A Beginner’s Guide to Nextcloud: what it is and how to set it up

Nextcloud ⧉ is free open source software that lets you set up your own independent online services, instead of relying on companies like Google or Apple. There are lots of reasons why having your own indie services is a good idea, and Nextcloud is one of the easiest and best ways of doing this.

It was originally developed for businesses, governments and organisations, but it is now available to anyone, and includes lots of features for private individuals too.

Once Nextcloud is set up, there’s a wide range of services ⧉ you can add with a few clicks, such as storing photos, sharing files, syncing calendars and contacts, collaborating on documents, running your own private messaging system, streaming your music collection, running surveys, creating your own cookbook and lots more.

All of the services can be accessed through your Nextcloud’s website, but some can also be accessed through mobile apps.

Because Nextcloud runs on free and open source software and is available through managed hosting services, anyone can set up their own Nextcloud server. You don’t need to be a tech nerd, and you don’t need to be rich.

If you’re interested in giving this a go, there’s a guide below which explains how to set up your own Nextcloud. This has been written with non-technical people in mind:

Step 1 – Choose a hosting company

There are many Nextcloud hosting companies out there because it’s such a popular platform. Many website hosting companies offer Nextcloud as a service you can install and update yourself with a few clicks. If you need suggestions, have a look on the Grow your own cloud page.

Hosting companies vary greatly in price, but you can get a reliable fast Nextcloud for about 10 euros a month. I would avoid using any “free” services, because they tend to be slow or unreliable (unless it’s a free trial period for a paid service).

The reason you have to pay is because there are no ads, no one is spying on you, and someone has to pay for the cost of keeping the server hardware going. It’s effectively the price you pay for privacy and independence.

Some managed hosting companies let you install the complete range of Nextcloud add-on apps, while others have a restricted range available. Check with potential hosting companies which apps are included by default, and whether you can add new apps yourself.

Also, if you want to avoid as much techy stuff as possible, choose a hosting company that offers domain names too (see step 2 below).

Step 2 – Choose a domain name or subdomain

A domain name is a website address like example.com, which will let you access your Nextcloud through a web browser. The most convenient option is to buy the domain name from the same company that provides the Nextcloud hosting (see step 1 above), because it will save you a lot of bother technically. However, you don’t have to do this, and some prefer to buy domains separately.

The prices of domains can vary tremendously, so try lots of different addresses until you find one that suits you. There should be some in everyone’s price range.

If you already own a domain name, you can connect your Nextcloud to a subdomain of that for free. For example, if you already have a website at example.com you could have your Nextcloud at an address like cloud.example.com. You only need to pay for a domain, all of its subdomains are included in the domain’s price.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to own a domain name at all, some hosting companies let you use a free subdomain based on a domain they own. Bear in mind though that if you use a hosting company’s subdomain, it will be more difficult to change hosting companies if you ever need to. A hosting company’s subdomains remain their property, while your domains are your property.

Step 3 – Sign up for hosting and connect your Nextcloud to a domain or subdomain

Once you’ve decided on a domain and hosting company, go ahead and sign up for both.

If you buy your domain name and Nextcloud hosting from the same company, they will handle all the technical process of connecting them together. This is the easiest option.

If you buy your domain name and Nextcloud hosting from different companies, you will need to follow your hosting company’s instructions to connect your domain to your Nextcloud. This will be pretty technical, but you only need to do it once and the hosting company and domain companies should provide you with technical support.

Step 4 – Sign in to your Nextcloud for the first time

Once it’s all set up, you need to sign in on your Nextcloud for the first time. Do this by going to your domain (example.com) or subdomain (subdomain.example.com) through your web browser.

When you do this for the first time, you will need to pick a username and password, and the account you set up like this will be an “administrator” account. This means the account has lots of special powers such as adding or removing users, installing apps and adjusting your Nextcloud’s settings. Because of these extensive powers, be very careful about who has access to this account. Don’t use an easy-to-guess password.

In order to have maximum security, some people create a separate personal account for their everyday use, and only sign in to the administrator account on rare occasions.

Another thing that may happen when you sign in for the first time is it asks you if you want to install a default set of apps. These are the most commonly used apps that Nextcloud themselves recommend. Don’t worry too much about this, as you can add or remove apps yourself later (see step 6 below).

Step 5 – Adding other users (optional)

If it’s a shared Nextcloud, you can use the admin account to create accounts and passwords for your friends, family or colleagues. This also lets you assign them storage limits (so that you don’t go over the limit of your hosting plan) which restricts how many photos and other data they can upload.

