Episode 204

FOSSY 2023 with Adam Monsen


October 20th, 2023

16 mins 21 secs

Your Host
Special Guest

About this Episode


Adam Monsen


Richard Littauer

Show Notes

Hello and welcome to Sustain! Richard is in Portland at FOSSY, the Free and Open Source Software Yearly conference that is held by the Software Freedom Conservancy. In today’s episode, Richard is joined by Adam Monsen, co-founder of the open source conference, SeaGL, and author of the soon-to-be-published book, Steadfast Self-Hosting: Rapid-Rise Personal Cloud, which aims to guide individuals and groups towards personal data control, an important step towards autonomy, agency, and freedom. The discussion highlights the value of self-hosting data, its potential applications, and the benefits it can bring to small and mid-sized businesses. Adam shares that his book is free and open for remixing and reprinting, and it will not only be a guide but also serve as a starting point for tech authors. Hit download now to hear more!

[00:01:36] Adam talks about his book which aims to guide people on how to maintain control over their personal data.

[00:02:33] The conversation moves towards the difficulties faced while extracting personal data from large tech companies, and Adam suggests the use of open source servers and software like Nextcloud to migrate data.

[00:03:31] Adam mentions that the first step towards data sovereignty could be purchasing his book, which provides guidance on setting up personal servers and services.

[00:06:11] Why did Adam write this book? He explains why and shares his experience with self-hosting data for his family and emphasizes that doing this for a group can be empowering and meaningful.

[00:07:27] Richard brings up the shift from cloud to self-hosting by Basecamp and he wonders if Adam thought about pitching any of his book towards businesses to host their own data.

[00:09:53] Richard mentions a group in the UK working to create a standard for APIs to allow users to extract their data from big tech companies and maintain ownership.

[00:11:11] Adam affirms his willingness to contribute and underscores the value of individual data ownership, using healthcare records as an example of a system that could greatly benefit from more seamless data sharing.

[00:12:12] Richard brings up the topic of digital sovereignty, and Adam tells us his view that data sovereignty should be more about serving individuals and small groups, transcending politics, and should be capable of crossing borders.

[00:13:52] Adam tells us where you can find his book online and he reveals that the book will serve as a starting point for tech authors who are stuck or uncertain about where you begin. Also, the book build system itself will be free and open source.



RICHARD LITTAUER: Hello and welcome to Sustain. I am here again at FOSSY, the Free and Open-Source Software Conference Yearly run by Software Freedom Conservancy.

This is its first year and I'm here in Portland, Oregon, which is just completely sunny. It's amazing. It's actually really nice, especially as Vermont is entirely underwater. But yeah, it's just good to be here and I'm here with a guest today.

I'm Richard Littauer (if you didn't know that already) and my guest today is Adam Monsen coming down from Seattle. Adam, how are you doing?

ADAM MONSEN: Doing very well, Richard. Thank you for having me.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Thank you for coming on. So Adam, we just had a short chat before the podcast. Super cool. One of the founders of SeaGL, which is probably one of my favorite conferences. Free, every time. Stuff that people are passionate about. Seattle GNU/Linux Conference. It doesn't just mean GNU/Linux it means all of open source as a seagull as their mascot. Is it a glaucous-winged gull or an Olympic gull or a Herring gull? Do you have a species definition for that?

ADAM MONSEN: (laughs) I have no idea.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Okay, cool. Anything I missed when describing SeaGL?

ADAM MONSEN: You nailed it.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Excellent. That's because it's amazing. It's coming out November 11th. It's going to be the 11th time.

ADAM MONSEN: Back in person at the UW.

RICHARD LITTAUER: U-DUB! Two fireplaces this year. Very exciting. Salt was keen to share that. So, Adam is one of the drivers behind that. We've already talked about that on the podcast before. Go back to Deb Nicholson's episode, one of the early ones to hear more about that. We're probably going to have another episode coming out in October to remind you to go to this free-to-attend virtual or in-person conference. Super exciting.

Adam, let's focus on some other stuff. I know you're an author. What's the book you're working on?

