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Small Organisation Server

It is good to be a tree

Some small social organisations exist naturally in a tree, even if they largely operate independently. For example scout troups, guide companies, Phab clubs, some churches and so on. In these cases the activity the organisation is known for, such as bring people of all abilities to come together on equal terms, in the case of Phab clubs.

Oxford Phab club is one of about 140 clubs in England and Wales which is affiliated to the national Phab organisation, which has a Domain Name of phab.org.uk, whereas Oxford Phab has registered a Domain Name of oxfordphab.org.uk, and those other Phab clubs which do have a presence on the internet all have individually registered Doman Names, some of which contain the word phab.

On the wider internet this explosion of names is not good for anybody. Companies spend huge amounts on building trust in their brand, and then dilute it by registering random domain names which happen to have their name somewhere in it, and are then disclaim any responsibility when their customers are scammed by going to bigcorpticket.example.com, when the ‘official’ site was bigcorptickets.example.com. No scammer can register tickets.bigcorp.example.com (I have used the example reserved domain because nobody can register under that, and any other short domain name is probably registered). Phishing attacks could be hugely reduced if more people understood the hierarchical nature of the DNS.

Large companies have no excuse, but in many many cases the parent organisation is actually small, often less than a dozen people, and do not have the kind of systems administrator needed at present to deal with such matters. Making DNS delegation simpler to manage, while retaining flexibility is a valuable goal. For example when a Phab club affiliates to the national body it should be possible to that club to be offered a delegated DNS zone for its use, so that that club could use, for example oxford.phab.org.uk for its web site, email, social media etc.

Domain delegation, being your own primary delegated domain and being a secondary for another small organisation are technical goals for a small organisation server, even if they will never be used by, for example the Ambridge Garden Club.

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Small Organisation Server

Ambridge Garden Club – email

Electronic mail was the first Federated service carried over the Internet, and in some ways it pre-dated the IP based system we think of as the Internet today, as it was possible to send emails for example from systems connected via UUCP to others using DECmail a long time (in internet terms) before the creation of the Web.

Ambridge Garden Club members want to be able to communicate with each other over email, using, if they wish email addresses like lynda_snell@ambridge-garden-club.org.uk, and these should be, at the choice of the member, accessible using the club mail system as a store and messaging system – using the “Internet Mail Access Protocol”, or a web interface to that; or they should be forwarded on to another email system of their choice. They will want email addresses for key roles such as treasurer@ambridge-garden-club.org.uk, and for groups of people such as committee@ambridge-garden-club.org.uk.

Unwanted emails (spam) should be rejected, as far as possible, while ensuring that wanted email reception and delivery are reliable.

Setting up email – an overview

Actually setting up the email for Ambridge Garden Club was more convoluted than ordering the domain or purchasing the server, so there is no step by step guide. The components used are capable of scaling up to deal with many thousands of users, so have many options for configuring them, and there were other possibilities for the components as well. The ones below should be suitable for a small organisation and they should be susceptible to automated installation and configuration for future purposes.

User Database – LDAP

Information about the members of the Garden Club are stored in a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) database. This holds their names, and other information, such as their email address. There are many tools available for manipulating the database through web interfaces, and many of the services our club members will want to use, email, instant messaging, web page publishing and so on can use LDAP as a store of information.

Mail Transport Agent – Postfix

Postfix handles mail receiving and sending to any address which ends in @ambridge-garden-club.org.uk. Some members want their mail to be forwarded to another mail system, and this is handled by a combination of postfix-ldap to find their addresses in LDAP and postsrsd, which ensures that the email forwarding is Sender Rewriting Scheme friendly.

Other options would be Exim or Sendmail.

Mail Server – Dovecot

The mail which is not forwarded is delivered into Dovecot. This will allow members to access their mail via their choice of email clients, such as Thunderbird, or K9mail, or the Roundcube web front end.

Other options would be Courier.