If you do give other people accounts on your Nextcloud, please bear in mind that in some parts of the world you may be legally responsible if they upload illegal material to your Nextcloud. I am not a lawyer, I cannot give legal advice, and I cannot tell you what the situation is in your area, but it’s important that you are aware of this possibility. You may wish to consult with a legal expert in your country, especially if you are going to have strangers on a Nextcloud that you own.

You don’t have to share your Nextcloud though, lots of people have Nextclouds just for their own personal use. By default, you are the only one who has access, no one else can sign up on your site unless you create an account for them.

Step 6 – Add some apps

When you log in through the website, you can see icons for your Nextcloud’s apps along the top of the screen. Click on an icon to access that app.

If you install it in its barest form, Nextcloud comes with administrative tools, a Files app and a Photos app. It can do a lot more than this, though! The way you get other functions is by installing more apps from the built-in app catalogue. You can access the catalogue by logging in to the administrator’s account, then clicking on the profile image in the top right corner and selecting “Apps”.

(If you cannot see the “Apps” link, it may mean you have signed up with a hosting company that does not allow additional apps to be added. This is why it is important to choose a hosting company carefully, as mentioned in step 1 above. However, they may manually add apps to your Nextcloud if you ask them to, it’s worth contacting them just in case.)

Despite its “app store” name, the apps in the catalogue are all free and open source, and can be installed by just clicking on their “Download and enable” buttons. They are organised by categories along the left side of the screen. If you want to sort the apps by ratings, read reviews etc, this can be done on the Nextcloud Apps ⧉ site, and the catalogue has “View in store” links for doing this next to each app listing.

Apps can be disabled by going to the app catalogue, browse the “Your apps” category, then click “Disable”. To remove an app completely, disable it and then click “Remove”.

You’ll also be able to update your apps from the app catalogue, it will automatically display a message letting you know if you have apps ready to be updated. Click on the “Update” button to do the updates.

Step 7 – Customise your Nextcloud

You can customise your Nextcloud so that it has a certain colour scheme, log on page image, background image, logo, name etc.

To do this, log in through the administrator’s account, click on “Settings”, then on the left sidebar select “Theming” in the “Administration” section.

Step 8 – Mobile apps and smartphone support

Lots of the apps on Nextcloud can be accessed through mobile apps for Android and iPhone / iPad.

Some of these mobile apps are purpose built for Nextcloud (such as Nextcloud ⧉ or Nextcloud Talk ⧉), while others are more general that use the same open standards as Nextcloud (such as Substreamer ⧉).

Nextcloud also includes compatibility with many phones’ built-in features. For example, you can sync Nextcloud’s Calendar and Contacts apps with the iPhone’s Calendar and Contacts apps ⧉.

Step 9 – Make sure there are regular back-ups

When you’re choosing a hosting company (as in step 1 above), ask them what their backup policy is for their customers. This is really important in case something goes wrong, and it’s especially important if you are running a Nextcloud on other people’s behalf.

Some hosting companies will have an automated system where it takes regular backups that you can restore from, and you can download these to your own computer to make extra sure that there is something to roll back to.

Step 10 – Legal stuff

As mentioned earlier, I am not a lawyer, and I cannot give legal advice.

However, depending on where you live, it is possible that you are legally responsible for what is uploaded to your Nextcloud, even if it’s one of your users doing the uploading.

Bear this in mind when choosing who gets access to your Nextcloud. Only give accounts to people you trust.

Is Nextcloud for you?

If you’re at all interested in having your own online services, Nextcloud is a really good place to start. It’s easy to use, cheap to run, there are all kinds of add-on features available and lots of hosting companies to choose from.

It’s probably the most accessible and powerful alternative to Google or Apple, and it shows it’s possible to go your own way and “grow your own”. 🌱

Review of Talk app for Nextcloud

Nextcloud Talk ⧉ is the official add-on for Nextcloud which lets you set up your own private instant messaging, voice and video calling service. It can be used by anyone who is a member on your Nextcloud server, and also by non-members that you can invite through a special link. You can use it through your web browser by just logging into your Nextcloud, or you can install official Nextcloud Talk mobile apps on your phone.

Talk is often included by default on Nextcloud as it is so popular, and if it’s already there you’ll see it at the top of the screen with a Q-shaped icon. If it isn’t there, you can install it yourself by clicking on your profile picture in the top right corner, select Apps and then Featured Apps. Click on “Talk” and then “Enable” or “Download and Enable”.

