Into the Cloud With My Data (Part 0) - Google Apps

A few months back, probably after deleting my daily allotment of 100+ spam messages per day, I decided to look into a better way of handling email. The hosting company I use for my domain (Server Intellect) provides a web-based mail client (Smarter Mail) that I often used when out and about. On my machine at home, I used Outlook 2007 to fetch that email. And while Smarter Mail's UI was fine for a web-based mail program, the spam that made it through the filters was ridiculous.

In addition to my personal email, this affected a few other family members who also use email on the domain... and let's face it, no guy wants to hear from his Mother about "how to get rid of all that male enlargement spam."

So I went in search of a better way... as a listener to Scott Hanselman's podcast (and reader of his blog), I knew that he'd recently moved his domain's mail (and other services) over to Google Apps for Domains. His recounting of the tale in the podcast sounded pretty painless, so I went to check it out.

I was very impressed with how seamless and easy the whole thing was. Google provides excellent instructions for how to make the transition, including walkthroughs for the control panels used by many web hosting companies. The process amounts to just a few steps:

  1. You prove to Google that you own the domain. The easiest way to do that is to put a file at a certain URL that contains some data they provide. You create it with a text editor, upload it to your site, and let Google know you're done. Google looks for that file and then reads the contents... if it matches what they provided, you're good to go.
  2. You decide which services you want to use -- GMail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Start Page, and public pages -- and you can turn them on and configure them as you like. This was great because I could turn on calendar, docs, and start page right away, but figure out how I wanted to transition email later.
  3. You use Google's instructions for your hosting company's control panel to make some changes in the routing of traffic in your domain. For me, this was as simple as logging into the domain, adding some A records to indicate where traffic should go (i.e., sending it to special Google URLs where the apps live), and then hit that URL in a browser to see the result.
  4. With email, I was originally worried that there would be an awkward transition period... not at all. First, I created all of our accounts in the Google Apps interface so that there were mailboxes in place. Google even gives you a temporary URL you can use to check that mailbox before transitioning to the URL you want (e.g., mail.domain.com), as well as a temporary email address that goes to each mailbox. Google gives nice step-by-step instructions for handling mail transitions in particular.
  5. With those in hand, I logged into SmarterMail and set up Forwarding rules on each mailbox -- so that mail sent to me (for example) would automatically be forwarded to my mailbox's special email address over on Google's system. With those rules in place, I changed the MX records with my hosting company so that mail traffic would start to go to Google's servers rather than Server Intellect's.
  6. After that change is made, there's a brief transition time while records get updated and the tubes get re-routed. With the forwarding rules, though, nothing is lost or in limbo. Within hours, it seemed, everything was being processed through Google and we were good to go.

That all sounds a little more involved than it actually was... someone moderately familiar with their hosting company's control panel could get the whole thing done in a couple hours in the evening. Maybe more if you had a bunch of mailboxes to go through and set up forwarding rules on.

In addition to Scott's podcast, he also had a few posts on his blog that were helpful when I looked into this. Unlike with Scott's situation, I didn't have a bunch of email to transition UP to the Google mailboxes. I do still have a large Outlook PST file locally, but I'm not convinced I'd get a lot of value out of pushing it all up to my mailbox on the server.

For now, I'm pretty much just using GMail as intended (e.g., leave it all on the server), but I take advantage of the IMAP capability occasionally to move things into some Personal Folders that I want to archive. I do see that, over time, I'll likely start using labels and the "archive" feature of Google Mail and keep more and more info on the server... but that will be a transition that occurs naturally over time rather than jamming all of my current archives up there at once.

Others in the family are using the new setup the same way they used the old one -- use the web interface to handle mail when traveling or when using a different computer, but then let Outlook slurp it all down via POP when they're on their personal machine... but they're increasingly seeing that it's useful to leave it up on the server for convenient access.

It's been a few months since the transition... and overall, we couldn't be happier with it. The service is free, fast, and has added a lot to the way we're tracking things. My wife and I frequently share Google Docs for various things (Christmas shopping lists, chore charts, etc) and we're just starting to use the calendar to keep track of household schedules.

And that spam problem? It's pretty much licked... Google's filters are great. I think the number of spam messages I've seen in roughly three months can be counted in the single digits. I did keep an eye out on the Spam folder to watch for false positives and there were a few. But those could be counted on one hand and, more importantly, I understood why Google wanted to filter them -- mostly they were messages that mentioned poker, a pastime of mine but a frequent topic for spammers.

Bottom line:

Pros

  • Virtually no spam.
  • Couldn't be easier to setup.
  • Uptime and stability of Google services.
  • Access to Google's "search" for email.
  • Other services we can grow into.
  • Free (unless you have more advanced needs)

Cons

  • It does require familiarity with your host's control panel... but if you have one of the many standard interfaces they support, that's an easy hurdle.
  • I know people will say "use labels!" and "use search!", but I still wish Gmail had folders.
  • Some of the Google Apps For Domains services get new features and capabilities slower than their "regular" Google cousins. As Scott has pointed out, it's clear they're not running the same codebase in both places... so things like IMAP support, colored labels, and lots of iGoogle add-ins don't work in Google Apps until weeks after they're generally available elsewhere (if at all).
  • Those differences mentioned above also mean you need to be careful when looking at 3rd-party add-ins or tools. Some that work fine with regular Google tools may require hacks, or may not work at all, with the tools available via Google Apps.

Highly recommended!

  

Note:   This post is the first in a series of posts about moving more of my personal data and productivity tools on to web-based services (i.e., "the cloud"). It's a process that's largely on-going (only mail is "fully" transitioned for us), but I'm working on transitioning my tasks (which Google doesn't yet support), my calendar (both home and office), as well as personal data (important docs, photos, etc) to web-based services.