September 20, 2006

Geek question

I’m a sort of semi-geek, in that I know enough to pose the following question, but not enough to come up with a satisfactory answer. Any help from a true geek would be very much appreciated.

I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer and a large amount of email to deal with (say 200 a day). What I want to happen is for my laptop and desktop to both have a copy of every email I have received and every email I have sent. I would be reasonably happy if I could make sure that at least one of my two computers has all this, and the other one has most of it.

The technology I have to work with is this: two Windows XP computers running Thunderbird. One mail server which has a 40MB quota and can work with POP3 or IMAP. I am pretty sure I can’t install any software on this server (so any solution involving running procmail or some such on the server is out).

So far I have a couple of somewhat unsatisfactory solutions.

Solution 1:

Set desktop computer to download using POP3 and delete from the server when messages are greater than a month or two old (I’d have to figure out the number so that I didn’t get too close to using up the whole quota). Run IMAP on the laptop, BCC any mail sent from the laptop and set up a mail filter to copy this to my sent mail folder. This way the laptop always has the last month of email. This solution is OK, and I might well have to go for it but it’s not ideal in various ways.

Solution 2:

This is more an idea for a solution, because I don’t know how to get it to work. The idea is that both computers use IMAP, but that some little bit of software is installed that automatically creates a local archive of all my emails. I would also have a little bit of software that I occasionally run that deletes old mail from the IMAP server. This way both the laptop and desktop would have a copy of everything and it involves minimal maintenance. Trouble is, I haven’t had much luck in finding any suitable software to do what I want, although it seems quite straightforward. Thunderbird can make an offline copy of your IMAP folders, but it’s stored as a sort of backup folder and there’s no straightforward way to automatically merge it with an archive folder.

So any good ideas?

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  1. Chris May

    Forward all of your mail to GMail (with a rule on your server, or on one of the clients if the server doesn’t support that), and use that as your archive. If you need a local copy, then POP your mail out of gmail and onto each of your desktops (into a separate account from the ‘live’ IMAP one, obviously. Much easier than messing about with local IMAP servers and synchronization (which can be done, but is a pain).

    20 Sep 2006, 06:57

  2. Steve Rumsby

    Seconded. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and it is so convenient having all my email in gmail.

    Of course, you can’t get to it without a network connection, which may be an issue if you want offline access to email from the laptop. In that case you can POP email out of Gmail onto the laptop when it does have a connection and so have a complete copy there. I assume the desktop doesn’t need its own local copy because it will always be online?

    20 Sep 2006, 11:18

  3. If you send all emails from one PC, then you could just copy the Thunderbird profile over from one to the other. If not, there’d have to be some sort of syncing logic involved, so each PC updates one another with the sent emails.
    Of course, this requires both PCs to be on when you sync, which I guess wouldn’t be the ideal solution.

    20 Sep 2006, 11:37

  4. Thanks everyone.

    The gmail solution is compelling but for one problem. I don’t want Google having access to all my email. Even encrypting the mail sent to Google (as one website I had a look at suggested) wouldn’t be satisfactory because either the headers would be in plaintext (in which case Google would have access to all my traffic data which I’m not happy with) or they would be encrypted in which case it would presumably be unsearchable and a total nightmare.

    Steve, I have thought about having the desktop always online and running my own private IMAP server or some such, but I’ve decided I don’t want to do this for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s sort of environmentally unfriendly to have it always online. Secondly, I will likely be keeping my desktop in my bedroom and it’s too noisy to leave on all night. But yes it should always have a connection to the internet when it’s switched on at least.

    Max, that’s the sort of solution I’m muddling through with at the moment and it’s sort of OK but requires quite a lot of maintenance. I’d like a slightly more automatic solution if possible.

    20 Sep 2006, 13:43

  5. Quick questions, but have you tried using outlook, from at least 2002 versions it supports autoarchiving to a pst file every x days/months. I’m not sure how much use it would be, as not sure how well it would work if run on different computers.

    20 Sep 2006, 14:04

  6. Yes that’s a nice feature of Outlook but there’s no way that I know of to automatically synchronise without a dedicated server.

