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2020 Summer Project #1: ‘Webtrees’ on a Home Server

June 20, 2020

The summer of 2020 is upon us. I just wrapped up my second year of teaching math full time for the School District of Philadelphia. In the wake of nationwide coronavirus business closures, I find myself without summer employment for the first time in about a quarter-century. 🤔 That means it’s GeNeALoGy TiMe once again!!! 😃👌

One project I’ve had on the back burner for the last decade or so is re-launching a family history website on a home server.

Why launch my own family history website?

I don’t have to. If cloud-based working and sharing is my goal, the leading genealogy sites offer excellent alternatives for members. Ancestry has its Public Member Trees. FamilySearch has its Family Tree. Geni is social networking for genealogists. My personal favorite for freedom-of-information purposes is the public-domain genealogy wiki WeRelate. Several of these options have modern smartphone apps to boot, so why should I start my own website instead of utilizing these fine web services? 🤔 I’ve got four reasons, all of which make sense to me without regard to whether they actually hold water. 🤷🏻‍♂️

  1. I control my privacy. Websites can change default privacy settings and privacy policies for good or ill. It’s hard to keep up with other people’s changes. When I run the site, I decide what information is visible to visitors, members, and administrators. I change set the privacy settings as I see fit.
  2. I protect my information. While it may seem at times like information on the internet is permanent, the fact is that websites die, brands change ownership, and information is sometimes lost in the shuffle. With information submitted directly to genealogy giants like Ancestry or FamilySearch, there is probably little risk of loss, but beware of smaller sites and offshoot brands. Consider this example of history lost when Ancestry shuttered its MyFamily social networking service in 2015. When I run my own website, I know where all my information is. If there comes a time to close my site, I can store or continue building on it until the time is right for a relaunch.
  3. I manage my restricted material. Many of my most fascinating historical images are restricted by licenses, copyrights, or confidences that would violate by simply uploading them to such public websites as Ancestry, Familysearch, or WeRelate. With my own web site, I can hide such documents from the public while making them available to my closest member-collaborators.
  4. I Learn a new skill! After I get this website going, I can add webserver administrator to my résumé’s accolades!

Why Webtrees?

Coding a website from scratch using from HTML, PHP, MySQL, and all that jazz is a little above my pay grade. Fortunately, a global network of genealogy web developers has already done the hard work for me. Wikipedia has compiled a list of eight web-based genealogy applications, and compares the features of each.

Active development is must for me. If I’m not testing out the latest version of my favorite genealogy software, am I really living? No, sir! 😃 Of the eight applications listed on Wikipedia, only three have released new versions within the last 12 months: HuMo-Gen, The Next Generation of Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding (TNG), and Webtrees.

Of those, HuMo-Gen and Webtrees have the lowest up-front cost, both being free to download under the GNU General Public License. Webtrees holds greater brand recognition for me, personally, as an active fork of the long-running PhpGedView software, with which I’ve experimented in the past. While HuMo-Gen has been in development longer, I’ve learned of it only recently so I’m less familiar with its offerings. I’ve settled on Webtrees for this project, although I’m sure both packages would offer a fine experience.

Why a home server?

Since I happen to have some old computers lying around the apartment, it is possible for me to launch a website literally with a $0 budget, thanks to free Linux server software and free accounts on dynamic DNS services such as NoIP.com. Of course, one does not get much more than one pays for.

The downsides to hosting a site from home include unreliable connections and outages that limit uptime, low bandwidth of home internet service that limits the number visitors to your site, and server speeds limited by the quality of the computer used. Launching a home server isn’t exactly a task for beginners, either, as running the server software and reasonably securing the system requires some technical experience.

As a hobby, the benefits of launching a home server outweigh the costs. In my case, I can get the site online, experiment with the software, and start sharing my research with no costs up front. If I enjoy the experience, and if the site’s popularity spreads, then I can consider professional web hosting services such as Bluehost, HostGator, GoDaddy, or AWS to serve my family history site more widely and reliably.

What am I waiting for?

My next several blog posts will detail my efforts to get Webtrees up and running on a home server. These will not be complete tutorials, since I am more student than teacher myself, but I will link you to the tutorials that I am using, and explain briefly how I overcame any troubles I encountered. It will be a lot of geeky fun, so join me, won’t you?

Next Post: My Machine and Operating System ➡️

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