Is it time to outsource your personal IT services?

There comes a time in every syadmin’s life when they have to face facts:  just because you can do your own sysadmin at home doesn’t mean that you should.  In fact, at some point, you won’t want to and you shouldn’t.

Like a lot of sysadmins in my age bracket, I’ve been running at least one personal server at home for at least 15 years.  My own email, web server(s), Usenet News server, DNS, and some other services have run on a succession of operating systems and hardware somewhere in my home for at least that long.

I’ve run servers at home on everything from a Commodore Amiga, a DECStation, and a SPARCstation, and then several generations of commodity PC hardware.  I’ve run everything from Ultrix to SunOS 4, to several flavors of Linux.  Some of my older machines had up to 8 drives and drew up to 600-700 W, to my latest machine which has one drive (larger than all the drives in all the prior drives put together!) and draws less than 50W.

In the “olden days” you pretty much had to run your own server if you wanted private email on your own domain name.  It was that, or AOL, or email at your employer.   Commercial web hosting, outsourced email, DNS and Usenet News just weren’t available.  Besides, we all knew sendmail (and later postfix) inside and out for our day jobs, and Apache was new and exciting.  Running your own DNS was a measure of your “clue factor” and Usenet News, was, well, news.

Fortunately, you now have lot of options.  You can outsource all of these services, in many cases for free.  In some cases, free and better than you can run yourself.

After one too many hardware failures at home, my wife moved her blog to another hosting provider.  That worked out well, as I no longer have to track all the latest security issues with WordPress, I no longer have to “declare a maintenance window” at home to play with the home server, and frankly she’s getting better service.  I also don’t have to worry about backups!

When it came time to spin up a blog for my high school reunion, I put that in managed commercial hosting at a provider that specifically supports WordPress.  I still had to deal with my own installation of WordPress on their server, though.  So on my next blog, I went into full-on “blog hosting” here at WordPress.com.

I started moving my personal email into “the cloud” last year.  Even though I have email inbound to more than ten different personal domains, I’ve been able to move many of those either directly into Gmail or into (free) Google Apps.  My main motivation was to get some better anti-SPAM and worry less about backups.  Even though I was running multiple DNS blacklists, graylisting, custom procmail and SpamAssassin, I was still getting too much SPAM.  Gmail offered a better anti-spam solution and meant that I could just stop dealing with so much useless time-wasting SPAM.  It was taking so much time to weed through the clutter each day that I had almost given up on my personal domains for email.  Gmail gave me back my inbox.

I noticed that as I “matured” in my use of outsourced services, I’ve moved up the “stack” from Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), to Platform as a Service (PaaS) and I’m now fully comfortable at the Application as a Service (AaaS) level.

I still have some things running at home, and in the New Year I’ll be evaluating each and every one of them for outsourcing opportunities.  In fact, I’ll use the same evaluation criteria I use at work:  First, is it a core competency?  Second, is it something I understand well enough to write (or sign) a meaningful contract with measurable success criteria?  Third, will I save time or money, or become more agile by outsourcing?

(Outsourcing is almost never a pure cost savings.  It just isn’t.  You might get cost savings in the form of avoiding hiring, or getting some valuable staff time back to work on internal projects.  You might get faster turnaround time or faster time to market,  but you will rarely save money.)

Careful outsourcing, whether at home or at work, can have a very liberating effect:  It can take the well-understood (and perhaps no longer interesting) work off your plate, to give you time and energy to focus on the new, interesting and higher-value projects that you really want to take on.

Getting out of the home email and web hosting business has given me more time to spend with my family and and more time to spend on interesting new things.  And a lot less to worry about in terms of backups and uptime.  What will you get out of it?

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