I am so happy. In addition to the fact that my data is backed up and secure, my email from multiple accounts is now so synchronized it brings tears of joy to my eyes…
Let’s first remind ourselves how we got to be where we are (and when I say “we” I really mean “me”, because after all – at the end of the day – it’s all about me, isn’t it? :-)
Synchronizing data files
As you may recall, a few months ago I almost lost my working data on my notepad computer (I’d been working from home for a couple of days and thus I hadn’t performed my usual daily backup).
The solution I decided upon was to have two computers – my notepad at home and a tower system in my office – and to ensure that exactly the same working data files were present on both machines. This spurred me to write my article Dropbox – the best way to backup and synchronize your data.
A very brief summary (in case you are new to all of this) is that you install the Dropbox software on all of your computers. When you create a new file or modify an existing file on one of your computers – say my tower at work – that change is immediately copied up into “The Cloud” (where it is securely stored using military-grade encryption). And when you power-up one of your other Dropbox-enabled computers, your data on that computer is automatically synchronized with your data in The Cloud.
Actually, if I happen have both my notepad and tower computers powered up at the same time (on the odd occasion when I bring my notepad computer into work, for example), then as soon as I make a change to a data file on one computer I can immediately see that change appear on the other … this really is amazingly cool.
Synchronizing emails (the way that DIDN’T work)
In addition to my data files, I also wanted to synchronize my emails (and calendar and contacts) so that I saw exactly the same thing on both my computers. My first approach, which I described in an earlier blog (Backups – don’t forget your email!) turned out to be a ghastly failure.
I don’t quite know how this came about, but over the years I’ve accumulated a number of email accounts; different people send me messages on different accounts, so I have to keep them all going. The way I had this set up on my notepad computer was to use Outlook 2010 to automatically access each of these accounts every five minutes or so and to download any new emails from them. Also, when I replied to an email, Outlook was set up to send the reply via the appropriate account.
So far so good; the problem was that I wanted to do the same thing on my new tower computer. Also, I wanted to make sure that the current state of play was identical across both of my computers with regard to which emails I’d read, which I’d responded to, and which I had deleted.
My original plan (which was really rather “funky” now I come to look back on it) was based on the fact that Outlook stores all of your emails (and contacts and calendar and “stuff”) in a database called a PST file. My idea was that – at the end of each working day – I would copy the PST file from my tower computer onto a memory stick. Then, when I subsequently powered-up my notebook at home, the first thing I would do would be to copy the PST file from the memory stick onto the notepad … and then repeat the process in the other direction when returning back to work.
I tried doing it this way. It was a pain in the rear end! Also it didn’t work. For some reason I couldn’t get Outlook 2010 on the tower to read the PST file from Outlook 2010 on the notepad. Of course the PST file wasn’t created with this usage model in mind, but still…
Actually, now that I come to think about it, I was incredibly lucky that this didn’t work. If everything had gone as planned, I might have spent the rest of my life copying PST files around, and once you’ve done this one time you’ve pretty much exhausted any fun you can squeeze from it (grin).
Synchronizing emails (the way that DOES work)
As fate would have it, I was chatting to my friend Mike Smith, who owns the IT consulting firm Serenity-Networks (www.serenity-networks.com). Mike is based here in town, so I asked him if he could help me with my email synchronization problem.
When Mike came into my office and I explained what I was trying to do, I could see that it was taking all of his willpower not to burst out laughing (or maybe he was fighting himself to not slap me around the head for my stupidity).
Now I don’t fully understand all of the ins-and-outs of what Mike did, but I will try to give you the gist of it. First of all he set me up with something called Google Apps for Business. This costs $50 a year, but as far as I’m concerned it’s already paid for itself many times over in the last few days alone.
Next, Mike used my Google Apps account to assume control of my primary email account. Again, I’m a bit “fluffy” about the intricate details, but my understanding is that he did things like changing DNS entries such that any emails to max@CliveMaxfield.com no longer go to my old account that was part of my www.CliveMaxfield.com website – instead they now go directly to my new max@CliveMaxfield.com account that’s controlled by Google Apps.
Once this was set up, Mike used my new Google Apps thingy to go out and link into all of my other accounts. So now the Google Apps account is doing everything that Outlook 2010 used to do. It automatically accesses each of my email accounts every few minutes and downloads any new emails from them. Also, when I reply to an email, the reply is automatically associated with the appropriate account.
So now I can access my Google Apps email from any computer in the world using a web-based interface, which is rather handy. Of course I could do this with my old email accounts, but there was a separate (and different) interface for each account. Now everything is under one “umbrella”.