ADAM MONSEN: I'm calling it Steadfast Self-Hosting: Rapid-Rise Personal Cloud. It's a manifesto for people who care about having their own data. Not necessarily for privacy, although that's a common motive. The fundamental theory I'm trying to push forward this concept of data sovereignty, I didn't make it up, but the idea is you have your own data for not just you, your small group, your family, your community, your project, your school. And with that, you gain power, autonomy, agency, freedom--for the idealistic stance--but, the approach is very practical, very pragmatic.

RICHARD LITTAUER: So I love that concept. In practice, it's very difficult to get your data out of any of the monoliths--


RICHARD LITTAUER: --that currently exist. And it's also difficult to have the tools necessary to effectively mine the data in the way that's immediately useful for you. Can you tell me how you take that extra step of saying "get your own data" to, "oh, this is actually kind of cool and useful and fun."

ADAM MONSEN: Yeah. There's no wrong place to start, but it's worth it. It's a worthwhile journey. It's something that's worth debating and questioning. It can be hard. Lately, it's become quite a bit easier. You can take out your data from quite a few places, and migration into different FOSS servers is possible and supported and encouraged quite a bit. I focus on Nextcloud quite a bit--no affiliation--but I think their software is great for hosting and sharing your own files, and they have a connector to grab your data off any of the big public clouds, for example. You can just migrate it right in, and they help you do that right in the software.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Is [Nextcloud] the same as Vercel?

ADAM MONSEN: Nextcloud was a fork of ownCloud.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Okay, different. Okay, got it.

ADAM MONSEN: It gives you like kind of a drop, your own Dropbox or a Google Drive, that kind of thing.

RICHARD LITTAUER: It's great that you tell me how to do it easily. What's the first step that I would want to do as a naive user trying to own my own data? How would I get started?

ADAM MONSEN: Get my book.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Okay. For sure. Very good pitching.

ADAM MONSEN: Well, it is hard to know where to start. It's not that hard to start, but there's so many choices out there that it's hard to know what to start with and what's worth your time. So that's what I focus on in the book. It's designed to be not too long, not comprehensive. It's not like a massive Linux "how to do everything to a server" manual.

It's what you need to do to help the people you care about, your group, help them own their data, help them migrate it in and whatnot. And the first step to that is you have to get a piece of hardware and stand up some services so they can use it, so they can put it behind their phone.

Their phone can talk to it rather than a big public cloud, you're locked in, whatnot. You want to have your data for you to pass on.

We work hard to curate our data. So the idea is you could get my book and get a start at setting up your own server and services for your group.

RICHARD LITTAUER: I've never thought about self-hosting my eBird data first and then using APIs to submit it afterwards.

ADAM MONSEN: Would that change the way you think about your data or what kind of things you'd start?

RICHARD LITTAUER: It would give me a whole lot closer towards building my app so when I'm birding on the highway, which you shouldn't ever do, drive responsibly people.

ADAM MONSEN: Don't do that.

RICHARD LITTAUER: You could just click a button and say, saw a crow at this time, it'll log the location and then it'll save it on my-- anyway, that's just where my brain went. Long time listeners, I apologize for bringing up birds yet again.

ADAM MONSEN: There's lots of reasons to do it though, right? There's a chilling effect when you're trying to share something sensitive with a friend and you usually just give in to like, okay, here's the doc, here's the link.

RICHARD LITTAUER: I use Signal as much as I can.


RICHARD LITTAUER: But after that, like docs, like I use Google Docs for this podcast. I really should be using Cryptpad. Don't know why I don't. I just haven't made that switch yet.

ADAM MONSEN: Slightly harder, right? Slightly more hassle and then somebody else sees it and they're a little
slightly more confused.

I think Nextcloud is one tool that's, it just, it's kind of the current thing that fits that gap, but it does that for a lot of people. It can bring you up to speed by showing you familiar interfaces. Oh, here's a doc, here's a document and I can get at it from the web or from a mobile device and I don't care where it's stored.

But in this case, great. You've done the work ahead of time to set up a server and services. So, you can trust where it is served and it works quite well. I would say for me, I trust it more. It's more robust than when I did put things in the public cloud. I try not to, but again, you asked like where to start, why... nobody's 100% anything. It's worth working on, I would say.

RICHARD LITTAUER: So you're an author. Is this your first book?