    20 Sep 2006, 14:16

  7. Well well, I’ve just thought up a potential solution all on my own. I just remember something on John Dale’s blog about Amazon S3, which is a service which allows you to store and upload data at a price of $0.20 per gb per month, which is fantastically cheap for the amounts of data that I’m thinking about (maybe 1GB at most). Now I just have to work out the details. Anyone got any experience with this?

    26 Sep 2006, 02:21

  8. Before you go any start paying for amazon, (not that its a lot tbh) there is a site called which gives you 1GB of free storage (more if you pay), its still quite new, but there should be a desktop sync available soon as well as the abiliity to map it as a drive (my personal favorite). If you need something soon, it may not be the best option as the sync isn’t ready yet, but you might want to consider it, even if you try out amazon first.

    The only problem is the free vesion has a file size limit of 10MB (paid is 1GB) which come to think of it won’t be very useful for a big email file, have a look anyway.

    26 Sep 2006, 10:47

  9. Chris May

    If you’re not happy sending your email to Google, why are you happy sending to to Amazon?

    26 Sep 2006, 13:14

  10. It sounds like you just need both computers to use IMAP. Thunderbird can store a local cache of all the mail in the IMAP account, so that bit’s easy.

    Then you need to have your sent mail stored on the IMAP server as well.

    Have I missed something?

    26 Sep 2006, 13:42

  11. Oh, I have, your 40MB quota. :)

    Get a better hosting provider. For instance, join CompSoc for £2.50, store your email in your home directory, and you can have an extra 500MB for £2.50 a time. The highest cost might be joining SocsFed, of course.

    26 Sep 2006, 13:48

  12. Robert, thanks for the link but yeah the 10MB limit is a bit restrictive.

    Chris, because Google reads your email and Amazon S3 wouldn’t.

    Tim, yep IMAP would be good. CompSoc is no good though because I’m leaving Warwick and therefore (I presume?) won’t be able to be a member of CompSoc or SocsFed. Do you know of any other providers? I’d need at least a 100-200MB mailbox I think.

    26 Sep 2006, 18:15

  13. Chris May

    because Google reads your email

    meh. If I were ever to send anything that was sensitive enough that I was worried about google reading it, I wouldn’t be sending it in plain-text over an uncontrolled network.

    Sure they might aggregate keywords out of my mail, and use them to target ads. at me when I use the web ui. But if I’m just POP-ing mail out then why should I care about that?

    26 Sep 2006, 22:19

  14. Well, that’s all they’re doing at the moment. A lot of people agree with you and use it, but it’s not for me.

    26 Sep 2006, 23:48

  15. Dan, first, there are plenty of ex-Warwick people in CompSoc, using molotov. In the worst case, you would have to join SocsFed and CompSoc as an Associate Member – WGA membership might entitle you to something along those lines. Once you have an account on molotov, it is “unlikely” that you would have it taken away in subsequent years.

    Of course, that’s not necessarily going to be the best option for everyone – it does commit you to at least one year’s membership of SocsFed – and you would curse us if either campus or the server died. It would probably be cheaper than a commercial provider, though. (I’m only plugging it because I’m a member.)

    A full virtual server (a Xen image which you admin yourself) can be had for a few pounds per month. I know CompSoc uses unixshell. Even that might be overkill to solve this problem – for instance, 1&1 offer 5×1GB IMAP storage for £0.81 per month, apparently. (I happen to use them for domains, and haven’t used their IMAP service in a while, so no guarantees.)

    27 Sep 2006, 23:58

  16. Thanks for that! Very useful advice. That 1&1 IMAP thingy sounds like just the ticket. Will check around for a bit to see if there is anything better but at 81p a month it would have to be pretty damn good to be better.

    I already have a domain registered with a different company who are doing my web page hosting, do you know if it’ll be possible to have the emails that go to go into 1&1 but the web page go to my current one ( I know that I can transfer the whole service to 1&1, but I’m not sure if I can just transfer the web page bit. I guess I could just set up some sort of forwarding rule if not. Anyway, rather than asking you I guess I should just email them.

