Personal servers, like Umbrel and Start9’s Embassy, are ways for people to have more control over data and become more sovereign in the process.
Pascal Hügli is a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration in Zurich where he teaches students about Bitcoin.
In human affairs, action is a fundamental force. It was the great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, who stated that action is axiomatic to human conduct. Humans undeniably act, as non-action or the denial thereof is an action in and of itself.
Consequently, human beings cannot escape acting. Being social beings by design, every interpersonal action is either exchanging words (communication), exchanging produce (property) or exchanging value (money). It is these primitives that make human beings into the homo sapiens that they are.
As humans, we have become ever better at practicing these primitives — thanks to the use of technology. As a matter of fact, technological progress has been the single most important enabler of the human species in fostering the exchange of words, produce and value. But as powerful as technology is, it is also very demanding; human beings must learn, understand and adapt to ever-evolving technological change. Because technology inherently comes with complexity attached, middlemen of all sorts have emerged to handle this complexity on behalf of individual human beings.
The Pitfalls Of Centralization
While the existence of middlemen has been an empowering force helping human society actualize technology’s vast potential, the inevitable intermediation they bring has been a force of concentration and centralization. Consequently, as a species, we are increasingly subject to centralized powers monitoring and controlling more and more aspects of our lives.
This has become particularly obvious in today’s digital age. With human interaction around communication, property and money being continuously more digital, everyday human interaction has also grown more intermediated to the point where the digital life of a typical “homo digitalis” is entirely dependent on third parties.
Alarmingly, the negative effects of this development become ever more prevalent: From content censorship or outright deplatforming to personal data exploits and general privacy infringement to slight user manipulation and relentless user monetization, the pitfalls of centralization are manifold. There is no denying that as inhabitants of the digital world, we are completely and utterly at the mercy of powerful intermediaries.
Breaking Free From Our Digital Overlords
The desire to shed the shackles of today’s digital overlords has never been greater. While incidents like #DeleteWhatsApp or #DeleteFacebook campaigns serve as undeniable proof of this urge, the spell of today’s highly convenient digital applications remains unforgivingly strong nonetheless. Because of convenience, network effects, and a lack of alternatives hardly anyone manages to break free from contemporary tech monopolists.
Are the prospects for humanity really that bleak? Not if you take a domain that was in the seemingly firm hands of an unrelenting monopolist — money. The course of this technology has been dictated by the state for ages. Only recently, has a potent escape valve emerged in the form of non-sovereign money called bitcoin. It is Bitcoin that has wrested the government’s power over money, giving it to individuals, thereby equipping them with sovereignty over their own money.
With the existence of bitcoin as non-sovereign money, exchanging value can be done digitally in a peer-to-peer fashion. No intermediaries are needed for digital value transfer between any two parties — be it friends or strangers. Interacting with money, no matter what form it takes, has become entirely free from any centralized third parties.
The Emergence Of Self-Sovereign Computing
Bitcoin’s success in providing ordinary people with self-sovereignty in monetary matters has inspired entrepreneurs and developers to extend the self-sovereignty to the area of general computing. The start of more self-sovereign computing was initiated with the emergence of personal computers. Before, computers — so-called “mainframes” — were largely owned by corporations and only the rise of the personal computer made it possible for every regular person to have a computer at home.
As it turned out, having a personal computer has not been enough, especially not in a globally-connected web of computers talking to one another over the internet. Software as a service (SaaS) companies established themselves as indispensable mediators between humans and their computers. As such, they enabled a convenient and smooth user experience for the interconnected web of computers by running server farms on behalf of individuals. And the presence of these servers — today mostly in the form of cloud computing — let centralization become the norm.
Although many people inherently think so, servers don’t need to be centrally run by large corporations. Open-source and free operating systems like Linux or Ubuntu allow for the operation of private servers. Companies themselves that don’t want to be dependent on other SaaS companies are running their own servers thanks to Linux and Ubuntu. Unfortunately, these operating systems have not been made for everyday users to run their own servers as they require a high degree of technical competency and attention, and as an individual, it’s difficult to just hire a systems administrator or DevOps engineer.
Things are changing though. What has been missing for self-sovereign computing to take off is now being developed: new types of open-source, free, and permissionless operating systems that are vastly more accessible than Linux or Ubuntu. They come in the form of plug-and-play services and represent one-stop shops for all sorts of self-hosted computer applications. At the click of a button, these new personal servers can be bootstrapped while being smoothly operated through a convenient, customer-friendly user interface. As a consequence, computing is shifting from rooms full of servers — commonly called data centers — owned by corporations, to personal servers run at home and owned by regular individuals.
Plug-And-Play Solutions Tip The Scales
I have been testing the two most prominent personal server solutions currently on the market: Umbrel and Start9. Both of these projects offer a plug-and-play operating system for personal servers. Behind Umbrel is a company with the same name while Start9 is the company behind the Embassy. Also common to both projects is the fact that they have each raised capital from investors who value privacy as well as self-sovereignty.
What makes these projects so interesting is the fact that they have taken a generalized approach to running self-hosted software in an easy-to-use way. By doing this, they severely weaken the number one argument against personal servers, which is that everyday people are never going to use such devices. And while terms like “sovereign computing” or “personal server” might still be foreign to the general public, we are beginning to see those self-hosted servers like Umbrel or Embassy are increasingly run outside of tech-heavy circles by ordinary people that want privacy as well as self-sovereignty when it comes to their operating their online life. I am one of them.
In terms of differences between these two solutions, a few are worth mentioning. While Umbrel calls its server-side applications “apps,” Start9 is referring to them as “services.” Hence, on a Start9 device, a user will find a service marketplace as opposed to on Umbrel, where an app store can be found.
