TL;DR version: I want to get rid of the small server running at home, I tell you here about the service I've chosen, and why I like it. In following posts, I'll explain how did I set it up remotely.

Disclaimer: I am in now way affiliated with the companies I mention here (except for Picasa, as I am a Google employee), and don't get any bonuses for this post. I am only sharing this because I think it might be useful information for other people.

Being a frequent migrant means possessions are a burden. In my previous place of residence (in France), I originally intended to only stay for 6 months, and so I arrived with just a couple of suitcases, and in the end that was enough for me to live for almost 2 years.

The last time, on the other hand, I was removing my stuff completely from Argentina. I emptied my house, gave away some stuff, send some boxes to my parents' place, and carried the rest with me. That was a lot of stuff, but since the company was paying for the relocation, it was not much of a problem.

Later I realised my mistake, and knowing that my time in Ireland is limited, I started to try and get rid of stuff I don't need. I know I will just sell or give away much of my stuff when I finally leave, but there are some things that are not so easy to part with. The main one being my home server, which hosts this website, my VCS repositories, pictures, and many other things I need to have on the net.

This all used to be located in a home-made PC tucked in a data centre, co-located by a friendly company. But that computer died almost 2 years ago, and so canterville became abhean, and my stuff started being hosted with my aDSL connection. It worked well for some time, but now I realised I had to revert that change.

With this in mind I set off to find a cheap place to host my stuff. I had a few requirements:

  • The total cost has to be cheap enough, for some value of cheap.
  • It needs to have enough local storage to be able to host my photos, as I don't want to host them in Picasa or Flickr; Facebook is totally out of the question.
  • The data transfer limits should not be too low, as I will be performing periodic back-ups of all that data.

I don't have that many photos, nor they are too big, but these requirements made it clear that most VPS offerings were not going to work for me. For some reason I fail to understand, local storage in VPS offerings is usually prohibitively expensive. This is OK for most use cases, but not for mine.

A friend of mine, with a similar use case, is a happy VPS customer. He told me his trick: he only hosts in the server low-quality versions of the pictures, and keeps the originals (and back-ups) at home. This was a great idea, but with two fatal flaws: I want to only carry around a laptop and one or two external hard drives; and I want to have back-ups that are not physically with me.

I was starting to think about hosting my files in Amazon s3 or something like that, since most dedicated servers are way too expensive. But then I heard about two French companies offering dirt-cheap servers: OVH and

Both of them offered small servers for about 12€ a month, cheaper than most VPS offerings! Online seems to mainly cater to the French market, and for some silly reason, they charge a 50€ set-up fee to customers outside of France. OVH, on the other hand, has many local branches, including an Irish one, so I went with them.

The offering is a low-cost line called Kimsufi, and the smallest one is still very decent for a personal server:

  • 64-bits Atom 230 processor at 1.6 Ghz (no VT).
  • 2 Gb RAM.
  • 500 Gb hard drive.
  • Bandwidth guaranteed at 100Mbps up to 5TB of monthly traffic, 10Mbps afterwards.
  • One IPv4 address, and a /64 IPv6 block (yay, working IPv6!)

Once I had paid the fee for one month, it took a while for it to be activated (their payment system is pretty bad), but it finally was enabled about 24h later.

Then the real fun started. On one hand, I was happy to see a wide selections of operating systems to choose from, including Debian stable and testing, and a web console with many functionalities, including some basic monitoring; but on the other hand, I realised that the installed image was not pristine, the online docs are not very good, and the web application is a bit buggy and really awkward to navigate.

Having sub-par docs is not something I would usually care much about, but it made it a bit more difficult to me to understand some of the very cool functionalities their system offers (more on that in a bit), and more importantly, it made it clear to me that I won't trust their image: the procedures detailed there were not exactly best-practices, and they allow themselves to log-in as root into my server.

I want to describe here what I think are their most interesting features, that made it possible to me to do risky operations, like encrypting the root partition, and setting up a firewall; and being able to fix problems that would usually require physical access.

These are found in their web console: a hardware reset, and configurable netboot support with many offered images, including a rescue image based on Ubuntu and one that serves as a virtual KVM. (It is surprising that these servers don't have a serial console, but at least the kernel does not detect any).

With these in hand, I didn't have to fear being locked out of my server for ever. Just set up a netboot image and hard-reboot the machine! Also, it made it very simple to install my system from scratch with debootstrap.

The virtual KVM is a very interesting trick. It is a netboot image that runs some tests, and fires up a web browser. You get an email with the URL and a password to access it, and then you open a page that offers you what is basically a Qemu connected to a VNC server which will boot from your real hard drive.

It is super slow, but that allows you to get console access to your server, which can be very handy to debug booting problems, unless it is some issue with the real hardware. It also offers the possibility of downloading an ISO image off the network and booting that, so it can be used to run a stock installer CD too.

In another post I'll describe how I reinstalled my server remotely, and some of the pitfalls that I've encountered in the process.