Using GMail to Backup Your Email

When disaster strikes it is a good time to reflect on what preventative measures might have saved the day.  Working in IT, as I do, mitigating and even preventing disaster is a big part of the job.  No matter how hard we try disaster can still strike and being prepared for it is very important.

Email is one of those systems that almost no business can function without in this day and age.  Getting to lost email messages quickly is almost as important as getting email flowing again.

Recently, I had to deal with a pretty significant email disaster.  A lot of email was lost.  Getting email back up and running wasn’t too hard but a lot of email had been lost.  In a post-mortem we looked into many potential solutions to the ongoing issue of email backups which are often tricky and difficult to do properly.

One of the best suggestions made in our post-mortem engineering sessions was to have email backed-up, on the fly, message by message via forwarding to Google’s GMail service.

Now, before we get too far, I need to state that this is not a comprehensive backup solution.  Using email forwarding to GMail (or any other email service) must be handled account by account which causes it to scale very poorly.  It would be an administrative nightmare for a shop of any size but is quite easy for a very small organization of up to possibly twenty or thirty people.  It also does not handle outgoing (sent) email in any way but only incoming email – which is almost always where the important messages are located.  A traditional backup of your email system is still necessary.  This is really a complimentary service not a replacement solution.

What is great about forwarding to GMail is that it is free, it is extremely convenient, it can be handled by the email users who want it and ignored by those who do not,  it is almost instantaneous and the backups will continue even when an email client is not connected – unlike an IMAP or POP client based backup strategy.  Google provides so much storage capacity that likely you can send years of email messages to GMail without ever needing to clean out your archived messages.

Email forwarding can be set up by individual users or by an email administrator although if individual users do not manage their own GMail accounts this can be problematic.  There is also the potential option to have several company email account forward to a single GMail account although comingling email will result is all kinds of potential headaches later and be sure to be very confident about your legal ground for combining email in this manner.

Smaller organizations need to carefully consider how to take best advantage of the email options that they have available to them.  Email forwarding is one way in which very small organizations can take advantage of their size.  Large organizations would be forced to use more complex and expensive backup strategies to achieve these same results.

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