Self-Host Your Browser Data

Overview

For a while now I have been looking for a self-hosted, cross-platform solution that would allow me to sync my browser data (specifically bookmarks and history) between different devices. In the past I’ve used some of the following but have not been entirely satisfied for a number of reasons:

  • iCloud
    • Not self-hosted
    • Required extension (if not using Safari)
    • Did not sync history (if syncing to windows machine)
  • Xmarks
    • Not self-hosted
    • Did not sync history
    • Required extension on all browsers
    • Not mobile-friendly
  • Floccus
    • ✅ Self Hosted
    • Did not sync history
    • Requires extension on all browsers
    • Not mobile-friendly
    • Great for sharing bookmarks with others (Can use Nextcloud as storage)

Firefox Sync Server

Recently I discovered Firefox Sync Server which is an official self-hosted implementation of Mozilla’s sync service for syncing all Firefox account information. Although development on this is low priority, I have proved it to be reliable and well worth the effort to setup. Once configured, all my dreams come true:

  • ✅ Self Hosted & Free!
  • ✅ Cross-platform clients (requires the use of Firefox browsers – which I prefer anyway!)
  • ✅ Mobile Friendly
  • ✅ Syncs any or all of the following: Bookmarks, History, Tabs, Addresses, Credit Cards, Add-Ons, and Firefox Settings

Configure the Server

There are a few different ways to run the Firefox Sync Server but I found Docker-Compose to be the easiest way to get up and running quickly:

1. Setup docker (not covered in this post)
2. Create a new docker-compose (or stack):

version: '3.7'
services:
    syncserver:
        container_name: firefox_syncserver
        image: mozilla/syncserver:latest
        volumes:
            - data:/data
        ports:
            - 5000:5000
        environment:
            SYNCSERVER_PUBLIC_URL: 'https://firefoxsyncserver.your_domain.com'
            SYNCSERVER_SECRET: 'add_a_random_secret_text'
            SYNCSERVER_SQLURI: 'sqlite:////data/syncserver.db'
            SYNCSERVER_BATCH_UPLOAD_ENABLED: 'true'
            SYNCSERVER_FORCE_WSGI_ENVIRON: 'true'
            PORT: '5000'
        restart: always
        
volumes:
    data:

3. Setup remote access to the service. My preferred way is to use a reverse proxy lik NGINXProxyManager.
At minimum you need:
– A static ip or an externally accessible domain (if you don’t have one, you can get one via DuckDNS)
– Port forward the desired port to your Firefox Sync Server

4. Start/deploy the docker container/stack and navigate to the SYNCSERVER_PUBLIC_URL defined in the compose file to verify that the service is running correctly:

Setup Client Browsers

In order to use your self-hosted Firefox Sync Server you will need to configure each client to use your custom sync server:

Desktop Client

Changing the sync server on Firefox desktop is easy:

1. In your address bar navigate to: about:config

2. Search for: identity.sync.tokenserver.uri and modify the value to match the SYNCSERVER_PUBLIC_URL defined in the compose with an additional path of /token/1.0/sync/1.5

3. Sign into your Firefox Account as normal – This is only to authenticate – not to store your browser data. (You can also host your own Firefox Account Server, but that is out of the scope of this post).

4. Attempt to sync. The sync should take at least a few seconds – if it completes immediately, there may be an issue. To tell if the sync properly saved your browser data to your personal server, you can navigate to about:sync-log and browse the log files to make sure your sync server is being referenced instead of the default firefox sync server.

iOS Client

Changing the sync server on Firefox iOS is also easy:

1. Open the iOS Firefox app and navigate to Settings.

2. Scroll to the bottom of the settings pane and tap on “Firefox Daylight” five times quickly (This will enable the advanced/debug menu):

3. Setup the advanced settings according to the screenshots below (be sure to only include the /token/ path for the token server url – you do not need to additional `/1.0/sync/1.5` path that is needed for Firefox desktop.