Mail Filtering – Sieve

Sieve allows mail to be sorted into folders as it is delivered, or unwanted messages to be rejected, under the control of the person using the mail account.

Web Frontend – Roundcube

Roundcube provides a fairly simple web interface to an IMAP server. The implementation at Ambridge Garden Club is configured to only access its local server, and to have the sieve plugin to manage mail

Other options would be SOGo

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Small Organisation Server

Ambridge Garden Club – initial server purchase

Following on from registering the ambridge-garden-club.org.uk domain, the Ambridge Garden Club needs a server to provide the services it will need.

Ordering the Server – Step by step

I am using Mythic Beasts, but as described in registering the domain, there are many alternatives, and by providing an alternative to Facebook and the advertising supported model for small organisations, I hope this can boost the independent Internet Hosting provider market.

The Garden Club treasurer should log in to their account at https://www.mythic-beasts.com/ and click on the Servers dropdown at the top, and then select ‘Virtual servers’, and they will see a screen like this.

If they select ‘Pay yearly’ and ‘Order now’ they will see a screen like this. Pay yearly was chosen as cheaper, and for many small clubs keeping the administrative work down is important.

The lowest specification server was chosen, and HDD (hard disks) rather than SSD (Solid State disks) to get more disk space for the money, and I do not, initially at least, expect disk performance to be an issue. IPv4 was left selected. This is the old type of internet address, as at present it is quite likely that there will still be Ambridge Garden Club members who do not have the new IPv6.

The annual cost is £82.80.

On accepting the order a confirmation screen is displayed:

Here you have options to say where your virtual computer should be, and what its ‘Service name’ should be. This name should be between 3 and 10 characters long, and will show up as the name of your computer in the Mythic Beasts control panel, and in the actual name of your computer on the internet. The Ambridge Garden Club decided to have their computer in London, and that the Service name should be agc. The actual computer on the internet is called ‘agc.vs.mythic-beasts.com’. At a subsequent stage I will arrange for it to be seen as ‘ambridge-garden-club.org.uk’. Once you confirm your options you will see a confirmation screen similar to the following:

This shows what is about to be purchased in a different format. Press Pay to continue, to another payment screen, for filling in the usual details, and once they have been entered you should see a screen like:

You now have a computer (albeit a virtual one) out on the Internet, but before it can do anything useful you will need to install an ‘Operating system‘ and some software. This will be covered in the next post.

Categories
Small Organisation Server

Ambridge Garden Club – registering the domain

At the heart of the Internet is the Domain Name System, or DNS. The first thing the Ambridge Garden Club needed to do was to register a domain name. There are many sites on the Internet which provide Domain Registration, but I went with a company which also provides ‘Internet hosting’, that is the ability to rent a computer, or a virtual computer, from the same company to simplify billing.

Choice of supplier

There are companies from which you can buy combinations of a domain name and Web Hosting often with some specific interface to make it easy to build web sites. Some will also forward email, or even host email, but for an example Small Organisation Server I wanted some flexibility and to be able to select ‘best of breed’ components, hence the generic decision to go down the Hosting Provider route, for a company which provides the kind of system from which the rest of the services the Ambridge Garden Club needs.

There is quite a large choice in such systems, and at this stage it is worth doing some research, but I chose ‘Mythic Beasts‘ – an Internet Service Provider I have dealt with before, and their service and supports has been prompt and knowledgeable. Their pricing is also open and transparent. There a many places where you can register a domain on the internet very cheaply for the first year, but have to pay much more for subsequent years, or find you are automatically paying for ‘options’ such as security certificates from them that you did not necessarily want (or at least not from them)

The cost to register ‘ambridge-garden-club.org.uk’ was £7.20 for the first year, and the same for subsequent years, including VAT.

Step by step

First the Ambridge Garden Club Treasurer should to go https://www.mythic-beasts.com/ and sign up as a customer. They will need an email address, a real postal address etc, and can set up a separate billing address.

