Trying to use free software without paying a dime

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Sound redundant? Read on to find out why it isn’t.


Free software is great. But one of the biggest appeals of it is that it is free. In other words, you don’t pay for it. Unfortunately, with online applications, that isn’t always true. Take photo galleries for example. All I wanted to do was to create a photo gallery powered by Gallery2. The problem was, I share my web hosting. So I didn’t have access to a MySQL database. Gallery2 requires MySQL. The obvious (sounding) answer was to buy hosting. But students don’t make a ton of money. Besides, I wanted to use free software without paying. Thus began the search for a way for me to host a photo gallery without paying a dime.

Free hosting

When someone says “free hosting", you usually think of GeoCities or Bravenet. In other words, you think of bad looking sites that have tons of ads, offer little for client-side scripting languages and nothing for server-side, and (in the case of Bravenet) often give you unwanted tracking cookies. I didn’t want that. But luckily, times are changing. Companies all over the place are popping up with free web hosting. Often, this hosting will come with PHP and MySQL. Sometimes it doesn’t even have ads.

What I needed

My idea was to create a photo gallery so I could share my photos with my friends. I wanted to use either Gallery2 or ZenPhoto. Both required PHP 4.10+, and a database (for Gallery2, MySQL 3.x, 4.x or 5.x, PostgreSQL 7.x or 8.x, Oracle 9i or 10g, DB2 8.2, MS SQL Server 2005, for ZenPhoto, My SQL 3.23+). Gallery2 also needs ImageMagick or NetPBM, while ZenPhoto requires GD support.

I also wanted to make sure the host I ended up with had no ads, and used a subdomain for quick access. Lastly, I wanted the host to give a decent amount of space (my pictures are rather big).

The search

Although my specifications might seem big, there were five hosts that fit the bill nicely. I tried them out in turn and got some interesting results.

My first stop was I had used them before, and had fond memories of them. The problem is, they take forever to sign up. It often takes six tries to sign up. Once you do, however, they’re great. They give you 500MB of space, PHP, MySQL, and a ton of other stuff. However, there was just one more problem. When I visited them, their servers were down. Hosts that go down without warning are usually not ones to stay with. Scratch off the list.

The next three on my list were,, and PutSpace. Unfortunately, I couldn’t log into my FTP account in all three. Forget it. You can’t upload ZenPhoto or Gallery2 through a web-based uploader.

I then tried No, they don’t give 666 GB of space. They give you 6.66GB of space, with 66.6GB of bandwidth. Not too shabby. Unfortunately, they don’t support .htaccess, which ZenPhoto required. But Gallery2 doesn’t require .htaccess. In addition, I found out that 666GB includes a nifty application installer that automates the installation of Gallery2 (they call it “gallery"). Then, I got a...

Error: Your version of PHP is configured with safe mode enabled. You must disable safe mode before Gallery will run.

You’d think that they’d actually want you to think that they were a good web host.

Alternatives: Software

Well, I was a tad upset. After all, I was going to have to go back to Flickr or Yahoo! Photos, neither of which are very customizable. Then, it dawned on me. Why not use a piece of software that doesn’t use MySQL, and host it on my shared server (powered by GoDaddy)? After hitting my self over the head about six times, deleting the Gallery2 folder, and doing some searching, I found three options that seemed like they might answer: Gallery1 (the little brother of Gallery2), SimpleViewer (with the SimpleViewerAdmin plugin), or a JavaScript image viewer like TripTracker and SmoothGallery.

Gallery1 is the less powerful version of Gallery2. Unlike Gallery2, it doesn’t require a database (making it perfect for me). In addition, it installed extremely easily. However, I didn’t like it. The CSS looked horrible. The good news was that it was easy to upload photos to it via my photo organizer, digiKam. Unfortunately, the bad outweighed the good. I decided that I wouldn’t use it unless there was no other alternative.

SimpleViewer is completely Flash based. The downside of this is that my visitors need Flash 7 or higher to view it. The upside is that it doesn’t require any SQL or PHP. Unfortunately, SimpleViewer didn’t work for me when I tried to upload some photos from digiKam (it couldn’t create the FTP directory). In order to use SimpleViewer, I had to manually add the pictures by editing the XML file, uploading to Flickr and then importing them into SimpleViewer, or using the SimpleViewerAdmin plugin (which doesn’t, as far as I can tell, support batch uploading).

The last option was to use JavaScript albums, like TripTracker and SmoothGallery. But for them, you’d have to manually add a link to each image. That was DEFINITELY not for me. I might as well just upload it via SimpleViewer.

Alternatives: hardware

I sadly went back to the Gallery2 page to mourn. Then, I saw something. It was a link to the Gallery appliance, which turned out to be a VMWare virtual machine. Suddenly, I wondered if I could host my gallery myself. But then, the reality kicked in. It might work for some. But I don’t leave my computer on all day (I turn it off at night to save power). Besides, I’ve only got 1 GB of RAM. Running a server, KDE, Skype, Gaim, SuperKaramba, Amarok, CheckGmail, and KDevelop at the same time would’t really work.

My other option was to use a physical computer as a server. In fact, I had an old computer (with 128 MB of RAM and a 20GB HD running Windows XP) laying around. But the problem was that I didn’t know the IP address of that computer. Going to an IP detection site just gave me my router’s IP address. And lastly, the machine could only connect to the internet via a wireless device (through USB 1.1 ). It was pathetically slow.