RICHARD LITTAUER: Exciting. Why are you an authority on this subject?

ADAM MONSEN: I've been curious for quite a while. I've been in tech for quite a while and done different things, used other people's servers. I've self-hosted quite a bit over-- for decades, but never, I guess I would say, committed my family to going along with it, going along with this with me. And they agreed to, and I said, I'll stand this up and you can use it and we'll talk through what, I think that is just a key part. Like if it's just for you, I don't care, man. It's like everybody, them their own, that's great. But when it's a group, it can be very empowering. It's more meaningful, honestly, when you're doing it for more than one person. You share.

So what I did was I stood this up, I took the time to do it right and I kept it going. I wanted no unplanned outages for a couple years. I tried to treat it like a real server where I've got customers and everything. Well, my customers are right in the house with me. And I already care about them. So that made it easy to--

RICHARD LITTAUER: 24 seven hour complaint line right there.

ADAM MONSEN: (laughs) Luckily not too many. They're very understanding. They give me a lot of leniency, but they do make use of it also. They're the reason I'm doing this. And I hope they agree when they come see my talk tomorrow.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Segwaying a bit. Love that. It's great. Basecamp recently said that they've switched from being in the cloud to hosting their own servers. And as a result, they're saving $7 million over the next five years because the cloud never works for them.

That's a business operation. That's a business shift. And, you know, I used to host another podcast called Community to Cloud Native where I talked about the cloud and I sort of stopped doing it at some point. But I'm just curious, have you thought about pitching any of the book towards businesses to host their own data as opposed to just individuals?

ADAM MONSEN: Yeah, I think businesses are well aware. You know, when they, at least the ones I've been in, we would always start with needs, budget, and then cost against cloud and self. And generally it comes to cloud hosting because of the convenience. You're just, yeah, I don't care where the servers are, the power, this and that. And then you kind of short-term jump on it. And then you're not thinking long term because, yeah, I think it is generally a short term play just to throw it in the cloud. And I'm not surprised that Basecamp is saving millions.

Other companies, it seems like they get big enough and they have enough commute, compute needs. It's usually compute, not storage that tips them over into hosting their own. But I think the concepts are useful to businesses. I think people working in these bigger businesses, let's say midsize, maybe a little beyond startup, but they are probably already familiar. And those people doing their sysadmin, admin-ing their cloud servers and such, they should walk through this exercise too.

They should have a home lab. They should practice this stuff. They need to learn the fundamentals of sysadmin and containers and all the different ways to host and stuff like that. So I think they could find a lot of use out of this. I don't address businesses directly in this book, but I think SOHO, small office, home office, smaller businesses could definitely make use of this kind of technology just to have their own cloud, have their own cloud, have their own data and the agency that goes along with that.

RICHARD LITTAUER: I'm not an industry expert on this, so this question may be naive. Would there be any benefit towards various small organizations and SMBs funding a cooperative data lake-type thing as opposed to going with allowed cloud foundries, which are going to charge more because they can, even though at scale they may actually have lower operating costs.

Is there any reason to think about running together with other companies to have your own open source data?

ADAM MONSEN: Yeah, for sure. And not my area of expertise, but I would say for sure. Co-ops are great. A number of people here at FOSSY are involved in or running co-ops.

RICHARD LITTAUER: There's a group in the UK called Redecentralize that's been working for the past 5, 10 years on trying to find other ways to access and enable and make a standard of APIs between all the large data giants, Facebook, Twitter, Google, so you can actually take your data out of these things and also put them back in if you want, where it's much more plug and play, but you're the person who owns your data, kind of like you can go to the doctor's office and say, I want all my records and then take them physically out and hand them to your next doctor, which most people aren't aware.

I'm curious, given that you're interested in helping people make the shift towards owning their own data, being sovereign of their own world, have you thought about sitting on any sort of nonprofit board or working for any of this sort of Redecentralize-type stuff to see how we can make a sea change to actually enable better API usage so we can get our data out of other companies?

ADAM MONSEN: I haven't, but if they want me, I'm game, yeah, for sure.

That's awesome. Compatibility is a huge thing. Interoperability. It flies in the face of walled gardens, lock-in, so that's amazing. Do companies participate in this or is it more a third-party effort?