They should log in to their account and click on Domains, and then on ‘New Registration’ where they will see a screen like this

If you know the domain you want to use you can register it directly, or you can search for domains and see some options. Different types of domains have different costs, so a domain that ends .london for example, is more expensive than one that ends .org.uk

The system will check if the domain you want is available, and if so you will see how much it will cost.

Here you enter the details of the person, and organisation who is registering the domain.

You are unlikely to see the ‘held for manual review’ section, in red – my personal setup is much more complicated than most, but you will see the requirement to comply with the terms and conditions.

Having entered, or confirmed some billing details – you can pay by credit card, or direct debit, you should see a screen similar to the above.

Congratulations, your organisation is now the proud owner of a domain and you have started your journey towards an Internet presence.

Other options

I will not go into these in detail, but might expand on them, or add more at a later date.

Contabo

Another hosting provider worth checking out.

Amazon Web Services Lightsail

Amazon has a bewildering choice of Web services, and even, this, their simplest option, requires an unfeasible amount of computer understanding for a garden club to manage. Other big cloud service providers also tend to aimed at buyers with an IT department or whose interests tend more towards computing than gardening (or knitting, model railways, croquet, local archeology or whatever)

Linode

A venerable hosting provider, note that they do not provide a Domain Registration Service, so you would have to shop for that separately.

An umbrella organisation

Some small organisations are part of a larger organisation, for example Scout troups and Guide companies in the UK come under the umbrella of the Scout Association or Girlguiding UK respectively. Similarly Phab Clubs, such as Oxford Phab, are affiliated to National Phab. Although Oxford Phab has a registered DNS name of oxfordphab.org.uk, if the phab.org.uk domain was administered for it, it would be possible to delegate oxford.phab.org.uk to a system controlled by the club.

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Who pays for WhatsApp

Although ‘free’ to use, WhatsApp needs quite substantial resources to run, not to mention that it cost Facebook over $19 billion in 2014. Facebook is not a charity, or a public service utility – it is a very profitable company, with a net income of over $18 billion in 2019.

Despite this there is no clear explanation of it’s business model. Most ‘Free’ services on the Internet are provided in exchange for advertising revenue, hence are paid for by the companies who use them as advertisement brokers. Because Facebook, and Google etc know so much about you they can, in theory, target advertising more effectively and advertisers are willing to pay a premium for this. In some ways this can be an ‘everybody wins’ scenario – the IT company knows that you like, for example foreign travel to exotic places, so show you advertisements about that, rather than, for example, about collecting miniature figurines which you would not want to know about anyway. WhatsApp, however does not show advertisements, targeted or otherwise.

None of the explanations of the WhatsApp financial model are very convincing, and businesses without a way of making money need careful scrutiny.

Contact information is valuable in itself

Much is made of the message security of WhatsApp, and messages between users are highly secure – many experts have verified that the actual messages are private. The trade off you make in exchange for use of WhatsApp services is to give them access to your contact data – that is not only your phone number, but the phone numbers of everybody whose details you store in your phone.

Your contact data says a lot about you, do you shop expensive shops, who else uses the same hairdresser as you, are you a committed member of a political party, who is your doctor, who are your friends (and their friends, and so on). You are likely to share an income level, some hobbies and interests, political leanings etc with your contacts. In military or security circles this is known as Traffic Analysis.

Who does your contact data belong to ?

If you are in a position of responsibility, a doctor, a teacher, a politician, a social worker, a church leader, and so on, you are probably entrusted with the contact information of people who trust you, as a person, but would not necessarily want their details spread more widely, but this is the data which is being exchanged for a ‘free’ Instant Messaging service.

Potential for abuse

The Guardian Newspaper actually suggests that it’s readers contact it via WhatsApp. This provides Facebook – who can be regarded as a rival media organisation – with the the phone numbers of any of its readership who use that route. If say Fox News, or The Times managed to get hold of this information it would be regarded as a security breach, but for some reason the New Media companies seem to be treated as if they were public utilities, rather than commercial rivals (which they are if you, too, are in the business of mediating and conveying information to an audience).

