Escaping the FAANG1 (Part 1.)

Using modern cloud products is like a death by a thousand cuts. Over time, under pressure to prove their value or to justify a promotion, the product managers and designers at these companies tweak away at perfectly functional products and interfaces, removing key features, and disrupting workflows. The engineers, seeking to stay relevant as frameworks come and go, pull in the latest hyped library, bloating the browser and slowing the interface to treacle.

For me, Google Drive removing the ability to sync specific folders to a laptop was the straw that broke this camel's back. I had over a terabyte of photo's in the Google Drive app, and relied on a fairly convoluted workflow to keep my files distributed amongst a clutter of computers. This workflow was irretrievably broken by the update that I had neither asked for or wanted, but that was forced upon me with a fairly hostile update message.

And after some thought, I realised that my digital life, and the common work practices of these companies, have been drifting apart for some time now. Their view of how I use a computer or phone does not match my vision or goals. If I was to not act, I would be trapped in their walled garden, boiled like a lobster in a slowly warming pan, crushed like Sisyphus by the boulder of self serving updates.

In stark contrast to this, has been my experience maintaining config files for my text editor (vim) and development environments (tmux et al). Open source has so different an incentive structure to cloud products, that in the decade and a half that I've been using and tweaking these configs, nothing has been irrevocably broken, no workflows have needed to be changed.

And ideologically, I want this model of computing to sustain. I don't want our digital lives to be dictated by a small number of technology megacorporations and the myopic visions of their product designers on how I live my life.

My goal then was simple. To claw back my data from the maw of the FAANG, and to establish a digital workflow that suited my needs powered by open source software.

There is nothing new about a story detailing someones renunciation of Google et al, there are many like it, but this one is mine.

This project has been brewing on the back burner of my mind for many years, but now it has started to boil. Making the switch is an ongoing process, and I will document it here for interested readers and fellow refugees from the big-tech dystopia.

Part 1: Planning

My goals were as simple as they were uncompromising. Get rid of Google, Apple and other walled gardens from my life, reclaim my data, and not make my life any more difficult in the process. I am happy to pay for products and services as long as they don’t attempt to lock me in, or in anyway dictate my behaviour. So S3 as a backup mechanism is fine, but iCloud is not. And to be extra sure that my data is secure, and that I couldn't be backhanded in any way, I set myself the goal to never have my data in only a single cloud.

The majority of my data is photographs, over a terabyte so far, from more than a decade of wandering the world with a camera. I also anticipate a rapid growth in my collection of video, as action cameras and drones advance into my sporting life rapidly. This means that, for at least this portion, I need some storage that is rapidly accessible (to allow for photo processing, video editing etc.) and securely backed up.

On top of this I have email, plaintext notes, scans of my old documents, source code, and old files from computers gone by. This needs to be accessible on my phone, securely backed up, and safe from a reasonable hacking threat-model.

Least important are the videos, music or ebooks I've bought over the years. While the majority of these data are unencumbered by DRM and nice to have around, if I lost them I could repurchase, so the backups are less critical here.

So, three classes of data, each with slightly different requirements.

The next question is where files will live. There are basically two options here: in the cloud or on a machine at home. Both have advantages and disadvantages. A cloud based machine would allow easier networking, easier upgrading and expansion, and easier integration with other cloud services. On the other hand a home server would allow quicker access to files on the local network, would average out cheaper in the long run, and would allow me to play about with things.

As a large proportion of this project is fun, my gut instinct is to just build the server. Additionally, for personal projects, I favour the CapEx structure rather than subscription hell that everyone is pushing for, so simply buying the components once rather than locking myself into an (even bigger) ongoing cloud bill is appealing.

And because this is a personal project, my gut feelings are sufficient, with no further due diligence or justification required. I decided to build the server, which will be the subject of an upcoming post.

One of the requirements is that I can access files from my phone - it’s very useful to have access to documents and old records on the go, so I need some way that can sync files to a phone. This too will be described in a future post.

Backup to a cloud volume is a hard requirement, and my initial instincts are to use something like rclone to script backups into S3 or similar.

This strikes me as enough planning. There are enough caveats to any engineering project that any firm commitment to a waterfall of steps leads to disappointment; far better to keep a loose goal and dedicate oneself to iteration and adapting to circumstance.

So, the anchor is weighed, and the course is set. I will leave the oppressive regime of the FAANG and head for freer lands. The waters look calm, but the sea is where the storms are born.


[1]: FAANG - Originally a term to describe the biggest tech firms by market cap: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google. Used here as a colloquial way to refer to the big rent-seeking platforms that seek to control our data.