Aral Balkan

Mastodon icon RSS feed icon

Nlnet Grant Application for Domain – First Update: Questions and Answers

This is the first update to our NLnet Grant Application for Domain.

You applied to the 2022-08 open call from NLnet. We have some questions regarding your project proposal Domain.

Thank you for getting back to us. Please find the answers, inline, below.

You requested 50000 euro, equivalent of one year of effort. Can you provide some more detail on how you arrived at this time estimate? Could you provide a breakdown of the main tasks, and the associated effort? What rates did you use?

As a funding body, I can see why the question of funding amount is the primary question. However, as someone who has eschewed mainstream income and other benefits to work for the common good, it is the least important one for me so I’ll leave this to the end and tackle your other questions first.

Can you compare Domain to and (note the former community also already uses the word Kitten…)?

Let me tackle them separately:

Domain vs. Chatons

CHATONS is an excellent initiative by the lovely folks at Framasoft – who have supported our work in the past with translations of our articles into French – to create “a collective of small structures offering online services (e.g. email, web hosting, collaborative tools, communication tools, etc.)”. They call these structures “hosters.”

Within the CHATONS, model, Domain is a tool to enable the creation of more hosters. Everyday people can then use the Domain instances of those hosters to set up their own small web places.

Once Domain is ready for use, CHATONS is a collective that I can see us considering becoming a part of with Domain and Kitten (after all, as you point out, they’re already called Kittens so even that fits).

Domain vs., from what I can tell based on their web site, is a tool for people with technical knowledge to set up web sites using Kubernites or Docker Compose. These are enterprise technologies used by Big Tech and involve a high level of complexity. In the Getting Started guide for the Kubernites version of, you are shown how to deploy a cluster with 9 machines: “3 masters, 3 ingresses, 3 compute”. Needless to say, this is a completely different use case than Domain.

The goal of Domain is to enable organisations to become small web hosts, where they can provide a simple interface for everyday people without technical knowledge to set up their own small web places (sites/apps). As such, you can think of it as “Digital Ocean in a box” for anyone who wants to run their own small web host.

Domain provides a holistic solution that integrates the necessary components of provisioning a VPS, managing subdomains (DNS), installing web applications, and (optionally) charging for the service (or otherwise controlling access to resources).

The problem solves is how do we “host free software at scale?” while the problem Domain solves is “how do we enable people to host free software that doesn’t scale?” (in other words small web places). And, crucially, how do we make it possible for any organisation to become such a host? And easy for people without technical knowledge to set up small web places using it?

if one would use Domain to install e.g. Yunohost or Sandstorm, what would be the added advantage compared to deploy a preconfigured image of these directly at a VPS hosting company (which is already on offer with some hosters).

You wouldn’t use Domain to install Yunohost or Sandstorm as they are different approaches to solving similar problems. Both Yunohost and Sandstorm offer dashboards for installing existing web applications. These are applications that, for the most part, have been created in the traditional multi-user, Big Tech design, with out-of-process databases, etc.

Domain, on the other hand, is for hosting single-tenant Small Web applications. The kind that you can create, for example, with Kitten.

Domain does not aim to support every type of web application but a very specific type (single tenant, small web application). This is its greatest strength as this focus and control means that we can simplify the experience and reduce the system requirements throughout the stack and lifecycle (e.g., when it comes to automatic updates and maintenance).

Yunohost, Sandstorm and similar projects are great in that they allow more people to install and use existing free/open source “multi-user” web apps that have almost entirely been designed with Big Web architectures.

Domain aims to do the same thing for Small Web apps while reducing complexity and the need for technical knowledge and improving the overall experience.

The Domain approach could be interpreted as poor-mans hosting and/or entry level shared hosting (which is already a very competitively priced economic area). In order to cut prices ,there are definite significant tradeoffs which may bite the user in the longer term.

I wouldn’t call Domain’s approach to democratising hosting by enabling independent organisations to become small web hosts “poor man’s hosting” any more than I would call the platform cooperative movement “poor man’s corporations”. The goal is to democratise not just the ownership of small web places but to do so without centralising them at a single host (e.g., us).

While price is an important factor for commercial providers (in that there is likely a psychological number beyond which it would be deemed too expensive for a small web place), it is definitely not the primary focus. As mentioned in the original funding application, Domain can be run as a private instance (e.g., internally for organisations, neighbourhoods, families, etc.) or using a token-based system (where, for example, a municipality can issue tokens that citizens can exchange for the own small web places instead of using legal tender).

Finally, the type of hosting integrated into Domain is Virtual Private Server (VPS) not shared hosting.

Borrowing a subdomain from someone doesn’t offer much legal standing, whether it is on the public suffix list or not.