Asthma UK have launched a WhatsApp chat service. Although I am sure it was not the intention of their service, knowing the contacts of the phone number they list, is a list of phone numbers of contact details of asthma sufferers.

Please note that it does not require deliberate action at WhatsApp for this to be an issue. Big Data means that, for example, people with some medical condition may share other characteristics, such as, in countries which use a medical insurance system, higher medical bills, and this will emerge the algorithm automatically without human scrutiny.

Members of Parliament are very fond of WhatsApp, being sold on the security of the signals, not realizing how revealing the membership of various WhatsApp groups can be.

I would be very happy to discover, somewhere in WhatsApps rather convoluted Privacy Policy, and terms of service, something which puts my mind at rest, but for now I prefer the standardised, federated XMPP for Instant Messaging.

Categories
Small Organisation Server

The Ambridge Garden Club

The Ambridge Garden Club does not exist, but I am presenting it as Small Organisation Server example, for how a hypothetical small organisation, a group of a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people with similar interests can set up an Internet presence which meets their needs, without resorting to the alternative ‘Big Social Media’ model of advertising. I will demonstrate how the services it uses are paid for, and show how it was set up. It is also ‘federated’, so that it should work well with similar organisations.

The village of Ambridge does not exist, it is a fictional village in the long running radio soap opera The Archers. My parents listened every day, but I am no longer in touch with what is going on, but its characters provide a range of non technical people, who might well come to see the value of doing some things on the Internet, but as a tool, not as the central thing in their lives.

I am providing this as an example for several audiences. For small organisations such as gardening clubs, for software developers, and for Internet hosting providers.

For Small Organisations

These could be

  • Garden clubs
  • Model Railway societies
  • Parish councils

I hope to provide a step by step model of what I actually did to set up the Ambridge Garden Club system, from some of the options for renting the computers needed, to exactly what needs to be done for each step. I also hope the end site will provide an example of what can be achieved.

For their treasurer I want to show how much it cost. Everything has a cost, even the things which are apparently free. By providing options where the costs are explicit I hope to increase people’s choices, even if they decide the advertising supported route is better for them.

For Software Developers

I hope to give a model of how a small organisation, as described above, might want to bring together the various diverse pieces of software they use, with the things which could be improved to make it simpler for a non technical user base.

To get an idea of the target user base, ideally it should be possible to set up, administrate, and use the system on an iPad or similar, without the need to know about console logins or the command line at all. I know this is not possible at present, but there is no fundamental reason why this should not be a goal. It should be possible to understand how all the components work, but it should not be necessary.

For Internet Hosting Providers

I hope to show the types of services which might be useful for a group of people as described above, to enable them to target their offerings and provide transparent, easily understandable pricing. (not every garden club treasurer knows how many cores a server should have).

Feedback and community

The first version of this is likely to be more complex and technical than I would like, but having an open model allows the parts to be improved.

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If you can’t be first – Federate

There is no point in being the only person in the world with a telephone, or a fax machine, or to have these, but nobody you want to communicate with has one. You could be the only person you know who has a mobile phone, and as long as your friends have telephone land lines you can talk to them – because the networks interoperate.

Networks need a critical mass to be usable, and the large social media systems, such as Facebook and WhatsApp have turned this into a ‘winner takes all’ game, in which they are the winners. It is at least possible to see a Tweet without being a user, but Whatsapp divides the world very definitively into those who have it and those who don’t. Anyone who has a suitable smartphone can join Whatsapp for no financial payment, but paying instead, not only with information about themselves, but everyone they know. Although Facebook pages can be ‘public’, they are not truly public, they can be seen by anyone is on Facebook, but if you look at them from a web browser which does not know (and tell Facebook) your details (for example in a Private or Incognito window) you will see how you are simply persuading non Facebook users to join.

