Harry R. Schwartz

Software engineer, nominal scientist, gentleman of the internet. Member, ←Hotline Webring→.

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Coming Down from the Clouds

Published 22 Oct 2014. Tags: beards, email, security.

Attentive readers—especially the ones that know me in person—may have noticed that I’m rapidly becoming an old grump. This manifests itself in many ways (see: this blog), but one of my longer-running grumping projects has involved disentangling myself from cloud storage and big web companies.

Google has been the hardest. It has many interconnected services, so once you’re in it’s hard to get out again. I’m going to go through Google’s services and describe the alternatives that I’ve been using.

But first, two likely questions

Why would you stop using Google?

Google does a whole lot of terribly interesting stuff. Autonomous cars, Project Loon, distributed systems research … you name it. That stuff’s terrific, and I’m frankly pretty jealous of the people working on it.

But most of Google’s business is still advertising, and the idea of having all of my email read, filtered, and controlled by a giant advertising company seems bonkers.

On a more positive note, a lot of these services are actually better! DuckDuckGo’s got great keyword searches, Fastmail implements IMAP more faithfully and (subjectively) seems to have better uptime than Gmail, and Clicky has a much simpler interface than Analytics.

OK, but why are you talking about this on your blog?

Mostly internet cred. Everyone knows that you haven’t really left a service until you’ve announced it online.

But, seriously, I spent a fair amount of time trying to research some of these alternatives (notably the calendar issue, discussed below), and I want to make that process a little easier for the next person.

And a warning

These solutions won’t be a great fit for most people, especially non-programmers. I advocate solutions like “use LaTeX” and “set up your own server.” If you’re of the paranoid-but-nontechnical persuasion, I’d urge you to find a paranoid-and-technical friend.

The alternatives

Search: DuckDuckGo

This was the first and easiest thing I switched out. I’ve been using DuckDuckGo since the fall of 2011, and it’s been terrific. The !-syntax is great and the search results are usually just fine.

Docs: plain text

Another easy one. Almost all of my personal documents are plain text, usually formatted as either Markdown or Org-mode. Org is great for documents with certain kinds of structure, and Markdown can be rendered into any common format through pandoc. When I need a slide deck or specially formatted PDF I’ll usually resort to LaTeX (heck, I even wrote some LaTeX templates to make that process easier).

Email: Fastmail

Fastmail’s been great! It’s a paid service, but really, it’s your email. For the amount of time I spend working with email, it’s a bargain.

It has a great web interface, and it also correctly supports IMAP, so you can use pretty much any mail client. It’s also easy to set up with offlineimap, if you’re into that sorta thing.

While I was at it, I set up a mail alias that points to that Fastmail account. I’m using the alias as my regular email address. If I someday decide to switch to a different service at a different address, I can just point the alias there with no service interruptions.

I’ve toyed around with running my own email server. That might still happen in the future, but I’m happy to let Fastmail take care of that for me for the time being.

Analytics: Clicky

There’s not that much that I need from an analytics service. All I really care about is how many visitors I have, what they’re looking at, and where they’re coming from.

Clicky provides that. As a bonus, its extremely minimal interface is much more usable than Google Analytics’ ever-changing hydra of dropdowns.

Feedburner: nothing

Nothing about my life depends on the number of subscribers to my RSS feed, so Feedburner didn’t really offer me much value. But vanity compelled me to use it.

Hits are a perfectly good proxy for subscribers, though, so that satisfies my narcissism just as well. I switched over from Feedburner to a direct atom feed back in June.

Hangouts: nothing

I didn’t use Hangouts or Talk much. I’ll generally just call or text on a phone.

For the rare text chat, I’m on DuckDuckGo’s free XMPP server.

Videos: nothing

I don’t share that many videos, so this hasn’t been a pain point for me. If I want to distribute a video file I’ll just upload it onto my server or S3 and send out a link.

EmacsNYC videos are an exception: they’re hosted through the thoughtbot YouTube account, but as I’m not the person that handles video production that’s not technically my business. =)

Calendar: ownCloud on DigitalOcean

This was the hardest one, since there just aren’t any decent hosted alternatives. The best competitor out there is iCloud, but that only works on a Mac (and Apple’s probably gonna be my next grumping target).

If I didn’t have any shared calendars, I’d probably switch entirely to plain text org-mode agendas. But I do share a few, and my friends would rather have something that Just Works. Everyone I know is technical enough to set up a CalDAV calendar, but they don’t want to worry about syncing org-generated .ics files and neither do I.

Given those constraints, I eventually gave in and set up my own server. I got the cheapest instance ($5/month) from DigitalOcean, installed Debian on it, pointed a domain at it, and set up the community edition of ownCloud. It’s great! I copied over my calendars without a hitch, set up CalDAV through my calendar client, and everything now works exactly as it did before.

I also set up accounts for my friends, and they didn’t have any trouble getting things set up. To my dismay, their most popular solution seems to be wiring up the CalDAV account to view it in Google Calendar. Go figure.