I’ve purchased my Pioneer FreedomBox about three months ago and — after some initial trouble with my IS router and public IP — I’ve been using my FB on a daily base ever since, so it’s now time for some feedback.
Why Did I Want FreedomBox?
Running my own SBC home server has been on my wish-list for quite some time, ever since a friend of mine gave me a Raspberry Pi (model B) as a gift, which I managed to setup and for a brief time used as an experimental MUD server, not knowing really what to do with it.
That Raspberry Pi experience (that was many years ago) opened my eyes to the possibility of running a low-cost/low-consumption home server, that it was doable with today technology and open source software.
I’ve been following with interest the development of FOSS tools for building an anonymous Internet, especially protocols for decentralizing the Internet (i2p, RetroShare, FreeNet, etc.).
The major points that prompted me to purchase a Pioneer FreedomBox were:
- Pioneer is 100% open hardware (OSH) — that was a strong motivating factor, because I’ve been reading about all the hardware backdoors that have existed at least since the Pentium era, so I wanted to show my support for those Indy companies who invest on open hardware, like Olimex.
- FredoomBox is easy — I always feared that managing my own home server would expose me to cyber attacks due to lack of knowledge, so I realized that FB would allow me to start off in a safe manner, while still allow me to access the system and gradually experiment and learn how to administer a server without taking huge risks.
- FredoomBox includes i2p — the i2p application was my main target. I had tested i2p on my PC but realized that unless it runs 24/7 it doesn’t provide a smooth experience. Hardware requirements and OS compatibility for i2p can be an issue on SBC devices, especially in terms of RAM and processor power, so the fact that FB supports i2p and that Pioneer FB is the officially endorsed hardware seemed to me the ideal go solution — except that I was out of luck on this, since currently Debian has removed i2p from its supported packages, something I discovered only once my Pioneer FB was up and running.
I have to admit that discovering that i2p is currently not available was a bit disappointing to me — even though it’s not because of FreedomBox but due Debian decision, I still think that the FB website ought to add a warning regarding the fact that the current FB distro doesn’t support i2p. Anyhow, I’m confident that Debian and i2p will solve whatever issue is preventing i2p inclusion in Debian, and eventually i2p will be back again.
Also, my interest for i2p was mostly a curiosity, the desire to see for myself what the future decentralized networks will look like. I also noticed that a RetroShare package for FB is currently being worked-on, and almost done, which I’m really looking forward since I’d be using RetroShare daily once it’s available (hoping that 1GB of RAM is sufficient).
I’ve been using my FB every day since it’s up and running, and I’m enjoying every bit of it.
To be clear, my use is rather simple: I’ve setup the XMPP chat server, Matrix Synapse (with Coturn for voice chat) and infinoted for Gobby, just to have a private chat space to share with a few friends.
For many it might seem a lot of work to buy and setup a home server just to run a chat service (especially since I had to go through quite some trouble to get a private IP and obtain permission to use my own router instead of the one from my ISP, which was blocking various ports). But for us it’s a question of principle, i.e. being in control of our own data, being able to communicate more independently from corporate-owned services which gather personal data.
Matrix/Synapse is definitely what we use most. For us, it’s much better than communicating via email, it allows us to enjoy chatting when we are all connected at the same as well as at different times. Matrix is really nice since you can create a room for each topic, gather topics under spaces, and many other cool features.
I’ve installed also the XMPP server, mostly as a starting point to allow my friends to log-into the server for the first time and start chatting via the Web client, in order to help them setup a Matrix client, but from thereon we almost use Matrix exclusively for communications.
Yesterday I’ve also installed Coturn to support audio/video chat, after realizing that it doesn’t eat server resources since it only helps connecting the two parties. But I haven’t yet tried it out since none of us had headphones and microphone to test it (since I use my PC mostly for coding, I don’t usually have audio support of any type).
The server has been running smoothly, and it’s completely silent (which for me is important, since it’s placed not far from where I sleep). Initially, I experienced a few crashes, about thrice, each at a week distance. I suspect it was because the Pioneer was placed behind the Tv, in fact since I’ve moved it to the side it didn’t crash again — I wonder whether it might have been overheating or electromagnetic interference.