There are people and organisations who do not like this, but many of them agree with the ‘Winner takes all’ – they just have a different idea about who should be the winner. Most of the systems which claim superiority to Whatsapp, for example, want to replace it with another system, which will be ‘better’ because it uses their walled garden rather than Whatsapp’s.

The answer, unless you have a serious shot at first place, is to stop being greedy and aiming to ‘own’ the market and federate with other systems, adding value for your users, though improved user experience, possibly well targeted advertising, additional services specific to your offering, but Federate – in other words talk over a well defined, open, even if evolving protocol with others. This is a way email and the web work, and chat and social media could work that way too.

For chat there is a stable protocol called Jabber or XMPP (eXtensble Message and Presence Protocol) which is federated very much like email (SMTP – Simple Mail Transfer Protocol). It has addresses which look like email addresses, e.g. jlines@debian.org, and like email jlines@debian.org can messages john@chat.paladyn.org. Google used XMPP for its Gtalk chat (and which was able to talk to other XMPP implementations until they stopped), underlies Facebook Messenger (basically XMPP using your Facebook user as the user name and it can only talk to other Facebook users), Whatapp (uses your mobile number as the username and can only talk to other Whatsapp users).

Competitors to the market leader should try federating their offering, and working out ways to provide a better offering by using them. They also think an economic case, which might be to prevent your user base migrating to your market dominant competitor, in the case of a commercial, or a desire for an ‘everybody wins’ game for governments or social or charitable organisations.

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Small Organisation Server

Why Sharing Federated Social Media Systems is Important

If you are are a non technical person – or more importantly a group of people – as being social on your own is not much fun – and you are looking for a place on the Internet to get together your choices are pretty limited. Everybody in your group is probably on WhatsApp, and Facebook, and it is easy to set up free Zoom accounts, and then you only need somebody, or a couple of people to have a paid account and you are are all set.

If you want to avoid that route your choices are much more limited. In fact if you are not technical they are pretty much non-existent.

If you are purchasing a large piece of commercial software they often have an example user to show how things can be set up. For example OracleTutorial.com have the example of a “a global fictitious company that sells computer hardware including storage, motherboard, RAM, video card, and CPU.” This gives you an idea of their target market.

I will use the example of a small (say 20-50 members) Gardening Club. Suppose they want to chat, but some of their members do not have a smartphone, or for some other reason they do not want to use WhatsApp (this is a Gardening Club – software freedom, privacy and such like are less important to them than effective defenses against carrot fly, or whether to over-winter dahlias in the shed). There is a protocol called Jabber or XMPP, which has been around for a well over a decade, which does everything which is needed, but it has never really taken off in the ‘real’ world. One reason for that is that there is not much reward for running an XMPP server for public use. There have been several attempts at mass-XMPP – Google Talk used to be proper federated XMPP, Duck Duck Go had a free XMPP service, there are numerous free XMPP services which are not accepting new accounts.

There is a cost to running a service – somebody has to pay for the hosting, network use etc – and running one, free, as a business does not make sense, and generously offering the service to strangers will exhaust anybody’s resources. Our Gardening Club could – if they knew about it – go to https://account.conversations.im/domain/ and pay to have their XMPP hosted there, but if they also wanted to have a web site, for example using WordPress, they would have to go somewhere else.

If federated social media systems are to take off then our Gardening Club needs a simple recipe for what they can do, preferably go to a provider, pay a small, understandable fee (paid for out of their membership subscriptions, the same way they are now paying for their Zoom accounts) follow a simple set up process and get communicating.

