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metThumbnail image for Metropolis-openingshot.pngFor the last five years a laptop has been whining loudly in my living room. It hosts my mail server.

I know: who has their own mail server any more? Even major universities famed for their technological leadership now outsource to Google and Microsoft.

In 2003, when I originally set it up, lots of geeky friends had them. I wanted my email to come to the same domain as my website, which by then was already eight years old. I wanted better control of spam than I was getting with the email addresses I was using at the time. I wanted to consolidate the many email addresses I had accrued through years of technology reporting. And I wanted to be able to create multiple mailboxes at that domain for different purposes, so I could segregate the unreadable volume of press releases from personal email (and use a hidden, unknown address for sensitive stuff, like banking). At the time, I had that functionality via an address on the now-defunct Demon Internet, but Demon had become a large company in its ten years of existence, and you never knew...

In 2015, when Hillary Clinton came under fire for running her own mail server, I explained all this for Scientific American. The major benefit of doing it yourself, I seem to recall concluding at the time, was one Clinton's position barred her from gaini ng: the knowledge that if someone wants your complete historical archive they can't get it by cutting a secret deal with your technology supplier.

For about the first ten years, running my own mail server was a reasonably delightful experience. Being able to use IMAP to synchronize mail across multiple machines or log into webmail on my machine hanging at the end of my home broadband made me feel geekishly powerful, like I owned at least this tiny piece of the world. The price seemed relatively modest: two days of pain every couple of years to update nad upgrade it. And the days of pain weren't that bad; I at least felt I was gaining useful experience in the process.

Around me, the technological world chnaged. Gmail and other services got really good at spam control. The same friends with mail servers first began using Gmail for mailing lists, and then, eventually, for most things.

And then somehow, probably around six or seven years ago, the manageable two days of pain crossed into "I don' wanna" territory. Part of the problem was deciding whether to stick with Windows as the operating system or shift to Linux. Shifting to Linux required a more complicated and less familiar installation process as well as some extra difficulty in transferring the old data files. Staying with Windows, however, meant either sticking with an old version heading for obsolescence or paying to upgrade to a new version I didn't really want and seemed likely to bring its own problems. I dithered.

I dithered for a long time.

Meanwhile, dictionary attacks on that server became increasingly relentless. This is why the laptop is whining: its limited processing power can't keep up with each new barrage of some hacker script trying endless user names to find the valid ones.

There have been weirder attacks. One, whose details I have mercifully reppressed, overwhelmed the server entirely; I was only able to stop it by barring a succession of Internet addresses.

Things broke and didn't get repaired, awaiting the upgrade that never happened. At some point, I lost the ability to log in remotely via the web. I'm fairly sure the cause was that I changed a setting and not some hacker attack, but I've never been able to locate and fix it. This added to the dither of upgrading, as did the discovery that my server software appeared to have been bought by a Russian company.

Through all this, the outside world became more hostile to small servers, as part of efforts to improve spam blocking security against attacks. Delaying upgrading the server has also meant not keeping up well enough with new protocols and preventions as they've developed. Administrators I deal with began warning me about resulting incompatibilities. Gmail routinely dropped my email to friends into spam folders. I suspect this kind of concentration will be the future of the Mastodon Fediverse if it reaches mainstream use.

The warnings this fall that Britain might face power outages this winter broke the deadlock. I was going to have to switch to hosted email like everyone else. Another bit of unwiring.

I can see already that it will be a great relief not worrying about the increasingly fragile server any more. I can reformat and give away that old laptop and the less old one that was supposed to replace it. I will miss the sense of technological power having it gave me, but if I'm honest I haven't had that in a long time now. In fact, the server itself seems to want to be put out of its misery: it stopped working a few days before Christmas, and I'm running on a hosted system as a failover. Call it my transitional server.

If I *really* miss it, I suppose I can always set up my own Mastodon instance. How hard can it be, right?

Illustrations: A still from Fritz Lang's 1927 classic, Metropolis, in celebration of its accession into the public domain.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Mastodon.or Twitter.


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