Borrowing a subdomain from an organisation offers the exact same legal standing as borrowing a sudomain from a commercial top-level domain (like .com, etc.) provider in that they are both subject to contract law. So whatever terms are in the contract are the legal standing that is offered.

The difference between a commercial top-level domain provider and organisations that will be running domain (like our not-for-profit Small Technology Foundation) is the reason why the domains are being offered. In the former, it is to make a profit. For us, it’s to provide people with a location that they can be easily reached on the Web with.

When a host folds the entire reputation of its user base is immediately destroyed (unlike the case of a TLD, which has an escrow arrangement enforced by their ICANN contract). When someone forgets to backup and things crash, users have little resort. And small payments are expensive to process, eating further into the “Domain” hosters margins. What countermeasures do you propose for such scenario’s to give users peace of mind? Is there some form of service portability?

Indeed, if a host shuts down, this would take down everyone they host. This is a problem inherent with decentralisation and we see it when a fediverse server goes down too. This is not to say that the solution is then to ensure that only a handful of mutli-billion-dollar commercial hosts should exist. Just as the solution to fediverse servers being shut down is not to say that everyone should use Twitter instead because we can trust it’ll be around in one form or other.

Instead, possible mitigations for this fact of life include:

While the first one would involve political will, the second and third are issues that Domain exists to tackle.

On the topic of payments, Domain initially supports Stripe which, to the best of my knowledge, does not impose higher fees for the sorts of amounts we’re talking about. Microtransactions (which is not what this is) might be a different matter but do not concern our use case for Domain.

Finally, while the initial setup is on a subdomain, it will be easy to configure the site to use any domain (on a regular TLD) after the fact. The initial setup using a subdomain is a design decision to both enable people to have a small web place without paying separately for a commercial domain name and to keep the setup time as quick as possible.

If people are expected to pay 10 euro’s a month, that puts them in the realm of CPanel and Plesk/managed services which are already common with hosting companies for decades - and at prices going down to below 1 euro per month for e.g. Wordpress hosting for which tens of thousands of tutorials and extensions to make everything possible. What planned features are supposed to lure people over from that competition (and the marketing power of players like Strato)?

First off, to clarify: the €10/month number is an initial estimate. It’s based on our own research into what could make Small Technology Foundation sustainable by hosting a Domain instance at It’s also based on my belief that it’s likely the maximum amount you could charge that still feels “small.”

And, again, Domain instances can be private and token-based. The commercial payment aspect is a sad necessity for organisations like ours that need to survive under capitalism today while hopefully creating systems that will mean that eventually we will have kinder and fairer systems tomorrow where we better understand the value of the commons and support it accordingly.

If cheap is the main target, would it not be more convenient to point people to et al, which gives them a ‘real’ domain name (discussion about their security aside) at no cost, conveniently exposed by an API that allows for automation?

Cheap really isn’t the main target. If anything, affordable is. And, ideally, in time, we’d love to see small web hosts supported from the common purse for the common good. But until that time, we aim to prove, even within the success criteria of the current system, that we can be sustainable.

If someone wants to use a name (not linking to them as their site doesn’t use TLS which doesn’t give me a lot of confidence about them), they will be able to.

You state that a domain on the public suffix list would “provide all the privacy and security guarantees that any other top-level domain can”. Is that actually true? i

Yes, like the other statements in our funding application and that we make in general, it is true :)

(If we wanted to get into lying, we’d be working in the mainstream. You can make a lot of money there doing that. It’s actually quite a sought-after skill.)

To reiterate, from the official description:

It allows browsers to, for example:

When a domain is on the Public Suffix List, it is, for all intents and purposes, a top-level domain and is treated as such by browsers. This is a very useful hack for creating domains that are not part of the commercial top-level domain business and is one of the fundamental design decisions in Domain that sets it apart from other initiatives in the area.

A lot of information can already be learned just from the DNS requests the second level nameservers would see. How do you intend to deal with e.g. TLSA records, DNSSEC, SPF, etc? What kind of alternative services will be delivered (for instance e-mail? ) How will e.g. spam and blacklisting impact sibling Domain-hosted efforts?

As a project from a not-for-profit that exists to protect privacy, Domain includes privacy policies for hosts based on data minimisation. While the initial service providers for DNS, VPS, TLS (DNSimple, Hetzner, Let’s Encrpypt), etc., do have the means to gather data, this is true in general (not specific to Domain) and they are bound by the rules of GDPR.

Because of ACME, meanwhile there has been a lot of work on automation of DNS challenges ( Would it not make sense to seek a similar approach for the DNS management, where one does not depend on hardcoding a single US based domain name company (DNSimple) as exclusive provider?

DNSimple is not used for TLS certificates. Kitten uses Auto Encrypt (another of our free and open source libraries) to automatically provision TLS certificates using Let’s Encrypt’s HTTP-01 challenges.

