Cloudron – Self-Hosted Docker / Containerised Apps (But Still Not a Personal Application Server?)

Via Jim Groom (Ghost in a Shell) and Tim Owens (Beyond LAMP), I note, a cPanel/Installatron-like application (as far as the user is concerned) for launching dockerised applications from a digital application shelf:

The experience is a bit like having a hosted version of Kitematic that lets you launch containers on that host, or a revamped version of Sandstorm (Personal Application Hosting, Dreams of a Docker AppStore, and an Incoming Sandstorm?).

The applications themselves look as if they’re defined from a git repo containing a Dockerfile plus some Cloudron config info (examples).

To a certain extent, this simplifies the rigmarole of launching containers on a remote host (if you use something like Docker Cloud, you need to go in to DockerCloud, launch a server, then get the container running on the server (old exampleTutum became Docker Cloud; the process remains much the same).

The Docker Cloud route also allows you to launch either a single container or a stack of containers, which is to set, a set of linked containers run via Docker Compose. (For the use cases I’m interested in, we might calling such configurations linked applications).

I can see how Jim is excited by the idea of Cloudron as a way of extending the hosting service opportunities offered by Reclaim Hosting: it opens up the possibility of allowing users to host applications defined via Dockerfiles, rather than just the applications configured for use via cPanel.

As well as offering a hosted service, it’s also a bit meta in that you can also host your own version of the Cloudron environment (e.g. on Digital Ocean or AWS).

But this is still exactly not what I am interested in.

Cloudron (and cPanel) provide UIs to allow “mortals” to start self hosting web based applications that they can start once, use thereafter. For example, you can use Cloudron to self-host your own version of WordPress. Every so often you go to your (self-hosted) WordPress blog and write a blog post, but the rest of the time it just sits there, running, and serving blog post web pages to your loyal readers or passing web search traffic.

But what I am interested in is are applications that I start when I want to use them, use them, then quit them (a start-use-quit model).

For example, consider something like Microsoft Word, as used to create or edit a text document. There are various ways of doing this:

  1. Using my desktop version of Word, I would probably: start the application, create the document, save the document, close the application.
  2. Using Office 365, a permanently running Word editor in the cloud, I would login to Office 365 via my browser, create the document, save it to my Office 365 online file area, and then close the browser tab (Office 365 is still running in the cloud).

But what if I wanted to have my own version of Word that I wanted to run in the cloud, much as I run my own copy of the Word application on my desktop?

If I was to run it permanently, as Office 365 runs permanently, as a self-hosted application like WordPress runs permanently, I would be paying for server costs permanently. I would also need to have some sort of authentication layer to stop other people using “my” version of Word online, and seeing my files stored there.

Instead, I want an environment that lets me start an application in the cloud, do whatever task I want in the application (create or edit a document), save the document, then close the application. I would only be hosting (in the sense of serving) the application as I used it, and then I would destroy it. Ideally, I would save the document I created somewhere persistent so that I could re-edit it using a newly started version of the editor at a later date.

In terms of resource usage, this is how I see the differences between the traditional self-hosted application, a personal desktop application, and what we might terms a personal (hosted) application (which might also be a personal self-hosted application):

In addition, I would expect to have privileged (authenticated access) to my personal applications. Unlike WordPress or Ghost, which run permanently and serve pages to the public as well as providing authenticated access to one or more (invited) users allowing them to edit posts, I would want to deny access to the site to anyone but me.

This means that either the personal hosted application should be visible to the user from their dashboard, or via an authenticated URL (with some ports perhaps open to the public). Something like this maybe?


Also, the public page might actually be an app specific authentication page (for example, a Jupyter notebook login page).

Unlike permanently running self-hosted apps, the personal apps are temporary, and only run when when the user wants to use them. The linked storage is, however, persistent.

The above architecture itself defines a generic self-hosted workbench environment, where the user can run applications on their workbench as personal applications as and when then need them (and hence only consume resources required to run them when they need them).

One possible way of gaining the insight as to why this is useful is to consider the following: a domain of one’s own gives you a presence you own (for some definition of “own”…) somewhere on the web; a server of one’s own provides a server that lets you easily run your own services (which can often be a b*****d for a novice to install), which may include permanently running services that populate your domain. A personal application server of your own (or maybe a workbench of your own?) lets you easily run software applications for personal use that can be a b*****d to install if you have to build and install them from scratch yourself (as is the case with a lot of scientific software applications; in addition, the workbench of your own makes it easy to launch linked applications (e.g. a stats analysis application linked to a database server) using things like pre-prepared docker compose scripts.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

9 thoughts on “Cloudron – Self-Hosted Docker / Containerised Apps (But Still Not a Personal Application Server?)”

  1. Tony,

    This is a really useful distinction, and I think it does point to specific tools for accomplishing something. I think we talked about a supercut video creator based on John Johnston’s awesomeness back at OER16. That would be rad, and you are right that my small mind is bent on the web server model for obvious reasons. The spin up and spin down application model for all sorts of things beyond publishing blog posts would be sick. And I really like the idea of removing the engine from the content, it points to the possible power of moving to flat file/html based applications like Jekyl, and opens up a whole world of thinking about archiving content long term beyond any one app—which I am very interested in. The editor (whether for text, audio, video, etc.) as something that is divorced from the content would be akin to the break of style from content between HTML and CSS. I am picking up what you are putting down, I think :)

    1. @Jim Right… the domain of one’s own / self-hosting model allows a novice to run services that are consumed by other people (the presence offered by a self-hosted WordPress blog, for example) but I am interested in helping folk access computer resource for running applications with an audience of one (that user). A few reasons this is important: software that folk may want to use can be hard to install and get running from scratch; the user has a Chromebook or tablet or phone or operating system that won’t let them install an application they want; the user has a computer that is not powerful enough to run the application they want and they need to “borrow” one (e.g. with a large amount of memory or powerful GPU or custom processor) … which makes me think: the app config also needs to be able to define the sort of machine you want to host it on…

      1. Another reason for workbench of your own that might appeal to Jim’s edu-hosting sensibility. Suppose I am a middle tier college with a computing lab within which students can access preconfigued applications to support a course. Suddenly, the college needs to offer computing lab services to more students than there is room for, or needs to support distance ed students. How do they do it?

        [Thinks: maybe better to consider this as a “computer lab of one’s own”?]

        1. Related to this: I see one of the opportunities for education is to make computing envioronments available to students that can be taken away by the student and used in their own work, workplace, etc etc. Education using students as a vector to get new tools into the workplace etc.

      2. Thinks again: maybe Jim likes Cloudron because it lets users populate their domain with services that publish content and services to the web; I want a host that that essentially lets me access applications on my desktop (albeit via a browser) that are difficult for me to install and run on my desktop. Jim likes Cloudron because it lets people come in via the web and push stuff out the web; I just want to access my own personal applications from the web.

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