As for the user experience, both platforms are very straightforward. However, there are some differences in the architecture of each solution. For now, with Umbrel, there is no way of updating single apps. It’s either all or nothing. This is different from Start9’s Embassy. If a service needs any (security) update, the new version can be installed without having to update the entire Embassy.
Furthermore, alternative marketplaces can be hosted on Start9’s Embassy, whereas Umbrel has only one app store and this is provided by Umbrel itself. An Embassy also creates a complete and encrypted backup of your entire system, which is a matter of clicking “Create Backup” in the user interface and selecting a target destination. As of now, this is not possible with Umbrel.
An important distinction is that there is no built-in health check system for apps on Umbrel. With Embassy, Start9 developers define what constitutes health for a given service and write scripts to test for it. An Embassy performs these health checks on a continuous basis, presenting results to the user inside the user interface. This way users can immediately tell whether or not a service is running smoothly.
In their current stages of development, there are also some areas where Umbrel seems to have the upper hand. For one, Umbrel currently has more services and they are more widely known in the Bitcoin space. This is witnessed by their actively engaged Twitter community that is doing a lot of free marketing for the product. Also, their design is sexier.
Tangible Economic Incentives Will Drive The Adoption Of Personal Servers
While there are differences between Umbrel and Start9, in the grand scheme of things, these two competitors work towards the common goal of making personal servers as widely accepted and used as possible. Because they both offer convenient solutions that are simple to use, the odds to achieve this goal have never been better.
Besides the convenience factor, which developers can work towards on their own, another paradigm shift is underway that will play into their hands and most likely boost the personal server revolution. Right now, we witness the first innings of how SaaS companies will have to increasingly alter their business model.
As a matter of fact, the days of the freemium model are numbered. Today’s users have long since discovered that they are not actually the customer, but rather the product. This has led more and more users to abandon the most pernicious services for other services that purport to be more mindful of users’ data privacy and less dependent on a business model functioning around the monetization of user data. While this is the first step to taking control over one’s digital activities, more and more users will figure out that such services are still prone to the traditional architecture of Web 2.0 and therefore cannot offer the privacy and integrity that is expected. In another iteration, this will only drive such people to the up-and-coming personal server solutions.
Moreover, today’s freemium setups will increasingly have to be turned into subscription-based models. Because online users have grown weary of the fact that their data is being monetized, giants like Apple are advocating for the ability to retain users’ privacy. At the same time, through regulations like GDPR (general data protection regulation) in Europe, regulators are making it ever more difficult for SaaS companies to monetize data.
As these companies will no longer be able to mine and monetize user data in the same way that they always have, the question is: How will SaaS companies make money? There really is only one option: subscriptions. This means that traditional apps will increasingly come with a cost attached that users will have to consistently pay. This again will alter the situation for another swath of people who have grown up with the belief that software apps are just free.
While this shift will not happen overnight, more and more people along the way will likely reach for alternatives in the form of free personal server solutions. As opposed to traditional applications, the use of services on a personal server will have a one-time cost attached in the beginning but then can be used free of charge for the rest of one’s lifetime because there are no middlemen involved that could charge any subscription fees. This is quite a value proposition, indeed. So, while the personal server revolution will surely be driven by ideology and conviction, there will also be tangible economic incentives that will drive people to adopt personal servers.
What Does The Future Of Sovereign Computing Look Like?
Until these intensifying circumstances will push a greater herd of regular people into using personal servers, it’s privacy-conscious individuals and Bitcoin aficionados that are acting as pioneers in this field. Many of them have been using either Umbrel, Start9’s Embassy or both on a daily basis.
Both Umbrel and Start9’s Embassy come with a Bitcoin node as well as a Lightning node integrated. This way, popular Bitcoin wallets can easily be paired with either of these nodes. Also, software services like BTCPay Server, Ride The Lightning, ThunderHub or Sphinx Chat can be run on both devices.
When it comes to non-Bitcoin services, there are a few differences. With Umbrel, some of the concrete examples the product has to offer are a private cloud service (Nextcloud), an ad blocker (Pi-hole), a self-hosted photo and video library (PhotoPrism) or instant messaging (Matrix/Element).
Similar services for photos or messaging are offered by Start9 like Photoview or Synapse. At this point in time, Start9’s Embassy has some additional services. One of them is Embassy Pages. This allows for the one-click hosting of a static website as an anonymous onion URL on Tor. Furthermore, Start9’s Embassy is offering a password manager called Vaultwarden. With it, the master password to all one’s internet logins can be conveniently but secretly stored on one’s personal server. Also, there is File Browser, which can be used to create, upload, download, edit, organize and share files of all sorts. These files can also be shared with multiple users. And Syncthing, another of Start9’s services, integrates seamlessly with File Browser to turn an Embassy into a private cloud backup solution that automatically synchronizes data across all devices.
Umbrel does also have an app called Home Assistant. Through it, one’s home can be automated as Home Assistant connects to all devices and shows them in a unified dashboard for better management. But make no mistake: This is only the beginning. As of now, the connected devices that are being gathered into one dashboard are still driven by third-party cloud computing and subscription cost.
The ultimate vision, as laid out by Start9, is to create solutions for a sovereign smart home installation. This way, sovereign individuals will be able to build out and profit from the convenience a smart home delivers, without having the home report back to Google, Amazon or any other tech giant. As a matter of fact, the dystopian internet of things and robot future will not have to be so dystopian after all — thanks to self-hosted, personal servers. The “homo digitalis” will turn into “homo superanus” — the sovereign individual.
This is a guest post by Pascal Hügli. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc. or Bitcoin Magazine.