required. Nowadays, while running a server might not be as straightforward as installing an app on your mobile device, the barriers to entry have been lowered dramatically.

While there are many ways in which you can run a server (including self-hosting at home), probably the cheapest, easiest, and best-performing option is leasing a shared Virtual Private Server, or “VPS”. Without getting too deep in the technical details, this essentially means you are given your own shared “virtual” server inside of a large data center somewhere in the world. On that server, you can do things like host a website, store files, and (probably most relevant to this series) run your own private cloud applications.

Private cloud. It’s like the regular cloud but…privater.

The History of Virtual Private Servers

The path to web servers, at least from a consumer standpoint, is an interesting one that starts in roughly the late 1990s. The most common reason for needing a server was to have a website on the new “World Wide Web”, and this was usually accomplished by either running your own web server at home (incredibly hard at the time) or using a free hosting service (something like Geocities or Angelfire). As the web evolved, people started wanting more out of their websites; custom domains, more storage, and faster page delivery speeds were all problems that needed to be solved, and new web services began to emerge to solve those problems.

By the mid-2000s, it was becoming common to lease website hosting from a hosting provider (such as GoDaddy, etc). These one-stop-shops provided everything you needed to run a website, including storage, bandwidth, a domain name, and server software. This meant that people could have all the advantages of a home web server without having to actually administrate it. While that was a big leap forward, what you could do with these servers was typically limited to running a website (and if you were lucky, sometimes an FTP server).

Over time, what could be done on the web continued to grow, evolving from a simple page-serving medium to a place where robust web applications could be run from within a browser. Services like Google Docs and Spotify were becoming all the rage, but since simple web hosts generally didn’t support more than web hosting, users were once again forced to run their own servers at home if they wanted to replicate these services while maintaining control over their private data. This is the point where Virtual Private Servers enter the scene.

Starting around 2010, VPS services from companies like Digital Ocean and OVH began to appear, and they allowed average consumers to pay a cheap monthly fee for access to a Virtual Machine (or “VM”) attached to the Internet. These VMs would give consumers the ability to run any web service they wanted, exposed to the Internet, with a reasonable amount of storage and bandwidth. Thus, the cheap VPS was born, unlocking a vast ocean of potential services consumers could use to have the advantage of the cloud with much more privacy.

A modern web service…circa 1999.

How This Helps With Privacy

For those folks who don’t live in the tech world, you might not think much about web services, but you’re very likely to use them every day. If you use Google Docs, Spotify, or even Facebook, you’re using a web service. These are all incredibly professional tools that work amazingly well, but for every single one of them you’re relying on a 3rd-party to handle and store your data. From a privacy standpoint, that’s quite a nightmare.

A VPS allows you to run your own version of online document editors, cloud storage, streaming music players, or really any other web service that you can think of, but on a server that you control. It’s up to you to decide who has access to the information, how long it sticks around, and who (if anyone) you want to share it with. While companies like Google and Facebook generate the bulk of their revenue by mining your data and allowing advertisers to target against it, with a VPS you simply pay for the monthly server fee, and everything else is up to you.

NextCloud, an open-source, cloud-based file storage application you can install on a VPS

How To Get It

There are a number of different companies that offer VPS services, but the process is pretty similar no matter which one you decide to go with:

  1. Choose your VPS service provider.
  2. Sign up, choose a server type, and start paying.
  3. Access your account and choose which operating system to install (when in doubt, use Ubuntu 16.04).
  4. Access your server via SSH and install whichever web service you want to use.

As stated, there are a number of VPS service providers available, but some of the more renowned companies include Digital Ocean, Linode, OVH, and Vultr. It’s very easy to start and stop these plans, so the best way to learn is to buy the cheapest one, jump in, and start using it.

Starting a new VPS with Digital Ocean (referred to as “Droplets”).

Alternative Options

Using a VPS is a great way to strengthen your control over your private data, while still taking advantage of the inherent nature of cloud-based web services. Of course, there are always caveats to any solution, and with a VPS you’re still placing your data on hardware that, ultimately, you do not own and control. If you need that level of confidence over the control of your private data, you’ll likely want to run your own home-based server. There are lots of great tutorials and communities to provide support for this endeavor!

This rabbit hole goes pretty deep. If you’re new to this, stick with VPSs for now.

Parting Thoughts

While starting up a VPS is incredibly easy, that’s only the first step in the process. You’ve now opened up the door to a much larger world of amazing open-source web services that can be installed and accessed, which range in complexity from sending a few simple commands to get things running on the server, to massively complex services that require databases, lots of dependencies and more. We’ll cover some of these in future articles!

Hopefully you enjoyed this article! To get some more great Practical Privacy tips, check out my other articles!