Who this page is for
Are you a new DSA chapter? Are you an existing chapter using mostly Slack and Google Docs? Do you want to take control of your chapter’s data, preserve your privacy, and perhaps get new functionality you didn’t have before?
After much research, I believe I’ve found the easiest, cheapest, and most secure Google alternative. While you may not be able to move off Docs entirely, I can give you a good start.
Your chapter can make the switch from closed-source programs that harvest your data and restrict features for non-paying users to useful, free, open-source software – with minimal effort and cost. As a fun bonus, you’ll also be avoiding some of the country’s worst tech offenders and abusers of power. But you may be asking – why bother doing all this in the first place?
Why use open-source software?
I understand that closed-source tools like Slack, Google Docs, and more just work for many people. People use these tools already at their jobs, at school, and even at home. Many people have a busy schedule as-is, and so we’re grateful they choose to spend their precious free time building socialism. Why would we make them learn something new or download a new app? Why risk de-incentivising people from contributing?
If you imagine a utopian socialist future, does it include Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon acting as middlemen to everything you do online? Probably not. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make the process of using free software as easy as possible for everyone involved – from the admins, to leadership, to your users.
This guide will walk you through each and every step, from starting with nothing but a credit card to finishing with your own website, blog, chat program, file storage solution, and an email/calendar/contacts server – a total package that has a non-Google alternative for nearly all of their services. Best of all, you can likely complete setup of all of these services in a few hours.
What it means to really own your tech stack
Before going through this process, remember that your entire chapter will be making this change with you. Before starting, ensure your chapter’s leadership is on board with using any software you plan to deploy, and have a plan to pay for expenses (~$50/month). Even if leadership and many of your members are on board, you should still comminute early and often to all the comrades in your chapter to ensure they are heard and their concerns are taken into consideration as this transition is made.
Remember: be democratic. Over-communication is less likely than under-communication, so communicate early, often, and in plain language.
Also, keep in mind that anything you do will need to be passed on to someone else at some point in the future. I strongly recommend taking copious notes as you transition and storing these notes for any other admins who have access to the software in the future. You may not know when you will not be able to access the admin dashboard in the future, so always have a plan for how someone can take control of your chapter’s digital presence without you being there in a safe manner. We’ll cover this more later, but keep it in mind. Now let’s cover exactly what you’ll need to get started!
What you need, and how much it costs
You need three main things:
- A domain name is the name of your chapter or something catchy like socialism.tools. This is that thing you type into the address bar in your browser.
- A Virtual Private Server, or VPS, is a computer that lives in the cloud. It’s called a Virtual private server because it’s not really a black box sitting somewhere – it’s a part of a very powerful server, running many people’s virtual servers at the same time but separated from each other (private).
- If you are extremely cost-constrained you can use a computer you already own – but be aware this is more difficult to set up, more risky, and less performant.
- A piece of software called Cloudron. It will run on your VPS. Cloudron mainly acts as an application controller. Cloudrun can install apps for you with one click, set them up for you, and keep them updated. Cloudrun also keeps itself updated, and provides user management and email services to all your apps. That’s very useful! Installing, configuring, and updating apps can be confusing or time-consuming, and Cloudron does it for you for a price that is far, far lower than other (business-focused) options. Cloudrun is run by a small company in Germany.
There is no away around the fact that this solution – as with any open-source solution – is going to cost money. Big Tech companies can subsidize free usage of things like Google Docs, OneDrive, Zoom, or Slack by charging their business customers a lot of money. But despite the cost of running free software, I think this is worth it to take control of your chapter – why become socialist if you don’t want to take big bets, eh? 😉
The cost breakdown will look something like this:
This adds up to $440 per year (less than $10 a week), or more if you pay for Cloudron monthly. This is the cheapest possible configuration I could find that could reasonably support a chapter.
If your chapter has a very tech-savvy Linux expert on hand, you could probably get away with not paying for Cloudron (and maybe it’s you), but remember what I said earlier – someday, someone else will need to inherit this technology stack. You might be unavailable when something breaks, and things like chat and email can be critical to people’s safety. Cloudron makes it easy to give multiple people access both to the platform itself and all the apps therein, and that simplicity and peace of mine is a huge part of why Cloudron is worth the money.
