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GSoC Proposal: helping cPanel/WHM users migrate to free software


I'd like to propose something for this year's GSoC, something I've
had the idea to make for several years now, and something I would
really like to become a reality.

My goal is to have an easy migration path for users of cPanel/WHM,
which is a proprietary web hosting control panel for Linux servers,
to using entirely free software on a free operating system.

cPanel/WHM makes it easy to perform basic administration tasks on a
Linux (CentOS) server. Core components are all free software: Apache
Web Server, PHP, Dovecot, the Exim mail server and Roundcube webmail.
But for its 70 million users, cPanel/WHM is not free: the monthly
license fee has increased multiple times since 2019, enough to force
many smaller website owners to shut down or look for alternatives.

And since Red Hat also plan to cease investment in CentOS stable
releases, some web hosting providers are in doubt about the future
of that ecosystem.

For all those people, I'd like to welcome them to Debian! We provide
a free operating system, bundling the same software mentioned above,
and the Debian LTS team supports each release for 5 years.

Migration can be a very difficult process, though. Website code might
make assumptions about filesystem paths, expect PHP to be configured
in a certain way, and depend on MySQL databases being moved as well.
Email users expect their forwarders and webmail settings not to change
when they move to a new server. DNS configuration needs to be handled,

Concretely: I should create a tool to import cPanel/WHM website backups
and deploy them in a Debian environment. As much of the original
functionality as possible must be preserved, including the easy web-
based administration, which may be the most technically difficult part
of the project. Already, Debian Edu, Freedombox and OpenWRT offer some
potential solutions for that, which should be explored.

What's maybe unusual about me is, although I'm a DD since almost 5 years,
I'm studying for a Bachelor Computer Science degree since only 3 years.
This means, I didn't have much free time recently to do anything useful
for Debian. But now I can do something about that! Because a compulsory
part of my course is to produce a practical project related to cloud IT.

I propose to use Google Cloud Platform as a test-bed to develop a
cPanel/WHM-compatible cloud image, based on Debian, and including the
necessary tools to migrate out of an cPanel/WHM hosting environment.
I think this is an important step, because cloud computing provides
the most resource-efficient hosting platform available today, and many
cPanel/WHM-based hosting environments aren't making full use of it yet.

But in order to avoid creating vendor lock-in, I should equally
support self-hosting (such as FreedomBox) or private clouds (which may
be based on Docker). And I shouldn't make my solution Debian-specific,
but where possible, it should work on at least Ubuntu as well.

However I end up implementing this, one of the most important
deliverables would be a good documentation. So that, when a website
owner decides to migrate from cPanel/WHM, they can be informed of this
option to migrate to entirely free software, be given clear instructions
how to do that, and be connected with user groups and other established
support channels around Debian.

Please let me know how that sounds!

Many thanks!
Steven Chamberlain
(@StevenC99 in IRC)

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