4. Sign into your Firefox Account (again this is only used to authenticate – not to store your browser data).

5. Sync your browser data, and confirm that you can see the changes on your other clients that are synced to your same Firefox Sync Server.

Decloud

Once you feel satisfied that your sync server is working correctly and that you have proper backups in place to prevent data loss, go ahead and remove your other sync solutions like (iCloud, Xmarks, etc) and delete the data stored on any of those cloud services. You’re in control of your data now!

~ Don’t litter! – That includes your personal data on the internet!

What, Why, When, and How Nextcloud

What is Nextcloud?

TLDR: A Nextcloud description is below, but why not just check out the demo!

Nextcloud is a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) that provides an enterprise grade all-in-one solution for file storage, collaboration, meetings, etc. Over the past few years Nextcloud has come a long way and is now my recommended solution for anyone seriously interested in hosting their own data with privacy and security in mind. Nextcloud is made up of many, many apps that can be installed as needed. Some of the apps include:

A sampling of a few Nextcloud apps
  • Files (This is installed by default and aids in storing/sharing/managing your files)
  • Calendar (This uses WebDav and can be synced to other devices more on this in a later post)
  • Tasks (This also can be synced using WebDav to other devices like MacOS/iOS Reminders)
  • Gallery (This helps with managing your photos in a centralized location)
  • Maps (Directions, pinning locations, mapping where your photos were taken, etc)
  • Contacts (Address book that uses WebDav to sync with other devices)
  • Bookmarks (Bookmark storage that can be synced to your browser using Floccus)
  • Talk (Meeting software like Zoom or Jitsi, no Nextcloud account needed to join calls!)
  • Mail (A very functional Mail client application with encryption, multiple accounts, etc)
  • Other features:
    • 2 Factor Authentication
    • File Sharing policies (timeframe, encryption options, public link expiration, etc)
    • LDAP user/group managment
    • Automated updates & Security audits
    • Forms
    • Polls
    • Project Management
    • Social Plugins
    • Password Manager
    • Many others (See the Nextcloud App Store)

Why Nextcloud?

Why use Nextcloud? Simply put: data privacy. Nextcloud provides a private and secure vault for all your personal information. No need to worry about Google reading your emails and using your photos for machine learning purposes. No need to pay Dropbox or any other cloud storage company a monthly fee for storing your files on a server you have no control over. Nextcloud makes it easier to take responsibility for your own data so you know where it resides. If you’re still not convinced, check out Nextcloud’s reasoning.

When Nextcloud

Given my bullish stance on Nextcloud, I would also like to make clear that Nextcloud isn’t for everyone. It does require some technical experience and a use case that is worth while. Nextcloud works best and is most enjoyable when it is used for more than just a few files. Casual or non-technical Nextcloud users would be better off signing up with a Nextcloud provider rather then self-hosting it since the providers will handle the configuration and hosting of the storage (this however does reduce your visibility in where and how your data is stored). An alternative to a cloud provider is to buy a dedicated, pre-configured piece of Nextcloud hardware with some tech support.

How Nextcloud

Requirements

Memory Required: 512MB

Nextcloud can be installed in a variety of ways. My preferred method is using the per-configured virtual appliance, but other methods include docker, Ubuntu snap, web-server script, archive extraction. Detailed installation instructions can be found in the Nextcloud Docs, but a simple rundown of the installation methods are listed below:

Appliance

Virtual Machine (My preferred method)

I prefer this method since it allows me to take easy snapshots/backups of the entire Nextcloud environment. This gives me peace of mind so I can be sure I can rollback to a point in time if anything goes wrong.

  1. Download the Virtual Machine (There are also advanced-configured VMs here)
  2. Setup a VM in your favorite Hypervisor (Proxmox, Hyper-V, VirtualBox, VMWare, etc)
  3. Import the downloaded Virtual Machine file and start the virtual machine (check the console)
  4. Login to the pre-configured Nextcloud instance and enjoy!

