Setting up your own home server for media streaming, file storage, or other tasks gives you full control of your own data, and it can be a lot of fun. However, there are many reasons why you shouldn’t do it.
It’s no secret that large tech companies have poor privacy practices, especially when it comes to passing your data to government authorities without sufficient reason. That has contributed to a rise in popularity of self-hosting, which usually involves setting up Network Attached Storage or a full computer in your home and leaving it running all the time. Home servers offer many of the benefits of cloud storage or media streaming services but without the privacy concerns that usually come with hosted platforms. You can use them to make your own cloud storage, set up a VPN, run a game server for friends and family, host code repositories for software projects, and much more.
Self-hosted servers can be incredibly useful, and they can even be fun if you’re interested in networking or back-end systems. However, hosting your own server has a big downside: you have to host your own server.
Perhaps the greatest challenge with hosting your own server is keeping it running all the time. We’re all used to services like Google Drive, Netflix, and Gmail being accessible at every hour of the day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — barring the occasional outage that rarely lasts more than an hour or two. That’s possible because tech companies employ staff entirely dedicated to keeping everything running, even if it means waking up in the middle of the night to fix a problem.
You probably won’t be running software for other businesses on your home server, so the stakes aren’t as high, but it’s still something to think about. Does your home have occasional power outages? If so, you might need an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) that gives your server time to shut down to avoid data loss. A power loss also cuts your server off from the wider internet. If you’re away from home and need access to a file on your server, but a storm knocked out the internet at home, you’re pretty much stuck.
Servers themselves can also have issues that can be difficult to diagnose or fix, especially when you’re away from home. What happens if the operating system locks up when you’re away? The only way to reboot it would be to have the server connected to a smart outlet or other similar option. However, if the server is offline because a Windows update is installing, a forced remote reboot could make the situation much worse.
Your router and modem can also be potential failure points that can be difficult to diagnose, especially if your internet service provider doesn’t offer static IP addresses. Finally, you have to plan for data redundancy — an off-site backup solution is the only way to fully protect against drive failures. That adds more complexity and cost, but it might not be needed for all tasks. For example, if you’re hosting a Minecraft game server for yourself and your friends, occasionally copying the world file to a cloud storage provider is probably enough.
Lock It Down
Security is also a concern with anything connected to the internet. Most operating systems can install critical security patches automatically, such as Ubuntu Linux (with the unattended-upgrades package) and Windows, but running a server has additional real-world security challenges.
Servers have IP addresses, which give away where the server is located. If you have a home server, then the IP points to… your home. There are many, many reasons why you should not broadcast where you live to the entire world. You don’t really have to worry about that if you only host services for yourself, but if you set up a web domain to point to the server for others (or even give the direct IP address to others), you could be setting yourself up for a real-world invasion of privacy.
You also have to worry about physical access to your server, especially its drives. If someone breaks into your home, they could also access your server’s data, especially if the drives aren’t encrypted. Data centers owned by Google, Microsoft, and other cloud providers have locks, cameras, biometric scanners, security guards, and even laser beams to guard against unauthorized access. Frickin’ laser beams!
If you’re only using a simple local network drive that doesn’t interact with the outside world, or if you are the only one with access to your home server (and you’re confident the IP and other data won’t fall into the wrong hands), you have much less to worry about. Still, physical security is a crucial factor to keep in mind for all your electronics, especially servers.
What You Should Consider Instead
The risk and difficulty factor for home servers vary depending on the hardware and software. Setting up your own server with a full-featured operating system, like Windows or Linux, is usually the most work. However, the best NAS drives, such as products from Synology and WD, are pretty much plug-and-play — you don’t have to worry about staying on top of security updates or debugging a broken Windows update. However, remote access can still be tricky. Western Digital has had many security problems with its NAS drives when they are connected to the outside internet, and power or internet outages at home can still leave you stranded without remote access to your data.
If you’re after reliable file access, any of the best cloud storage services might be the most ideal solution. Most of them cost a monthly subscription for higher data storage, and you don’t have full control like you would with a home server. You have to decide for yourself if the investment of time, money, and energy is a greater cost than full privacy. Syncthing could be another alternative, as it synchronizes files across your computers without requiring centralized cloud storage — as long as you have one working computer accessible with your files, you won’t lose anything.
Virtual Private Servers, or VPSes, can be another alternative to self-hosting. VPS providers give you a remote virtual machine (usually running Linux) that you can use for hosting just about anything. Your data isn’t fully in your own hands, but you don’t have to worry about losing connection because of a power or internet outage. You can also freely give the IP address to others without giving away where you live, making them far more ideal for web servers and other similar use cases. A VPS can often be more affordable than the cost of building and maintaining a home server, too. For example, “Basic Droplet” VPS from DigitalOcean with 512 MB RAM, 10 GB of SSD, and 500 GB of monthly data transfer only costs $4 per month. Virtual Private Servers aren’t economical for all use cases — running a Plex server from a VPS would get expensive — but they can be useful.
In the end, running a home server means being your own IT guy. It’s a great option to have, but it’s not for everyone.