Disclosure: The two links above for a VPS and Cloudron are referral links; if you purchase services after clicking on them, I get a discount on the VPS and license key used to run socialism.tools.
Let’s buy a domain!
Buying your domain name is like buying your digital identity. As a reminder, the domain name of this site is socialism.tools.
To begin, Go to cloudflare.com and make an account if you don’t have one already. After signup, you should now have the option to purchase a domain name:
You can type in your domain name, including your top-level domain. This is .com, .biz, .org, .tools, and so on. There are tons of top-level domains, and if you aren’t sure which one you want, leave it out and see what Cloudflare suggests. For fun, let’s say we’re helping Albuquerque DSA set up their site. I like the .group TLD, so I chose that. This is what Cloudflare will show me:
Select “purchase” and complete the purchase process. You will be asked for your address and contact information – this information is not public. Cloudflare has something called WHOIS privacy on by default, so if someone tries to look up who owns a domain, it will not show them anything. Cloudflare is required to keep this information for legal purposes, so keep that in mind. Once you’re done, it should appear in your Cloudflare Dashboard like so:
We need to do one more thing with Cloudflare. Get an open Notepad doc open, we need to save a special string of text. Here’s what to do:
Click your user icon in the top-right corner of the page and select My Profile.
Click “API Tokens” and then the blue “Create token” button:
Choose Edit Zone DNS
Under Permissions:, add the following two entries:
Zone > Zone > Read
Zone > DNS > Edit
Press “Continue to summary” and then “Save”. Now, copy the token that appears on the screen somewhere safe. You can copy and paste it into Notepad and save it as a file, or use Sticky Notes.
Let’s build your VPS!
Now we need somewhere to point that fancy new domain name! There are many options to choose from when selecting a company to provide you a VPS. Cloudron recommends four options that offer one-click easy installation. Amazon is a popular option, but fuck Jeff Bezos.
Digital Ocean is what I use, and is the next most popular option that offers one-click install. It also has one of the best user interfaces available, to make managing your resources and sharing them with others easier.
You can click here to set up a new Digital Ocean account with $100 in credit. Once you have an account, you can create a Droplet. A Droplet is Digital Ocean’s cute term for VPS.
Click Create > Droplets
Click “Marketplace” and search for and select “Cloudron”.
Leave “Basic” selected and choose the size of your Droplet. The absolute bare minimum is the $10/mo droplet and I wouldn’t recommend this unless you really, really don’t have any money. If you plan on installing more than two or three apps, especially if you want to use WordPress, I would strongly recommend going up to the $15 plan that includes 3GB of RAM as the bare minimum. If you plan on having a lot of users (say, over 100) and you can afford it, the $40 a month plan should let you sleep easy knowing you always have enough power and RAM.
I recommend the $20/mo droplet to start as it provides a good balance that should work for most small to medium chapters (you can always easily make your droplet bigger).
Next, you’ll choose a data region. If you’re trying to avoid surveillance by the government by selecting a different country, I have bad news – it will likely not help. For performance reasons, choose a data center as close to your members as possible.
“Hey wait, you said this guide would help us avoid surveillance!”
I did, because it will protect you from bulk collection activities. Bulk collection activities are like Google mining your search history for ad data or the FBI issuing a wide search warrant for anyone who searched “communism is cool” in Facebook Messenger. The EFF has more information on this topic.
But this is not a guide on how to hide from the feds – doing so would so drastically increase the cost and complexity to this project so much it could not exist.
If sufficiently experienced hackers, such as the NSA, GRU, or others, want to get your data, they will. Do not transmit or store anything you think could be used against you on a computer. A Signal call, or even better, an in-person conversation does well when dealing with sensitive information.
Anyway, back to setup:
Leave Default VPC blank. Select the checkboxes for IPv6 and Monitoring. IPv6 is a newer web technology and monitoring will let you see pretty graphs in the Digital Ocean web interface.
Now select Password and create – and safely store in your password manager – this password. This password will let the person with access to it access all the data you store online. Keep this safe!
Leave everything else as-is.
Congratulations! In a few moments, your VPS will be built and have Cloudron ready to go! Wait for the installation process to complete before moving on to the next step – configuring your new Cloudron install.