Appliance: Docker (Great for those already using Docker)

For those already using docker, this method may be appealing. I avoided this option primarily because it didn’t have a very clean docker-compose setup.

  1. On a docker-enabled machine run `docker run -d -p 8080:80 nextcloud`
  2. Alternatively, if you use docker-compose, start with this template:
version: '2'

volumes:
  nextcloud:
  db:

services:
  db:
    image: mariadb
    restart: always
    command: --transaction-isolation=READ-COMMITTED --binlog-format=ROW
    volumes:
      - db:/var/lib/mysql
    environment:
      - MYSQL_ROOT_PASSWORD=
      - MYSQL_PASSWORD=
      - MYSQL_DATABASE=nextcloud
      - MYSQL_USER=nextcloud

  app:
    image: nextcloud
    restart: always
    ports:
      - 8080:80
    links:
      - db
    volumes:
      - nextcloud:/var/www/html
    environment:
      - MYSQL_PASSWORD=
      - MYSQL_DATABASE=nextcloud
      - MYSQL_USER=nextcloud
      - MYSQL_HOST=db

Appliance: Ubuntu Snap (Easy for Beginners, but not recommended!)

This installation method is very easy but does have some drawbacks. From my experience, updates are slower to be released to the Nextcloud ubuntu snap distribution and often has issues with edge cases (I’ve noticed this with Collabora docs). It is also very difficult to migrate Nextcloud from a snap installation to a different installation method (I learned this the hard way!).

  1. Setup an ubuntu machine with snap enabled.
  2. Run `snap install nextcloud`
  3. Follow the installation steps and enjoy.

Web Installer (Good for C-Panel style web-hosting)

  1. Download the php script from the Nextcloud Site
  2. Upload the php scrip to your web server
  3. Point your browser to the php script
  4. Walk through the installation wizard (default user: ncadmin default password: nextcloud)
  5. Enjoy!

Manual Archive File Installation (Most Difficult)

  1. Download the Archive from the Nextcloud site
  2. Extract the archive file to an accessible location on your web server
  3. Configure Apache webserver
  4. Configure SSL
  5. Walk through installation wizard

Enjoy Nextcloud!

‘Don’t be Evil’ Isn’t enough for me!

Introduction to Home Assistant

Everyone likes home automation – if it works! We’ve all been excited about that smart switch or wireless light that we can control from anywhere in the world, but how great is it really? For a few ‘smart’ devices it may seem work well, but once you begin to accumulate more than a handful of devices you will quickly begin to realize that you have as many apps as you do smart devices and you will begin to start asking questions like:

  • Which app controls which device?
  • Do I have to download all these apps for each member of my family?
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if I could control all my smart devices with a single app?
  • Why can’t I connect my smart devices together?

All of these questions can be answered with a tool called Home Assistant. In the most basic of terms, Home Assistant is a tool that pulls all of your smart devices into a single app. I will save the details of Home Assistant future posts, but it aims to do the following and much more:

  • Be Free and Open Source (FOSS)
  • Improve your privacy by reducing the need for internet based cloud services
  • Control all the smart devices in your home from a central location
  • Connect smart devices in your home in order to trigger perform actions like: When there is motion in the hallway, turn on the light
  • Provide a single app (web or mobile) to control and manage all your smart devices

Home Assistant may not be the ‘silver bullet’ for every situation, but I am willing to say that it is unequivocally the best home automation solution available today (as of 2020). Anyone interested in taking the next step in home automation should consider Home Assistant. Stay tuned and in the near future we will be discussing how to get started using this great tool, and why it is (in my opinion) superior, but friendly with other alternatives like Hubitat, SmartThings, and HomeKit.

white and gray Google smart speaker and two black speakers
Photo by Sebastian Scholz (Nuki) on Unsplash

(Full disclosure: I was not paid or in any way incentivized to speak so highly of Home Assistant)