DNSimple is used for setting up the domain records for subdomains.

And, again, DNSimple is simply the first provider we are building support for to get Domain up and running. The goal is to support others that have APIs and to thus abstract out the APIs, hopefully commoditising these services to some degree in the process.

How would applications be packaged and maintained/security hardened? Is this something you have experience with?

Applications are “packaged” (insofar as we can use that term for it) in Domain using cloud-init. Currently, this is on standard Ubuntu 22.04 instances with unattended security updates enabled. However, we are keeping our eyes on immutable operating systems like CoreOS to aid in OS updates in the future.

Much of the security of Kitten and Small Web sites comes from their simplicity and small attack surface. There are fewer moving parts, less code, and basic standards being used.

Can you elaborate on deployment and maintenance requirements after initial deployment - which tend to forms a continuous drain on resources at the project level and the user level?

Small Web sites/apps built on Kitten and deployed with Domain will be entirely self-maintaining.

Kitten’s installation process is based on git and it also clones git repositories to deploy apps.

There is also work underway to implement:

Eventually, when immutable server operating systems become available, the goal is to have automatic major version operating system updates as well for completely hands-off maintenance. (In the meanwhile we will be deploying to LTS versions of Ubuntu which will give us quite a few years of headroom on this.)

You mention that setup can be done in under one minute, but surely beyond that someone will have to do the hard work?

No, that’s the whole idea: there isn’t. When you install a small web app and, say, 45 seconds later, it’s ready, it’s actually ready. You hit your domain. You start using it. That’s all there is to it.

Is there a threat analysis that you’ve considered during the design phase - if one of the fellow hosted community members doesn’t update their version of X, how do you prevent compromise of the rest? Is configuration and user management separate from delivering bits? Would Domain packages offer reproducibility, like Nix/Nixpkgs (which has a vast collection of software, see

The security model of Domain follows, in the words of Joanna Rutkowska (of Qubes, etc.) “security through distrust”.

This results in some core design decisions:

And, to reiterate, some related properties even if they may not seem to immediately be security-related:

Regarding reproducibility, since small web apps are installed via git, there isn’t necessarily a build process involved. Where one is (e.g., via npm install), it would be up to the apps themselves to ensure that dependencies are locked and loaded from trusted sources and that commits and tags are signed.

You requested 50000 euro, equivalent of one year of effort. Can you provide some more detail on how you arrived at this time estimate? Could you provide a breakdown of the main tasks, and the associated effort? What rates did you use?

Finally, to return to the first question: I work full time at Small Technology Foundation and my work these days is full-time on Kitten and Domain. So, let’s say I work 40 hours a week on average (it can vary and I often work on the weekends too):

€50K/yr comes down to about ~€26/hour.

Let’s put this into perspective: over a decade ago, when I doing regular development work as a contractor, I was charging €100/hr. My partner, who is contracting with Stately (a startup), makes more than double this amount a year and this is the main source of income that is currently sustaining Small Technology Foundation (the two of us and our dog). Previously, I’ve sold two family homes in Turkey and we’ve relied on a combination of sales of our tracker blocker (Better, now retired) and fees from conference speaking to scrape by.

All this to say that I don’t actually care how much funding we get. (I wonder if this is why they don’t usually let me write the funding applications?) Whether it’s €50K or €0 or something in between, we will keep working on Kitten and Domain and we will keep working on our vision for a Small Web owned and controlled by people, not corporations. We’ve always found a way and we will continue to do so.

What would be nice, however, is to feel like we are supported. We have been working for the common good for almost a decade now and it would be nice to have it funded from the common purse to some degree at least. And it would also be nice to have some stability so we can keep working on this without worrying about how we’re going to exist in X months time.

While I understand that the funding from ngi/NLnet is mostly project (and maybe even feature)-based, I do believe we need to think longer term and support folks like ourselves who are essentially carrying out research and development.

Silicon Valley understands the value of funding teams and then allowing them to pivot, etc., as they explore a problem domain and learn more about it. Sadly, it does so with the worst possible success criteria (how to best farm you for your data and monetise it). As I mentioned during one of my talks at the European Parliament, I hope that we can do the same thing for folks working on technology for the common good.

So I’m not going to give you an hour-by-hour breakdown of tasks because I don’t know what those are going to be beyond a few days’ time. You can keep track of the current ones on the issue trackers of the Kitten and Domain projects.

Apart from that, I get up in the morning and work on Kitten and Domain and that’s what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future.

Please support us financially if you feel that what we’re working on should exist and you’d like us to exist long enough to make sure that it does.

If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Like this? Fund us!

Small Technology Foundation is a tiny, independent not-for-profit.

We exist in part thanks to patronage by people like you. If you share our vision and want to support our work, please become a patron or donate to us today and help us continue to exist.