The solution

This is the part of the article where I magically produce the solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. Basically, I have to either continue using Yahoo! Photos, Flickr, or PicasaWeb, or buy web hosting. For now, those are my only options.



Mauro Bieg's picture

i'm not sure if i got your problem right (read it quite quickly). But doesn't digiKam (or some other photo album software) allow for an export into a complete HTML/CSS gallery? i mean, it just creates a folder.. Then you could host it on your shared server without needing PHP/MySQL.

I shortly used JAlbum in that way a long time ago. There are a lot of nice CSS-skins for it, however it is only free as in free beer... but probably there are similar, free, alternatives..

Andrew Min's picture

You are absolutely right. However, the problem with exporting an HTML/CSS gallery is that then you have create a homepage with the same theme and then manually link to the gallery. Besides, with more advanced gallery software, you can do things like comment, or rate, something HTML/CSS just can't do. However, if you didn't want to use Flickr, and needed to host it yourself, this could be another good way.

Andrew Min

damianc's picture

If your spare computer is up to running XP, it'll probably be capable as a webserver, though will likely need more memory. We tried running gallery2 on a p350 with 256Mb of RAM, but it ran into swap. If you're at college, make friends with the IT dept, as in all likelihood they'll regularly decommission older machines, and may have memory spare for free, or at most beer money.
The wireless device should be fast enough to serve content at an acceptable rate.
Then you need to set up port forwarding for port 80 on your router, so any web requests at your router's IP get handled by your server.
It's a good opportunity to learn a lot along the way :)


Mitch Meyran's picture

A server doesn't need a GUI; once ready, running it without X loaded (you can also remove sane, cups and all) it should fit the bill.
Now, you can configure your router so that ports 80/81 and 20/21 are always redirected to that machine (give it a static IP address on your subnet, HTTP/FTP access hitting your router from outside will be automatically redirected to that machine)
However, you need a GOOD web access to handle this kind of traffic... If you have less than 256 Kbps on upstream, forget about it - especially for a site with Content.
A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open windows.

Annonymous's picture
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on

What about actual software that you use on you computer to create the gallery and then just upload it. If not that then maybe there are some links here they you may find helpful.

Lennie's picture
Submitted by Lennie (not verified) on

I think needs MySQL-using gallery web-applications needs to start using sqlite. I wouldn't be surprised if that's supported just find by one or 2 of these free webhosters.

Possible with some tweaking, you could probably get those to work just fine with sqlite.

All you need is a technically inclined person to replace some PHP-code.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

"Free software is great. But one of the biggest appeals of it is that it is free"

No, not necessarily.
"Free software is a matter of liberty, not price."

Otherwise, nice strawman of an article.

sikakraa's picture
Submitted by sikakraa (not verified) on

I has similar problems a while ago when my girlfriend wanted to build pages for herself.

Fortunately I had 100 Mb of space hosted by a certain magazine. The problem was that the webspace had only PHP-support. I didn't even bother to search any free PHP-galleries, but wrote one simple myself. Of course it wasn't anything fancy; It just loaded picture thumbnails from a directory and the pictures from other, arranged them to a gallery and read the picture title and explanation from a separate file. The gallery's looks were defined by separate html/css -files.

Similar approach might fit to you too if you can find free php somewhere (might be easier than php+mysql).

Andrew Min's picture

I actually did try that approach, but I couldn't seem to find some good gallery software. The idea of building one myself never occurred to me (probably since I don't know enough about MySQL). Interesting...

Andrew Min

schwim's picture
Submitted by schwim (not verified) on

You could have saved a lot of typing and simply installed Gallery 1.5.x from Menalto, which doesn't require a MySQL db.


Ezekiel's picture
Submitted by Ezekiel (not verified) on

I know you were looking for a free option, but for what you want, you more than likely will have to pay for it (bandwidth isn't free). What i recommend is trying a different web host. I use . While not free, they are extremely cheap, you only pay for what storage and bandwidth you use. About a year ago i set up an account with them and deposited US$20. Since that time, I have registered a domain and hosted several hobby sites with them, and I still have about a 1/4 of my initial deposit with them. I'm not saying that their service is right for everyone, but you might want to check it out.

wilinux's picture
Submitted by wilinux on

You could continue to use Flickr or Yahoo! Photos to host your photos, then set up a WordPress (WP) blog. You could set up a free WP blog with or install WP on one of the free hosts that you outlined. Then link to your Flickr (or whatever) hosted photos. If you wanted to get more advanced there are plenty of photo gallery plugins for WP. WP will allow your visitors to comment on the photos, yourself to provide text descriptions of the photos, & there are plenty of really good looking themes...
I hope this helps.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

gallery2 will run just fine with postgresql; I have been doing so on my home web server for the last three years.

Author information

Andrew Min's picture


/ˈændruː/ /mi:n/
(n): a Christian.
(n): a student.
(n): a technology enthusiast.
(n): a journalist for several online publications.

Andrew Min is a student, programmer, and journalist from New York City.

My main forte in the technology realm is journalism. I’ve written for a variety of magazines, both print and non-print, with a focus on open source software and the new web. I’ve also been interviewed on a long list of topics, ranging from politicians on Twitter to open source software and homeschooling.

I also have experience with a variety of programming languages (Bash, Batch, CSS, JavaScript, PHP, and (X)HTML) and content management systems (WordPress). I’ve been hired to design and administer several websites. In addition, I’ve been the lead programmer on several small coding projects.