Building a Self-Hosted Application: The Need for Simplicity and Clarity


In the world of open source software, one of the challenges faced by developers is making their applications easy to self-host. While self-hosting offers the flexibility and control desired by many users, it can often be a complex process that requires knowledge of system administration, configuration, and dependencies.

A recent discussion on GitHub shed light on the experience of setting up a self-hosted project management application called “Plane”. Users expressed their frustrations and highlighted the importance of simplicity and clarity in the self-hosting process. Let’s delve into some key insights from the conversation.

The Quest for Simplicity: Docker, Nginx, and Environment Files

One user pointed out that self-hosting Plane was not as straightforward as expected. They mentioned that the self-hosting documentation had broken links and noted the presence of multiple environment files, causing confusion. Another user quickly corrected an interpretation of a Docker-Compose command, highlighting the importance of using accurate commands.

The discussion then turned to the inclusion of Nginx in the self-hosting documentation. Some users questioned why Nginx was mentioned and expressed frustration with projects that required fiddling with scripts, environment files, and reverse proxies. They argued that self-hosted projects should simply “just work” with a single command, such as docker compose up.

In response, another user emphasized the value of understanding dependencies and configuration, highlighting the importance of hands-on setup for those in the self-hosting realm. They mentioned that having control over the setup process allows users to build their own containers and tailor the environment to their specific needs.

The Business of Self-Hosting: Open Source and Paid Hosting

The discussion also touched on the business aspect of self-hosted applications. One user speculated that the complexity of self-hosting Plane might be intentional to drive users towards the paid cloud version. Others disagreed, mentioning that the open-source release seemed comprehensive, and the issues stemmed from documentation rather than ulterior motives.

To test the hypothesis that the company might be intentionally making self-hosting difficult, a suggestion was made to send a pull request to improve the self-hosting documentation. However, another user cautioned that accepting a pull request alone would not dispel doubts about the company’s commitment to self-hosting support in the long run.

Striking a Balance: User Experience and Administration Requirements

The conversation highlighted the need for self-hosted applications to strike a balance between providing a seamless user experience and catering to experienced administrators. Some users expressed the desire for a one-line or one-action installation process, even for experienced admins, to increase the chances of success in trying out the application.

On the other hand, users who preferred manual setup emphasized the importance of comprehensive documentation. They appreciated having visibility into the setup process, understanding the dependencies, and being able to tinker with the environment. For them, the ability to study Dockerfiles and Docker Compose files provided valuable insights into the application’s configuration.

Conclusion: Emphasizing Simplicity and Clarity in Self-Hosting

The conversation surrounding the self-hosting experience of the Plane project management application highlighted the importance of simplicity and clarity. Users expressed frustrations with broken links, multiple environment files, and the need for fiddling with scripts and reverse proxies. While some preferred a seamless one-action setup, others valued understanding the setup process.

For developers of self-hosted applications, this discussion serves as a reminder that providing clear and concise documentation is crucial for user satisfaction. By simplifying the self-hosting process, developers can make their applications more accessible to a wider range of users, while still catering to the needs of experienced administrators.

In the end, finding the right balance between user experience and administrative requirements is paramount. Whether through automated setups or comprehensive documentation, self-hosted applications can empower users to take control of their software while providing an environment that fosters exploration and understanding.

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