The nearest to this route at the moment is probably hosting a FreedomBox on an virtual, or hosted real system on the internet, although their attention is more towards onion routing than onion sets. There is a community around FreedomBox, as there is around many of the other federated social media projects, but it is a technically oriented community. Our hypothetical Gardening Club, knitting group, model railway society, dentists association, primary school, needs tools built around their interests, which can federate and accommodate the keen gardener, communicating with her fellow dentists professionally, knitting and working on her model railway when the weather is not suitable for gardening, and making jam for her children’s primary school summer fair.

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The Social Power of Market Dominance

There are some markets which are completely dominated by one product. That product is not necessarily the best, but once it becomes dominant in the market number of social, rather than technical factors help it to stay there.

I can’t get this to work – I must be stupid

Everybody knows that Microsoft’s Office products are easy to use – that is why everybody uses them. Thus if somebody finds that they can not get Word to do something, they conclude that the fault must lie with them.

Similarly everybody knows that everyone uses Zoom, so if they can’t get it to work the fault must lie with them, or their computer, or their Wifi, or something, whereas any other Video conferencing system has to work perfectly first time or it will never have a second chance.

I can’t get this to work – it must be stupid

Consider someone who is not technical, just wanting to get a job done, for example to produce a spreadsheet, and is persuaded to try, for example LibreOffice Calc rather than Excel. The person suggesting this probably does not, by preference, spend a lot of time producing spreadsheets, and so will have to do a bit of learning themselves to get the desired result. When this does not happen instantly the person who just wants a spreadsheet will switch to Excel, known universally to be easy.

Can I help you ?

Despite being ‘easy to use’ the market dominant products are not, in reality always easy to use, and there are lots of tips and ways of doing something that someone who spends a lot of time on Facebook, Word, Powerpoint, Zoom etc can share with their friends and colleagues who are struggling with some aspect of them. This makes the person who has helped feel good, and the recipient of the advice get the job done. This is good for everybody – especially the vendor of the market dominant product.

Can you help me ?

However hard you try, if you have a profession which has computers, or IT in the title, people will assume you are automatically going to help with one of the market leading products, even if, for example a network engineer or a software developer does not require advanced skills in office products.

As all spreadsheets, word processors, presentation software, video calling software and so on, have a common facilities ‘under the hood’ a computer professional is likely to find themselves, for example sorting an Excel spreadsheet by column into numerical order, or some such. This is not something I need to do very often myself, either in LibreOffice Calc, or Excel, but because I know it can be done, and have been using spreadsheets a bit every since Visicalc, if someone asks for help I groan inwardly, and find how to do it in Excel.

This not only means the spreadsheet user knows how to do another thing in Excel – which they can proudly show to others – but reinforces my reputation as someone to go to for help with Office products.

Feedback and networking effects

Google’s search engine is very good, and they do work hard to keep it that way, but they have a big benefit from the fact that not only do they want their users to be able to find what they are looking for, but the owners of websites want people to be able to find them through a Google search.

Similarly people want to use an Instant Messenger or Social network to keep in touch with their friends, and that means the one which dominates the market.

Willingness to learn in non dominated markets

When I learnt to drive my driving instructor had, I think, some kind of Triumph, with a normal gear level in the centre of the car, but the handbrake to the right of the driver (I am in the UK, so drive on the right – that is to say left 🙂 side of the road). My parents had a Peugot 404, which had a dashboard mounted gear lever, and a sickle handbrake. While still learning they switched to a Peugot 504, with a more conventional layout of controls. After I passed my test I bought a Mini, and since then have owned a variety of cars, and driven many other types of cars and vans, manual and automatic, on both sides of the road.

Because they are cars. people know, and expect them to be different and are prepared to spend a bit of time learning the differences. They also realise that different vehicles are good for different things. A little sports car is similar in concept to a minibus, but you would not try to carry a football team in the sports car. As it is software many medium companies which have grown gradually try to do everything on increasingly massive and ill-suited spreadsheets (Excel of course)

Even when there is a choice brand loyalty can be very significant. Switching between Android and Apple phones is something many people are not willing to do. (or persuading some small children to switch cereal brands !)