Getting started with Google Apps

Google Apps logoEvery now and again, my ADSL connection hangs and I need to reset the router. If this happens whilst I’m away from home (as it has done on a number of occasions), e-mail doesn’t make it through to my server and a non-delivery report is generated for the sender. It’s an annoyance but I could also have lost important messages, so I signed up with a store and forward service called Dynu. Unfortunately, but no sooner had Dynu processed my credit card but their website went offline and I had to get my credit card issuer to refund the payment as Dynu was not responding to any support queries. I started to look into alternative services (like Exchange Hosted Services) but these are aimed at corporates – not small business like mine so, for the last week, the vast corporation that is (actually, it’s one person, albeit with enough IT to run a medium sized business…) has been running its core infrastructure on Google Apps (formerly known as Google Apps for Your Domain).

I decided that I don’t have any privacy any more so I might as well cross to the dark side and let the big G index all my e-mail…

…well, something like that anyway – in reality, as well as trying to improve the reliability of my e-mail service, I’m trying to reduce the number of servers (virtual or otherwise) that I’m running (I am, after all, just one person) and moving from Microsoft Exchange Server to a service “in the cloud” let me turn off another 2 virtual machines (both of which needed upgrading to the latest versions). Why was I using my own mail server at home when my hosting provider‘s mail service will work just as well for me? Because my original reason for using Exchange Server was to keep my Exchange technical skills up-to-date – but that’s less of an issue these days as I spend more time architecting solutions and less time getting stuck into technology details. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that corporates should dump Exchange Server (far from it) and, as I commented on a recent post comparing software as a service (the Google approach) with software plus services (the Microsoft approach):

“I’m a one man band and I wouldn’t suggest [Google Apps] to any of my enterprise customers. In fact, I’m not convinced that anyone other than small-medium businesses and cash-strapped schools, charities, etc. will follow the SaaS route in it’s entirety (and it’s probably off limits for government departments – both local and central – as they will struggle to get around the various security restrictions).”

For smaller organisations who don’t want the hassle of running their own IT infrastructure servers, Google Apps is a reasonable choice (just as is Microsoft Small Business Server for those whose requirements are a little more advanced). Microsoft also has a cloud based service for consumers and small businesses – Windows Live Admin Center (formerly Windows Live Custom Domains) but I decided to go with Google (largely because their website told me what I’d be getting, whereas it wasn’t at all clear from the Windows Live Admin Center site – frankly, Microsoft’s online offerings are a marketing mess).

Once I’d decided which domain name to use, setting up Google Apps was straightforward – I simply completed the registration wizard, verified domain ownership (I had the choice of using either an HTML file or a DNS record) and switched the MX records to point to Google’s servers. I then set up a few users, associated another domain with my Google Apps account and started using the service.

For a few hours after that I was receiving messages on both the old and new servers but, once the world’s DNS servers had caught up, everything was arriving in my Google Apps/GMail mailbox.

I like the GMail interface a lot – for a start it challenges many of my preconceptions about how e-mail should work, storing almost everything in my Inbox and grouping it into conversation threads. I’m still not completely familiar with all the GMail settings but the first problem I came up against was how to implement Inbox Zero when GMail doesn’t support folders. It does, however, support a labelling system so I can apply labels to messages and use the labels for my various Inbox Zero states (and other IMAP clients – e.g. Apple Mail – see them as folders, although moving a message to one of those folders in another application does not assign the label to the message in the GMail web interface).

Another minor annoyance is that the domain name I use for e-mail does not match the one I use for my Google Apps and so some e-mail clients will show my messages as sent from Firstname Lastname [user@googleappsdomain.tld] on behalf of Firstname Lastname [user@secondarydomain.tld] but that’s something I can live with for now.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m not using all of the Google Apps features – at the moment it’s just for e-mail and calendar – but if I had people I needed to collaborate with then Google Sites would allow me to do so (my WordPress blog is still hosted externally – and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future). I have Microsoft Office 2007 so I’m unlikely to adopt Google Docs in any big way and, as for Google Talk, I avoid instant messaging when I can as I find it too big an interruption (and often an inefficient way to communicate).

So, was it worth it? Almost certainly – I get no spam. Seriously. None at all. Zero spam messages in my Inbox for a week now (and no false positives in the 394 messages that Google has identified as spam and quarantined for me). And another huge benefit is search. I still use Xobni with Outlook 2007 at work (and I could still use Outlook as an IMAP client at home) but GMail’s search is excellent (as I would hope in a service provided by a company that has a mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”).

In some follow-up posts, I’ll describe some of the challenges I’ve faced with keeping e-mail, calendar and contacts in sync across various platforms and devices, as well as importing my legacy messages into the 7GB of space that Google gives me for my mailbox.

Further reading

Lifehacker: What does Google Apps for Your Domain actually do?

4 thoughts on “Getting started with Google Apps

  1. The “on behalf of problem” bothers a lot of people. But if it’s important to you, you can get around it with a service that I disclose a connection with. See the post here and the long discussion here

  2. For the small not-for-profits I usually work for it’s ideal, and about as easy to administer as a bag of crisps. I have found that while most people find the Mail and Calendar useful, they tend to shy away from the other parts like Pages and Docs.

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