UmbrelOS: consumer-friendly private servers a reality at long last?

The most user-friendly Linux-based server software of 2024 on its way to hundreds of millions of PCs


Setting up a Linux server for the home has been affordable for a long time, but the process is not for everyone. This is the missing piece UmbrelOS, which recently reached v1.0, will strive to provide. (Image: Umbrel)


Reporters covering tech for the consumer market don’t seem to hold much hope about open source operating systems going mainstream for everyday use – there’ve been precious few “this will be the year of Linux” stories for some time now – but, for certain use cases, open source is still the only way that makes sense.

Running, for instance, a private server at home – what many companies call a “home cloud” as opposed to commercial cloud storage services – is one of those cases, but setting up a Raspberry Pi OS or Linux distribution as a true server OS can still be an intimidating process for most people. Let’s face it, even experienced computer users may find the process somewhat frustrating, depending on the hardware and software involved.

That’s where UmbrelOS comes in. It’s a server operating system based on the Raspberry Pi OS/Linux core but architected, presented and packaged in such a way that mainstream consumers can set it up in a matter of minutes and keep it running smoothly without much fuss. It’s designed to work like a mobile operating system of sorts: services are as easily installed as apps and a nice-looking dashboard is made to look like a personal device home screen.

UmbrelOS users can have all sorts of services running on this system – from Bitcoin nodes, cloud data storage and ChatGPT-like models to VPN, ad blocking, Plex streaming and home automation infrastructure – while enjoying the data privacy and cost effectiveness offered by modern personal servers. UmbrelOS was developed from the very beginning as a cornerstone for private home server use, helping consumers be less, or not at all, dependent on commercial cloud services (where data privacy is not in any way guaranteed).

A proper Linux server for the mainstream, you say?

UmbrelOS has been in open development since 2020 and its 1.0 version was recently released – for free – to anyone owning a Raspberry Pi 4 or 5. What this means in practice is that tens of millions of people now have access to costless Linux server software that’s specifically designed to be consumer-friendly, running on one of the most popular and affordable types of personal computer imaginable.

Yours truly took UmbrelOS 1.0 for a spin on an original Raspberry Pi 4 4GB – let’s not forget, a four year old single board computer that’s as basic as they come by 2024 standards – and came away impressed: despite the obvious hardware and memory limitations, this promising operating system worked pretty much as expected without any tinkering or special configuration needed. It’s great to see that for under $150 – the cost of a Pi 5, a 32GB SD card and a 1TB USB 3.0 SSD – anyone can build a Linux home server capable of running practically any modern network service in less than half an hour. It’s been affordable for years, but now it’s easy too… which really can make all the difference.

The UmbrelOS looks very nice but, most importantly, it’s designed in such a way that mainstream consumers – who have never used a command line in their lives – will be able to set up all kinds of network services with ease. (Image: Umbrel)


What’s coming next may be of interest to even more people: at some point in April UmbrelOS will also be made available for any personal computer based on Ubuntu Linux or Debian Linux. System requirements are quite low by 2024 standards – a dual-core CPU, 4GB of RAM, 20GB of storage – so there are many, many PCs out there perfectly capable of running this operating system with no issues. Repurposing an obsolete computer as a Linux home server was already one of the most useful things one could do with old hardware, but UmbrelOS can make this process much easier for potentially hundreds of millions of consumers. No small feat, that.

A capable, affordable UmbrelOS pre-configured PC too

The company responsible for the development of UmbrelOS clearly gets that many people may not be inclined to install its operating system on old hardware, so it recently made a new version of the Umbrel Home device available too. It is a MiniPC reminiscent of Intel’s most affordable NUC models of years prior, based on Intel architecture but specifically designed to work as a personal server built on UmbrelOS (which comes preinstalled on this device).

This is a plug-and-play, capable piece of hardware for its asking price ($399/€369): a quad-core Intel N100 CPU paired with 16GB of RAM and 2TB of upgradable SSD storage will be more than enough to run a Linux-based OS such as this one flawlessly for years to come. It could even run Windows 11, come to think of it, although that would defeat the whole point of using an operating system focused on privacy and speed (which Windows clearly isn’t) on a personal server.

The Umbrel Home MiniPC may not be as cheap as a Raspberry Pi 5, but it’s powerful enough to run UmbrelOS without a hitch for years to come without breaking the bank. (Image: Umbrel)


The concept of a private server or a personal cloud storage is not new, obviously, but UmbrelOS may just provide that elusive missing piece, the one thing that always kept such devices away from mainstream adoption: user friendliness, both in terms of trouble-free installation and easy maintenance. It only takes basic computer knowledge to set UmbrelOS up, while keeping it up and running seems to be no more complicated than updating a smartphone or a tablet. Experienced users should still be able to tinker with it – it’s a full Linux distribution working underneath that shiny graphics interface, after all – but even they may find that, sometimes, what “just works” may be all they actually need for a number of different use cases.

The user friendliness of UmbrelOS is what sets it apart but its focus on data privacy and freedom from commercial cloud services will be almost as important to many. In a world where people are asked to pay for more subscription services all the time – even for simple things like photo backups or media playback on different devices – it’s refreshing to see companies putting resources and talent into developing cost-effective alternatives. As for data privacy, one does not have to run a Bitcoin node or a private VPN service in order to appreciate the importance of keeping personal information and files off “the cloud” – which is, was, and always will be just someone else’s computer, no?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Kostas Farkonas

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

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