1 min read
Thu 01 Apr 2021
We’ve seen a lot of ‘digital duct-taping’ whilst working with activists, organisers, campaigners and charity sector workers: smoothing over the cracks between various off-the-shelf tools like Google Sheets, surveys, calendars and whatnot. Automations tooling is basic movement infrastructure!
Over time, Zapier has come to dominate the ‘automations’ or ‘integrations’ scene, but like many Venture Capital-funded platforms, it has morphed into something unholy. The upshot is that lots of progressive developers are independently working to get around these issues. The Parsons python library is an attempt to converge these efforts, but it doesn’t match the user-friendliness of a product like Zapier.
We think we’ve found a viable alternative for many activist organisations that might allow us to build on top of each others’ work — adding new integrations and skillfully using the tooling while building awareness of this option.
It’s called n8n.io and it’s an alternative to Zapier that’s robust, flexible, code-available on Github , free to self-host, fairly user-friendly.
You might want to consider it if you identify with any of these scenarios:
You’re considering an automation tool like Zapier, Integromat, Tray — or you’re already using one — but you don’t have any more budget. Maybe your group doesn’t have consistent income or there’s a campaign coming down the road which is going to push you into the next pricing tier, like a flood of signups. You can’t afford tools like Zapier, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any decent alternatives.
Existing automation tools like Zapier are missing integrations to the tools your organisation uses. Maybe you’ve written code to get around this problem — or thought about doing it — using something like serverless functions or Google Scripts. Perhaps you’re the gatekeeper in your organisation for these automations, because no one else knows they exist or how to edit them when things change or break?
If you fit into either of the scenarios above, or there’s something else that’s got you burned about Zapier or other subscription tools like it ( let us know , we’re curious), then here’s why we think n8n might work for you.
With Zapier, what you see is what you get. If they haven’t built it, you’re stuck.
Massive campaigns and organisations rely on tooling like Zapier and it’s a real liability!
Overall, we reckon that the funded team plus open source combination makes n8n a good candidate for progressive activists to assemble around. The integrations and tooling built for one campaign can be easily reused by another organisation also running n8n. As an example, we recently built an Action Network CRM integration for n8n !
Besides, the tool is actually quite good! You can build in fairly complex but understandable workflows. And did we mention the HTTP node?
The visual editor is also nice and comprehensible, and we reckon that with a bit more work on the diagram system it will be able to make your integrations and automations more transparent to your org’s members. These things are organisational business, after all, so anything that builds transparency and accessibility into the machinery is a win for the democracy of your organisation.
We’ve had a look at how you can get Zapier-style automations running for a fraction of the cost and much more predictability. We’re happy enough to share this publicly, but please keep in touch so we can improve our recommendations.
You can have it up and running on your local machine in about 10 seconds, using one of these commands:
npm install n8n -g & n8n
docker run -it --rm --name n8n -p 5678:5678 -v ~/.n8n:/home/node/.n8n n8nio/n8n
Something dorky and fun here: you can actually run CLI commands against your local machine (or server, for example) — try running an applescript command to create a text alert? Wild! Try doing that with Zapier.
osascript -e 'tell app "System Events" to display dialog "Imperialism wants to suppress our struggle for better living conditions with guns and knives and we must answer with more vigorous and larger-scale unified struggle."'
We recommend a VPS that isn’t Amazon’s web empire. We are using Digital Ocean, but we’re writing this via Notion which itself relies on AWS, so we’re not exactly heroes.
Overall, n8n has fairly miniscule operating requirements. You won’t need any beefy CPU or RAM, hard drive space or even a database running — n8n will by default set itself up with a file-based SQLite database. Our colleagues at New Design Congress recommend Hetzner running something as cheap as CX11 option (2GB RAM) for only €2.96/month. You could also take a look at Scaleway .
Just remember to pick a UK/EU server for speed and data privacy reasons.
You can simply follow this docker-compose guide to get going in a few minutes.
Quick note that we at Common Knowledge using Digital Ocean / Debian had to edit the
in order to get SSL-enabled email sending to work properly.
We did a bit of thinking about how to keep things reliable running on your own machinery, but thankfully n8n already has a lot of stuff built in here so it’s really just about good, simple server management:
systemctl enable docker.service
httpflow) does this well.
systemctl enable httpflowwork? I don’t know, but you could try that.
There are a number of features including a workflow queue, load-balancing and workflow workers that you can opt in to. Here’s a
quick article explaining how to enable scaling features
. We’d advise adding
image to your
We’ve seen forum threads where people talk about tens of thousands of requests and some absolutely whacky long workflows to boot, and that was before there was any of this scale-up infrastructure. So we think it’s probably reliable enough!
Upgrading should be as simple as pulling down the latest image from the docker-compose file. You can specify the version or clean reinstall etc.
For peace of mind, check out:
It might be worth looking into auto-upgraded dockers... this guy at HubSpot actually uses n8n to upgrade n8n once a week!?
Guaranteed latest version, no headaches about performance, etc. Some light performance-based pricing but nothing quite as ridiculous as Zapier and certainly simpler than the self-hosting.
Not a bad option.
Check out this repo: sarveshpro/n8n-heroku
The downside is you might start coming across storage issues with something like the free postgres. Also, Heroku’s pricing is whacky.
On the other hand it has nice addons for logging, auto-restarting, auto-scaling and all that jazz. Plenty of options if you want to take it really far, though costs may vary.
This StackOverflow answer might also be helpful if you want to explore Heroku deployments.
HTTPnode for API requests
We don’t know a way to automatically do this yet. One strategy that’s served us well is to create a mirror of the workflows in n8n, test them, turn them live and then switch over the integrations one by one for zero down time.
Get in touch with us and we’re more than happy to talk this through some more or talk about broader technical and organisational campaigning, if you are an activist, organiser, campaigner or work in progressive political/charitable organisations.
We're able to do this work thanks to the generous funding of the National Lottery Community Fund .