Autonomic

The Co-operative Cloud

Libre software infrastructure without re-inventing the wheel

March 01, 2021

Running libre software apps and infrastructure for ourselves and our clients is central to what we do at Autonomic. Now, after a year of work, we’re stoked to share our “Co-op Cloud” project with the world. We want to make it easier for others to join the party, ditch corporate spyware, and make their tools sustainable, transparent and private.

Why a new tool?

We started out using Cloudron, which provides a very simple-to-use web interface for deploying libre software apps like Nextcloud, Mediawiki, and Rocket.chat with only a few clicks.

Cloudron allowed us to radically reduce our initial and ongoing server costs. We didn’t need to maintain a separate server for each service and clients apps could share computing resources whilst containerisation was still allowing us meeting their data privacy needs. Consequently, we’ve been able to take on many more “solidarity clients”, people doing important work, but on a shoestring budget.

As time has gone on, though, we’ve had a few moments when we questioned our reliance on Cloudron, and whether it was a sustainable choice for us and for our clients. We came to realise:

  • Core parts of the system officially became proprietary software. This rang alarm bells for us about its long-term future.

  • The work to package the available apps is done entirely by the Cloudron team itself and doesn’t re-use the existing rich ecosystem of libre software packaging work that’s already being done. This seems like a big risk. If Cloudron UG, the company behind Cloudron, goes under, someone or some entity would need to take on that laborious, technically specific and non-transferable packaging work or we’d quickly be leaving ourselves and our clients running outdated and unmaintained software.

  • Some aspects of Cloudron’s architecture were causing problems. Requiring each app to be a single Docker image makes common application deployment configurations impossible (as far as we know, nobody has yet managed to get Mediawiki’s visual editor working in Cloudron, for example).

  • Not being able to delegate user management to specific groups has made it hard for us to use Cloudron’s Single Sign On system with groups who manage their own users.

  • Cloudron’s central paradigm is focussed on “non-technical” users with the nice web front end for managing apps. However, we found our clients don’t actually need to know what “domain name” or “storage volumes” are. That’s why they pay us for support. They want it to “just work”. Using an interface designed for non-technical users is not suitable for technical users and adds a lot of bloat.

  • Cloudron is a bit of a black box. When something breaks, it breaks hard and requires technical users to respond and investigate and then fix the issues.

  • Cloudron doesn’t encourage collective and public collaboration on configuration files.

  • We have a general fear of centralising so much of our core business on a commercial entity, which could change its prices at any time and have a massive effect on our ability to operate.

A New Hope

So, around the end of 2019, we tried to map out a few core principles of a system which might work a lot like Cloudron, but give us more guarantees that we can depend on. We started calling the new project Co-op Cloud. Here are some of the principles we identified:

  • Always be available under copyleft licenses to retain the shared work as part of the commons. We shouldn’t rely on creating artificial scarcity as a business model.

  • Work with existing libre software communities who are already packaging and publishing their software (Nextcloud, Gitea, Mediawiki, Rocket.chat, the list goes on and on…). We want to be involved in their community spaces and build bridges between infrastructure, software development and end-users.

  • Based on standardised technologies. Any new tools we write should only add a thin layer of usability on top of existing solutions.

  • Place democratic governance at the core of the project. We want to collaborate as much as possible with other co-operatives to build up effective decision-making structures so we can all rely on this project far into the future.

  • Focus on meeting the needs of small hosting providers with technical workers in order to provide a solid service for their clients.

  • Encourage the creation of a configuration commons. Innovations based on Co-op Cloud can easily be shared and worked on collectively.

In our spare time (partly funded by income from working for our wonderful clients 😀) we’ve been putting the pieces together; and after a year of work (including two “back to the drawing board” moments), we’re ready to launch an alpha version of Co-op Cloud to the public.

Co-op Cloud public alpha

Co-op Cloud is a simple packaging format using existing open standards to build a catalogue of apps, and a command-line client to read the catalogue and deploy those apps.

If you’d like to learn more about Co-op Cloud, please read our documentation, where we explain the decisions we’ve made so far in more depth. What technologies we’re using, how we fit into the existing ecosystem, ways to contribute, what apps are available and so on.

We’ve already been deploying Co-op Cloud as part of “dual power” strategy. We use Co-op Cloud to run some of our own and our clients’ infrastructure while continuing with Cloudron and other strategies for the time being. We’re seeing promising stability and it’s been a joy to work with.

Enter the configuration commons

You can also dive straight in by installing abra, Co-op Cloud’s command-line tool.

You can use Co-op Cloud right now to deploy any of our 30+ apps to your own physical server or virtual server. These include Nextcloud (for file, calendar, contacts etc) Rocket.chat for instant messaging, Keycloak for Single Sign-On, Statping for service monitoring, and websites using Wordpress, Pelican, Jekyll, or static HTML. See the app catalogue for more.

Apps deployed via Co-op Cloud have automatic SSL certificates, and many come with pre-configured e-mail, backups, or Single Sign-On options.

See the getting started guide to get moving fast.

Packaging for Co-op Cloud

Packaging new apps for Co-op Cloud is straightforward in most cases: you can re-use an application’s own Docker image (or even docker-compose.yml file) with minimal changes. We managed to make a Co-op Cloud version of the Matomo web analytics platform in about 20 minutes. This standardised architecture also means that nobody using Co-op Cloud is dependent on Autonomic for updates. When a new Wordpress update comes out, you can easily install it yourself or automatically without waiting for us to update some arcane custom Docker image.

Next steps

At this point, we’d like to invite other worker co-operatives or democratic collectives to take a look at what we’re working on and have a chat with us. We have a public matrix room at #coopcloud:autonomic.zone. We think a common platform for hosting libre software infrastructure could make a big difference in terms of what we’re able to offer as a movement.

If you’re interested in getting involved with Co-op Cloud development, or if you’d like help trying out Co-op Cloud hosted services for yourself or your organisation, please get in touch.