RICHARD LITTAUER: More a third-party effort, foundation-type effort, just trying to figure this stuff out. I was just curious where you were sitting on any of those sort of discussions if you're helping out.

ADAM MONSEN: No, I would though. That's another great thing that we should question, we should work on because our data is our own. I'm glad you brought up healthcare too. I mean, health records, I don't know.


ADAM MONSEN: My gods. Every time I go to the doctor, I have to gather my own. You'd think that you just, "oh, can you talk to my last doctor and get that?" "Well, kind of."

You do a records request, it's cumbersome, and I've heard in other countries that there are APIs and you have the right to request and not just they send you a CD or a huge sheet of paper, you get digital access. There are free software EHRs that are very interesting. I want to use that. I haven't yet, but I definitely want to gather my own data.

And then when I go to the next doctor, it's just like, oh, here's the stuff you need to help me with this problem right now. Sheesh. Not just for myself too. People I care for, I mean, I'd want to-- the same power.

RICHARD LITTAUER: One more weird question, which is you mentioned the word sovereignty. Digital sovereignty is normally used in open source spaces to mean a lack of reliance on another country's technical prowess. So for instance, the Sovereign Tech Fund coming out of Germany, which is an idea to basically try and make Germany less reliant on American tech.

Now, this could lead towards a balkanization of the space. That's not the goal, but it's one of the ways that the messaging is often used to get politicians to go along with having sovereignty. So I'm curious where you sit on the libertarian access of owning your own data and being sovereign as an individual versus actually thinking about being part of the same team as everyone else and working together to improve data access for everyone using current platforms.

ADAM MONSEN: I think to me, the free software problem or the struggle, has always been international. And I love the idea that if I'm solving a problem in my own country, it crosses borders quite freely. So I'm hoping that my use of the term data sovereignty can overcome theirs.

But no, I was not aware of that. And that's, yeah, I mean, politics will always come into it. But no, I think this is this, why one would hope this would transcend politics and serve individuals and groups, small groups. But I've heard about government switching to free and open source software. And I mean, how wonderful that public code, public funds, public code, that kind of effort is so inspiring. I mean, it makes quite a bit of sense.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Thank you for dealing with my hardball. Sorry to ask difficult questions.

ADAM MONSEN: Keep bringing it, keep it coming. I love it.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Well, actually we are running up on time. So I have a few more questions for you. One of them: where can people find this book?

ADAM MONSEN: adammonsen.com, A-D-A-M M-O-N-S-E-N dot com is a good place to start. I'll keep updates going there. I don't have the website up for the book yet. It is content complete. Now I'm in editing and tech review that kind of, thank you.

RICHARD LITTAUER: That's a lot of work. Good job.

ADAM MONSEN: It's not a huge book. So part of the idea is to run 100 pages printed right now. And I want to stay there, but I want people to be able to get print copies. And I'm working on publishing and distribution. If you're a publisher, actually, please contact me.

That could be interesting, but so far I'm planning on self-publishing. And the book itself--I think this is significant--the book itself is free and open. You can remix. You can rebuild. You can reprint, even. The licenses will be pretty clear in there and hopefully very amenable to sharing.

Because I also want to help other tech authors that are stuck, stumbling, not sure where to start. This is a starting point. The book build system itself is going to be Free and Open Source Software. You can build your own book with it. You could fill in the chapters and start your own.

Thank you Richard so much for the time to talk.

RICHARD LITTAUER: You already answered my second question, which is I can find you at adammonsen.com.

Any other socials you want to plug?


RICHARD LITTAUER: All right. Well, thank you so much. You can find that link also in the show notes. Adam, thanks for taking the time today. Good luck with the book!

ADAM MONSEN: Thank you, Richard.

RICHARD LITTAUER: Listeners, I hope you have enjoyed this podcast. If you're curious about FOSSY, where these were recorded, go to sfconservancy.org to the Software Freedom Conservancy's website, where you can learn more about it. It's been really, really fun to be here and have these great conversations about free and open source software. Of course, if you've liked this podcast, please let us know. Like us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you're listening to it. Email us at podcast@sustainoss.org. Give us any thoughts or comments or queries or complaints. We would love to hear them.

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