Moving from personal mail server to Gmail

I was hosting my own email server for about a year. I enjoyed the fact that I had full and complete control over the entire mail server. I enjoyed being able to fine tune everything to fit my needs exactly. I was doing this for about 1.5 years.

Unfortunately, there were a few things I couldn't control that really killed the fun of running my own email server. First of all, dealing with the people complaining that it's not how they want it weighed on me. Aside from that there were also power outages, hardware failures, software hangs (from power dips), firewall/router deaths, modem spasms (now very frequent), etc. Not only that, but I only had 1mbit upload available and 1.5mib max available at about $100/mo more.

What it came down to is that running a mail server just isn't for me given my limitations. I needed an alternative and I found one. There is this thing called Google Apps ( that is capable of hosting your domain email for you.

I decided to give it a shot. It's not a quick or idiot proof process, but it was worth the effort.

What you first need to do is sign up for Google Apps. When you click sign up, make sure to click the "Standard Edition" link to avoid them wanting money. If you already have your own domain then you enter it and procede with signup. Otherwise you can purchase a domain through Google. It doesn't matter. They give you pretty easy to follow instructions to setup your DNS to point MX and CNAME records to them instead of wherever you're currently hosting from.

After you setup everything, you need to sync your email. I just set up two different IMAP accounts in my email client (claws-mail) and dragged/dropped the messages from my own server to the other.

Gmail handles email with tags and not folders. This is really the point of this blog. Your mail client will recognize these tags as folders, but Gmail doesn't handle them as such. This can make things pretty interesting.

To start, make sure you archive all of your email. Anything in Trash will be deleted after 30 days. Now we need to make some tags that our mail client will use. Make sure you prefix all tags with [Gmail]/. You'll see why later. At a minimum, you need to have [Gmail]/Archived, [Gmail]/Drafts, [Gmail]/Queue, and [Gmail]/Trash. I also have a few others such as [Gmail]/Saved, [Gmail]/Ubuntu, and [Gmail]/Kalliki. The last three are personal tags that represent folders I want to have available.

If any [Imap]/ tags exist, delete them. They're ugly and useless. You may need to delete them after doing all of this too.

When it comes to a mail client, I use Claws Mail. It's the only client I've found with the features required to do this. You will need to setup your connection to Gmail the same as as anything else. In order to be able to do this at all, you'll need to log into your account, go to "Settings > Forwarding and POP/IMAP" click "Enable IMAP" and click "Save". This will allow you to access your account with claws-mail.

After you've set up the basics in claws-mail, you will see your standard Inbox, Sent, Trash, etc. You will also see a [Gmail] directory with all the tags you created underneath it.

Isn't that just ugly? Everything in a sub directory... Ya, let's fix that.

Remember, I'm referencing claws-mail, not Thunderbird. I don't know if Thunderbird can do this at all.

Go to Configuration > Edit Accounts. Select your account and click Edit. Check out the Receive section. In this section you will see an "IMAP server directory". In this area you will add "[Gmail]" (w/o quotes of course). This will get rid of the [Gmail] directory and all your tags will show up as directories at the root level. This is already MUCH nicer to look at.

We don't want to stop there, but for now. Click Apply, OK, Close. Right click the Account name in your folder list, this is the account name and should show (IMAP4) beside it. From the right click menu, select "Rebuild folder tree". This will make things easier to look at.

You have a "Sent Mail" folder and a "Sent" folder. "Sent Mail" is created by Gmail and this is the one we want to copy sent mail to. Right click "Sent Mail" and click Properties. Across from "Folder Type" select "Outbox" and click Apply, OK. You can now delete the "Sent" folder as it no longer matters. You will now use the Gmail's "Sent Mail" instead.

You also have an "Archived" folder and a "Trash" folder. You will set your client to move deleted items here later. If Right click "Archived" and click Properties. Set the Folder type to "Trash". Click Apply, OK. This will make sure when you delete something, it's marked as read. The actual directory it goes to when deleted is handled down this page.

Go back to your account properties. Configuration > Edit Accounts | Account | Edit. This time, go to the Advanced section. You will see a box titled Folder. This is a big deal with what we're doing. Check all four boxes. Click the Browse button and select the appropriate folder. ~!Read this word for word!~ You want to make sure everything is filed with a [Gmail]/ tag. Sent messages should be going into the "Sent Mail" folder that Gmail uses. Deleted messages should be going in the Archived folder you created with the tag.

By sending mail to Archived, we avoid Google's 30 day Trash deletion nuisance.

Here is a sample of what I have:

Put sent messages in: #imap/Profarius/[Gmail]/Sent Mail
Put queued messages in: #imap/Profarius/[Gmail]/Queue
Put draft messages in: #imap/Profarius/[Gmail]/Drafts
Put deleted messages in: #imap/Profarius/[Gmail]/Archived

Note that Profarius is the name of the account. It will be whatever you named yours. The rest should be identical. Make sure the [Gmail]/ part exists in EVERY line.

When you delete something, it will instead be archived. No need to worry about automatic deletion. If you really do decide you have email you want to delete, you can drag it to the Trash. After 30 days, if you haven't realized you really do need that message, it will be gone. This avoids that "holy crap I needed that" problem.

It's possible that you have two "Trash" folders. If this is the case, it's because claws-mail created one and Gmail created one. Just drop a test email into one and check your Trash on Gmail. If the message is there, delete the other Trash folder and move your test message back wherever you want it. If it doesn't show up, then repeat the process with the other directory, just to make sure.

The last step is to subscribe to ONLY the folders you care about. Right click the account name, go to Subscriptions, click Subscribe, check Search recursively, click Search. You can use this process to subscribe to specific or all folders. My personal preference it to subscribe to all and specifically unsubscribe from what I don't want.

I find Spam useless because I don't want to see spam. I find Starred useless because I don't ever flag messages. I have [Gmail]/Saved to save important messages. Of course if you flag messages, you could use this. One folder that you may as well not bother with is "All Mail" because it's just a duplication of everything else, including what you're keeping in Archived.

I've tried to do this setup under other mail clients, but they don't seem to have the features and flexibility required to do this.

You should now have your mail client working perfectly and beautifully using Google's 'tag your email instead of sort it' approach. This is the exact approach I took to host my email on Google using my domain. It took me about 15hr to finish tweaking things to make it work just perfect and I didn't figure out the last little piece until I was writing this. Overall, I'm very happy with the result and I do feel the hassle was worth the reward.

Of course, if you're going to have over 7GB of email, you will need to split things between multiple user accounts or stick with your own server. You can use this exact same process To have Archived on one account, Inbox on another, etc. You just can't apply multiple tags.

I hope this helps someone out there!

By request, also on Claws Wiki.