Nextcloud Talk has really good official mobile apps for Android and iPhone/iPad, you can get them from Google Play ⧉, the App Store ⧉ and F-Droid ⧉. They’re really simple to use: on the iPhone version, click the + icon to start a new conversation and pick who you want to message or call from the list. To call someone, open a conversation with them and click on the 📞 or 🎦 buttons.

You can also set up group conversations and conference calls, and there’s a public conversation option where you can send non-members a website link so they can participate too. Public conversations can be totally public, or password protected.

The voice and video calling works through peer-to-peer, which means the data goes directly from your computer or phone to the people you’re talking with. Your Nextcloud server acts as a sort of connecting service. I managed to get calls working with nice clear sound and video, though on some days it didn’t work at all. The reliability will probably vary greatly depending on how good the participants’ internet connections are at that moment, and it’s probably a good idea to test it out in advance to get an idea of how reliable it will be for you.

There are plans for Nextcloud Talk to federate with other people’s Nextcloud servers, so that you could chat with people on other Nextclouds that you choose to connect to. However, this is not yet possible, and it’s not clear when this would be available.

Overall, this is a really solid add-on for Nextcloud, but its usefulness depends on what you need. If you just want a private chat service where your friends, family or colleagues can hang out without being disturbed, this is very nice indeed. 🌱

Review of Music app for Nextcloud

Screenshot of the Nextcloud Music app as seen through a desktop web browser. There are several album covers visible, and one of the tracks is playing with the lyrics visible and a playing interface with controls etc too.

Music ⧉ is a music player, podcast and internet radio app for Nextcloud, which lets you make your own personal audio streaming service. The service is totally private, so no one else has access to the tracks you load, there are no ads and no tracking.

Once you’ve loaded music files onto your Nextcloud and installed Nextcloud Music, you can then listen to them anywhere through your web browser, or using Android or iPhone apps compatible with the Subsonic or Ampache standards (see the end of this review for a guide to using the apps).

You can install Nextcloud Music by going to your Nextcloud’s Apps section, and then selecting “Multimedia”, it will be there under the name “Music”. (Note that there’s also an “Audio Player” listed but that’s a totally different app.)

You will need to have audio files in order to load them onto your Nextcloud, so it’s suited to people who have offline music collections either ripped from CDs or purchased as DRM-free downloads. It’s very easy to add music, just upload into a folder in Nextcloud Files, then go to the Music app. The Music app will automatically detect any new music you have uploaded in Files.

According to the developers, Music can handle thousands of albums and tens of thousands of tracks, which can be MP3, WAV, M4A, M4B, FLAC, or OGG files. You can import playlists in the M3U, M3U8, and PLS formats. It’s also compatible with Last.fm.

Screenshot of the Nextcloud Music app viewed through a desktop web browser. It is the Podcasts section, showing the image covers and episode lists for a number of different podcasts.

Podcasts can be subscribed to by going to Podcasts, click “…” and then “Add from RSS feed”, then enter the RSS feed address of the podcast you want. If you don’t know the RSS address, you will usually find it listed on the podcast’s own website. Like music, podcasts can be listened to anywhere either by logging onto your Nextcloud through a web browser, or on compatible mobile apps (see guide below).

There’s also support for internet radio, but you will need to know the exact URL of the radio stream, or import a PLS file. To add a radio URL, in the Internet Radio section click “…”, then “+ Add manually” and enter the URL. The app’s internet radio Getting Started instructions link to a third party radio station directory which includes these URLs.

Overall, this is really nice and well in the spirit of growing your own. There are some aspects that could be slightly tricky for non-technical people, such as logging in through the app (see the guide below). Also, you will need to have a collection of audio files and list of podcast addresses, as you’re not going to get the ready-made collection that Spotify, Apple Music etc offer. However, once Nextcloud Music is set up, this is living the dream: no fees, no ads, no tracking, no DRM. There’s no one messing around with your collection or removing tracks because of rights issues. It’s true privacy and independence.

If you want to have your own private music and podcast streaming service, this is definitely worth trying. 🌱

Listening to Nextcloud Music through a mobile app

Nextcloud Music works with Android and iPhone music streaming apps compatible with the widely used Subsonic or Ampache standards. Here’s how to get them working:

1. Install a Subsonic or Ampache app from your phone’s app store. The Music app has an official list of apps ⧉ they have tested, and I can confirm Substreamer for iPhone works too.

2. Once you have your app installed, log into your Nextcloud through the web browser and go to Music.

3. In the Music app, click on the “settings” link in the bottom left corner. Go to the “Ampache and Subsonic” section and click on “Generate API Password”. This will give you the username and password you need to log in.