But wait, there’s more, because this is where things start to get REALLY clever…
On the one hand it’s wonderful to have all of my accounts centralized as discussed above, but… I personally loath web-based email interfaces. I really prefer using Outlook 2010 as my main email. So the next thing Mike did was to download and install something called Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook onto both of my computers. Once he had done this, Mike went into the Outlook applications on both of my computers and connected them back into my main Google Apps email account.
So what does this all mean in real terms? Well, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that I have both of my computers here in my office. When I power-up my tower computer and open Outlook, the first thing it does is to synchronize with my Google Apps email account, so any new emails appear in my “Inbox” as you would expect.
Now let’s assume that I power-up my notepad computer and open Outlook on it. Not surprisingly, it also synchronizes itself with my Google Apps email account. The clever thing is that from this point on it doesn’t matter which machine I’m working on. If I read an email on one machine, that email shows as having being read on the other. If I send an email on one machine, a copy of that email appears in the “Sent” folder on the other. If I delete an email on one machine, that email is immediately deleted from the other. (Of course if one machine is powered-down, it will resynchronize itself the nexttime it is powered-up again.)
And it gets better and better… if I add a new contact on one machine, that contact is added to the other. If someone sends me an invitation to a meeting and I accept and that meeting is added to my calendar … it appears in the calendar on the other machine.
But wait, there’s still more…
The way Mike has things configured is everything I ever dreamed of … but just to add the last dollop of icing onto the top of the cake, the last thing he did when he set all of this up was to import my original Outlook 2010 PST file into my new Google Apps account (you basically use the “Import” command in Google Apps and point it at your old PST file). This took a while, but in addition to all of my old emails, it also imported all of my existing calendar entries and contacts and suchlike.
Even better, it imported the old hierarchy of email folders I’d created over the years and then it stuck all of my old emails into the appropriate folders (this hierarchy of folders is – of course – replicated on my Google Apps account and both of my computers’ Outlook accounts).
I cannot tell you how “tasty” this all is – it is everything I ever dreamt of and more – I have a great big silly smile plastered all over my face just thinking about it all – this has been a good week!
Good article and very tempting solution. The problem I have with the cloud is we are due for a CME event that will likely make for a lot of sunny days ;~( with not a cloud in site. Puns intended.
I now have an android phone that replaced both my old Kyocera KOI phone and Palm Pilot. I also like to camp and go to remote beaches. The cloud is not avaible at several of those places and the the phone is a door stop with out the cloud. My old palm V had a great app that shows the tide and works as long as the battery is not dead. SOL with the new android phone. It will be interesting to see how we all cope with the CME when it happens.
PS. CME = coronal mass ejection
### actually I sensed masochism as soon as you mentioned Outlook
"Spank me, spank me," said the masochist
"No," replied the sadist
The thing is I wouldn't know an IMAP if it crawled up my leg and bit me ... maybe I have gone a bit overboard, but everything is working like a dream and I'm wearing my happy face :-)
Unless I missed something you're making this sound a lot harder than it needs to be! (actually I sensed masochism as soon as you mentioned Outlook!).
I'm a big fan of Dropbox for syncing my documents etc, but for mail, as Michael mentioned, the solution is a simple 4 letter acronym - IMAP.
(actually, I also have a few legacy POP accounts, and for them I use Dropbox for emails I've removed from the server)
Actually, the sync solution is built into Apple's operating systems. Both Apple and Google use the same standard internet protocols for email and calendar. Apple's MobileMe, like Google, uses IMAP for email and CalDAV for calendar services which puts all of the data "in the cloud" and allows any client to access and edit. Both MacOS and iOS also make it easy to connect to Google services. So, my Mac and my iPad have been sharing data seamlessly for months. [grin]
You have a point -- I know that my accountant refuses to even connect her internal systems to the Internet -- and since she has all of my details I applaud that.
But to be honest my email is rather boring -- there's nothing there that would excite anyone to do anything -- in this case I think the convenience is worth the risk.
And if you can't trust Google, who can you trust? :-)
It sounds to me like the Google Aps service is acting as your database for all of your email, appointments, and calendar data. If this is the case, everything is on a public server in one place. Sure, security is high. :-) That's why we are always hearing about breaches and stolen credit card numbers or whatever. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want available to unauthorized users include when I'm on vacation (for example).
Yes, the 'Cloud' is a very handy place to put data that you can access from anywhere, but I'm unconvinced that it's truly safe.