Infinoted/Gobby is another tool which we use quite a lot, mostly to work on text drafts and translations. It’s really a nice tool, especially for my friends which are not geeky people and find it easy to use. Personally, I prefer to use Git for collaborative editing, but that would be asking to much from my friends, since Git is notoriously hard to learn (even for programmers).
I haven’t yet decided if I’ll be enabling other FreedomBox tools, partly because I’m not sure how much the server can handle with 1Gb of RAM (so I’m taking a gradual approach, monitoring the system as each new app is added), and partly because I’m not sure if I’d actually end up using the other available applications.
So, this being my first real home server experience (the Raspy was just a quick experiment really), what did I learn so far? how did it change my perspective?
Although I had to go through quite some initial trouble with my IS router and public IP I definitely think it was worth it — actually, I realized that all the friction encountered from my ISP who tried to make it as scary and hard as possible for me to replace their router and get a public IP was just a confirmation of how reluctant corporations are to relinquish control over our data and communications.
The simple fact of having been able to run my own server and host an independent chat service that is based entirely on open source tools (and running on 100% open source hardware) and it’s independent from corporate services (except for the ISP connection, of course) has been quite an empowering experience for us. We don’t need to do anything “advanced” to appreciate this, just being able to text-chat securely (via encryption) and independently is already a huge political statement for us.
Although I have experience in programming, I’m well aware that administering a server is not an easy task — there aren’t really half-measures at play: a server is either secure or not. FreedomBox definitely makes it really easy to setup a server, thanks to its WebUI that abstracts away not only all the terminal chores, but especially since it handles the required configuration settings as each app or service is installed or removed. But I really appreciated the fact that the WebUI (especially plinth) doesn’t totally hide away the system layer, it just simplifies its use, but the user can still interact with the low-level stuff via the virtualized Web-terminal, and that settings are exposed to the admin, which means that by administering the server you can learn what’s going on under the hood.
Furthermore, since I’ve installed my Pioneer FreedomBox server I’ve also been thinking deeper about the other aspect of the FreedomBox project, i.e. the creation of independent networks using self-owned WiFi or radio devices as their backbone — i.e. doing without an ISP altogether.
I’ve since been taking an interest into this topic, and although I know that it’s not any easy task to convince your neighborhood to setup WiFi antennas, it can be done to some extent — e.g. by starting to involve people into creating small local network in your building.
I think that people should learn more about these topics, after all using the Internet, email and social media is now so much part of our daily life that we ought to think more about how these services work, who owns them, where our personal data is being stored, and so on. When my friends saw the Pioneer FB sitting next to the Tv, they were incredulous — Is that it? So small? They couldn’t believe that such a small and cheap device could actually provide over the Internet those services which they’re used to associate with big corporations like FaceBook, Twitter, Google, etc.
I guess for most people the term “server” evokes images of racks upon racks of hardware shelves and wires running all over the place, so the idea of a small self-hosted server is something they are not accustomed to, and especially so the idea that lots of such small servers could create an independent Internet, or a cluster of independent nodes that interfaces with the Internet.
My final conclusion is that the true value of FreedomBox lies in the fact that it’s educational — and that is not to say that it’s a “toy project,” on the contrary. It delivers what it promises in terms of applications, etc. But I still insist that (at least to me) it’s highest value lies in the fact that it empowers people by showing them that they can start to take steps to regain control over their personal data, to drop corporate services in favor of self-hosted FOSS services which don’t trade in users data.
The fact that you can buy a Pioneer FreedomBox for a reasonable price and have your own server up and running within hours is quite amazing. Of course, the price appreciation might vary depending on where you live — the approx. $70 (+ postage) price might seem little in some countries, and a lot in others; but relatively speaking it’s a reasonable price, since it will be more or less the price of a smartphone in any country, I guess, and about the same amount you’d pay a year for a decent web hosting service.
I think it’s really important that people support projects like this, as well as open hardware products like the Pioneer, because the only way to reclaim back the Internet is through open source projects like this one (and all the sub-projects upon which it’s built) — which are community based projects, so they depend on the participation by people.