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Should you have a server?

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As a writer, you’d probably rather spend your free time reading or writing than mucking around with a command line. Writing and information technology are different disciplines for a reason. You know the tools you need to do your job—why would you want to run your own web server server, too? Here are a few reasons.

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For writers, having a server is hardly a requirement. Most us count on other people to host our personal web sites. When we’re getting started, we might build a site through a free or cheap service like Google Sites, Tumblr, Weebly, or Behance. If we want a more professional look, we might hire a friend of a friend to build and host a site for us. Or if we like tinkering, we might go through a web hosting company that lets us manage our own files through FTP and run our own WordPress installations (which is how I run the Breaking Copy blog).

But there’s another way: Getting down into the guts of the machine. Cloud computing has pushed costs so low that you can now rent access to a bare-bones Linux box for about the cost of a Netflix subscription. It’s an Internet server you’re totally in charge of, to build from the ground up. It’s a pain in the ass. If you’ve never stared down a blinking command prompt before, it’s downright terrifying. Here are 5 reasons you should do it anyway.

1. Know where your food comes from. The farm-to-table movement (mercilessly destroyed by the show Portlandia), got restaurants in the habit of telling diners about the farms where their ingredients come from. Apply that same idea to technology. You took the time to learn where your chicken came from. Can you can take the time to learn about the technology that sustains your entire career?

2. Get lost in creative flow. Working with servers isn’t necessarily fun—but it’s satisfying, problem-solving work. If you like getting lost in projects that fall into place based on little riddles you solve one by one, like a crossword puzzle, you may find it fun to spend a rainy afternoon messing around with a server.

3. Take control of your own online presence. You can build your own personal site and make sure it’s done right.

4. There’s plenty of help. Google is downright awesome at helping solve computer problems. When you encounter an error, just paste it into the Google search box. You’ll find dozens of message boards where other people discuss their struggles and solutions the same issue.

5. Be more valuable. Obviously, being versed in the language of server technology comes in handy at any job when you might need to get a new website built (or get a broken one fixed). Also, if you do any volunteer work, organizations always need help with their websites. You’ll be able to flex your skills and be a hero.

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I spent the last 2 Saturdays tinkering with a server I just launched in the Amazon Elastic Computing Cloud data center in Northern Virginia. I launched what Amazon calls a “micro instance” of a Linux server, and installed Apache, MySQL and PHP. (In the process of doing so, I finally learned that this is what people mean when they refer to a “LAMP stack.”)

At first, I found this work intimidating, puzzling, and frustrating. It’s very easy to fritter away 2 hours trying to clear some silly-in-retrospect roadblock (usually a permissions issue). But with the help of a lot of online tutorials, I managed to get a simple website running and map a domain to it. Most computer engineers could accomplish this before breakfast. For me, it felt like reaching the top of a mountain.

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This does not make me a server expert. I’ll probably screw up something, and I might have to wipe the server clean and start over at some point. But I feel more knowledgable and more independent about websites, which are a necessary and sustaining component of my career as a writer. Back to the food analogy: I feel like the guy who cooks meals from scratch with vegetables he grows in his own garden.

What can I do with this server? Keep learning. I want to set up a new WordPress blog for testing. I have an idea for a database tool I want to write. I’d like a place to build an occasional demo site for my job. Once I’m confident that I know what I’m doing, I might copy Breaking Copy and my other sites over to it, making myself a little more independent.

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When I worked at newspapers, I was enchanted by the press rooms, filled with bulky, expensive machines. Today’s equivalent to the printing press is a web server. The difference is you don’t need a team of unionized pressmen and a bulk contract with a paper mill to run one. In fact, you can now build and operate one in your spare time on the weekends. This is a miracle. Take advantage of it.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Technology

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