4. In the same “Ampache and Subsonic” section, find your music collection’s internet address as labelled “Use this address to browse your music collection”. Choose either the Ampache address or Subsonic address, depending on which kind of app you have installed.

5. If you try to log in and the app tells you tokens aren’t supported, try selecting the “legacy login” option if there is one.

6. Once you’ve got the app up and running, it might be worth telling the app to make files available offline, as this will reduce the amount of traffic generated on your Nextcloud server. It will also make your music load instantly, and work even if your phone loses its signal.

7. If your app includes a podcast section, you will be able to listen to your podcasts in the app too.

Review of Forms app for Nextcloud

Forms ⧉ is a free open source app for doing surveys via your Nextcloud. It lets you create a simple form containing many different question types: long text, short text, multiple choice, tickboxes, dropdown menus, dates, or dates with times. Questions can be optional or required.

You can share the survey externally with people who don’t use Nextcloud through a simple link, and they can give responses anonymously without any registration. The page they see is very simple and easy to navigate, and works fine on computers and phones.

Alternatively, you can share the survey internally with specific or all users on your Nextcloud.

Either way, the data stays entirely on your Nextcloud server and doesn’t pass through anyone else. It’s like a privacy-friendly ad-free alternative to Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.

As far as I can tell, there are no limits on the number of responses you can receive. Surveys can be open-ended, or end on certain dates.

Results of surveys are collated in aggregate (with nice bar charts etc), or by individual responses. Survey results can be exported in CSV format if required.

Forms in action:

I clicked “New Form” and started adding questions. There are options for lots of question types and they can be moved around the page or edited by clicking on them…

Screenshot of NextCloud forms app with a form being edited, showing a short text intro, then tickbox questions and then multiple choice radio buttons. There are various options about how to share the form on the sidebar.

…I chose to share the survey as a simple URL without requiring any user registration…

Screenshot of the form from the previous image, but as a simple web page with none of the editing options.

…and as the responses came in I received notifications, and the results were presented within the app itself.

Screenshot of the results section of the Forms app, showing bar charts and aggregated lists of the responses, and an option to see individual respones instead.

There’s not much else I can say about this! It’s easy to use, it’s privacy-friendly and avoids having to use “big tech” services that are often intrusive or expensive. It does the job, the developers are actively maintaining it, and I didn’t notice any bugs.

If you want to do a survey and you own a Nextcloud, this is definitely worth trying out. 🌱

Review of Cookbook app for Nextcloud

Cookbook ⧉ is an incredibly useful free open source app for Nextcloud which lets you grab recipes from all over the internet and assemble your own private cookbook on your Nextcloud site.

You can find Cookbook in the “Organisation” category of your Nextcloud’s Apps section, click on “Download and enable” to install it.

It’s stunningly simple to use, you just paste the URL of a recipe you’ve found and it automatically converts it into a standard-format recipe page. You can then browse the personal cookbook you’ve created, organised by keywords.

Cookbook in action:

First, I found a nice recipe for falafel wraps ⧉ on BBC Good Food…

Screenshot of the BBC Good Food website, showing a recipe for falafel wraps including a text description, instructions, ingredients, photo and various tags.

…then I pasted the falafel recipe’s web address into my Nextcloud Cookbook’s download box and pressed enter…

Screenshot of the Cookbook app on Nextcloud, with the falafel recipe's URL pasted into the recipe download box.

…and that’s it! The recipe appeared to my Nextcloud’s cookbook!

Screenshot of the same recipe as before, but presented within the Nextcloud cookbook app in a standard format.

Cookbook works because a huge number of recipe sites use the Schema.org standard for categorising recipe information ⧉, which means it is very easy for the information to be understood and formatted correctly by third party apps.

Thanks to Schema, Cookbook is also able to automatically categorise recipes, and you can filter recipes by keywords if you’re looking for specific kinds of food:

Screenshot of Nextcloud Cookbook app, with three recipes visible on the front page and a tag cloud above them allowing recipes to be filtered by keywords.

However, if a recipe site doesn’t support Schema you will need to add its recipes manually by clicking “Create Recipe” (and the same editor can also be used to tweak downloaded recipes).

If you’re out shopping for ingredients, you can access Cookbook through your Nextcloud website, but there are also several dedicated apps for Android which let you check Cookbook on your phone. You can find links to the apps on the Cookbook github page ⧉, or search for them directly in Google Play or F-Droid.

There is a printing option for people who prefer recipes on paper (useful in a messy kitchen etc).

Cookbook has been really well thought-out, and a brilliant example of a tool that has been polished so that it “just works”. If you have any interest in food, and you have a Nextcloud, this app is definitely worth installing. 🌱