Google for Domains
I’ve been looking at outsourcing my email, and after writing that post I signed up for the Google for Domains service. What follows are my initial thoughts now that I’ve started using it, as well as some suggestions based on my experiences thus far (mostly aimed toward my family, who are now also using Google for Domains).
The Google Control Panel is extremely easy to use. It took me all of four minutes to get things set up. Google makes it easy for you to use links to your own domain in order to access their services, and they even provide to you the necessary DNS changes in order to support those custom URLs. So instead of http://mail.google.com/a/example.com, you can use http://mail.example.com. The same goes for docs.example.com and calendar.example.com. Adding and managing users is similarly easy.
I selected Google for Domains primarily for their email service, so that I can stop managing my own MTA and anti-spam tools, so that was the bit in which I was the most interested. I host a handful of domains for my family, and I wanted to make sure all their vanity email accounts remained. Thankfully, the Google control panel allows you to associate additional domains to the primary domain, and again they provide instructions for setting up the DNS MX records as needed. The one catch to this is that an email address is valid across all the domains you define. So if I define domains example.com and example2.com, email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com will be delivered to the same user. This isn’t a big deal for me, but it might be a gotcha for others.
I’ve been accessing my email for the last several years by IMAP, using Mozilla Thunderbird. I have a handful of folders into which I organize my mail. Not having spent much time with GMail in the past, I was a little worried about workflow changes that might be required of me. In particular, I was worried that all the thousands of messages I’ve been saving over the years would be stored in one gigantic Inbox, and I’d see the gigantic list of messages every time I logged in. Thankfully this was not the case, and importing all of my old mail into Google Mail was an easy (if extremely slow) process.
Google’s web-based mail system does not use folders like Thunderbird; instead it uses labels. Labels are just that: it’s a term you apply to a message. You can then filter the list of messages you see in the web-based interface by label. Messages can have more than one label, which provides some additional organization convenience over folders, since a message can only be stored in a single folder at a time (unless you copy it into multiple folders, but then deleting the message from one folder will not automatically delete it from other folders into which it might have been copied).
By default, messages do stay in the Inbox, even after you label them. It’s easy to move old messages from the Inbox, though, through the use of the Archive button. When a message is marked “archive” it is removed from the Inbox, but remains accessible through search and label filtering, as well as the special “All Mail” display. In essence, labeling a message and then pressing “Archive” is the same as moving a message into an IMAP folder.
Google Mail does provide IMAP access, so you can use a traditional mail client if you prefer. Importing messages requires that you connect via IMAP. When accessing your mail via IMAP, the labels you created are presented as IMAP folders. If you place messages into the Google Inbox, they will be visible in the Inbox when using the web-based interface, as well. If you place messages directly into a Google label-as-IMAP-folder, it will acquire the appropriate label and be automatically archived, preventing it from being displayed in the Inbox. So the process of importing all my old mail was simple: define a new IMAP account in Thunderbird for Google Mail and then copy messages from my old IMAP folders into the corresponding Google label-as-IMAP-folder. I elected to create the labels in the Google web interface ahead of time, for no particular reason. I assume you can create new labels-as-IMAP-folders using Thunderbird and have that work the same as if you create the label first.
Switching to the web-based interface for Google Mail will take some work, but I’ve already found a compelling reason to make it worth my time. Using filters I can apply labels to messages as they come in. Then, I need only click the “Archive” button when I’m done reading to have those messages automatically filed. This is a terrific way to streamline the organization of my messages. When using Thunderbird, I’d have to manually move each message (or selected group of messages) to the appropriate folder. I would often miss the intended destination folder, and end up filing messages in the wrong location. Using Google Mail, I can ensure that mail ends up where it needs to go before it even comes in to me! All my mailing list messages are now labeled automatically, as well as mail from my family. I only ever need to click the “Archive” button now, which makes for a pretty easy to remember workflow.
I installed the FireGPG plugin in order to be able to use GPG signing and encryption from within my web browser (although I hardly ever encrypt anything, much to my disappointment). I’m now skimming the list of Greasemonkey scripts for GMail and will probably also investigate a few Firefox add-ons to see if there are additional ways to make my Google experience even better.
So far, I’m pleased with what Google offers, and I’m happy to get out of the mail administration game. I’ll soon be able to downgrade the VPS service I use, since I no longer need the additional memory or disk for email processing and storage. I’m looking forward to sharing a calendar with Carina. And while I doubt I’ll make use of the Google Docs service, it’s nifty to know that it’s available to me should I find a need.