    28 Sep 2006, 01:38

  17. Well you should have control over the dns options for your domain, in which case you simply need to find out from 1&1 what their mail server is and you just have to simply point your mail to it (i.e, without affecting the rest of your site (thats the theory anyway), I’ve done it before when i wanted to host my email separately from my main site.

    28 Sep 2006, 09:13

  18. Hmm, I think the 1&1 service implies moving your domain to them. It appears you can sign up for the ‘Instant Mail’ package without registering a domain, but is that in any way useful? I’m guessing not.

    If you did move your domain, you would probably lose the web hosting – the cheapest web hosting with 1&1 is £2.34 per month (which includes all the IMAP stuff). Add the £10.45 per year for the domain, and you’re looking at £38.53 per year in total. (I estimate you’re paying £34 per year with, assuming you have their cheapest package.) All prices include VAT. :)

    I’ve no idea if 1&1 are the cheapest; but shop around for a hosting company that offers a better IMAP account, is my conclusion.

    28 Sep 2006, 10:33

  19. hmm well 1&1 are not the cheapest, there are plenty of other better hosts out there and they do seem to rip off UK users as well compared to their US site, but I suppose depends what you are lookiong from a host. Would you mind getting a US host (not 1&1 as they don’t allow it) as you will get a much better deal compared to most UK based ones?

    28 Sep 2006, 13:39

  20. Yeah, if you wanted, say, CGI support, 1&1 would charge you more, by which point it’s almost worth paying for a virtual server. It depends on what you’re planning to do with your website.

    Hopefully a US host wouldn’t introduce that much lag; the strong pound really will help the price.

    28 Sep 2006, 19:23

  21. Hehe, thanks for doing the calculations Tim, very handy. :-)

    Robert, I have no moral objection to a US host, assuming it was decently fast over here. Which ones are good there? In particular for the IMAP thing. One of the reasons I want to set something like this up is that if I get the job I’ve applied for I might be spending a reasonable amount of time abroad so there’s no particular reason to stick with UK servers.

    At the moment, I’m not doing anything particularly sophisticated with my webspace. It’s just static HTML. I’m happy with that side of it, it’s just the email that isn’t ideal. If the 1&1 email was OK but I couldn’t use it just for email, I could set up a domain name with them and have my automatically forwarded to it I guess. It’s sort of ugly but it would work fine I think.

    28 Sep 2006, 21:37

  22. Er doesn’t SyncToy provide synchronisation between two devices running XP or Vista?
    The files to be synchronised could include those containing all one’s emails.

    02 Mar 2007, 22:16

  23. I had a look at SyncToy a while ago. I think it might be a good tool for certain situations, but it’s not well designed for the sorts of thing I have in mind. For a start, I am using Linux at work now, and will probably continue to do so, so I need something that works with Linux and Windows.

    Thanks for the suggestion though! :-)

    03 Mar 2007, 01:53

  24. I’m going to try SynchToy for my laptop and desktop, as both use Vista/Windows. I’m hopeing that I will be able to set it up so that the only thing I will need to do to synchronise (including mail folders) will be to plug my laptop into the ethernet port on my desktop and a single click on each machine.

    Surely people set up their dual boot desktops to allow easy transfer of data between the Linux and Windows areas? Just adding ethernet to allow the two data areas to be remote from each other shouldn’t be much of an issue.

    03 Mar 2007, 10:28

  25. There are fairly good tools to do LinuxLinux synchronising, and SyncToy seems to be OK for WindowsWindows (although I haven’t used it), but LinuxWindows is still slightly problematic. Part of the problem is that I don’t feel I can fully rely on the ntfs support in Linux (though this might be an out of date view), which means setting up a shared FAT32 partition which I can’t be arsed with at the moment.

    Actually, it turned out that 50MB of IMAP storage was plenty once I set up some server rules to automatically delete old high-volume mailing list emails, so for the moment I’m happy. I regularly use 8 different computers to read my email so IMAP is a much nicer solution for me than having to shift files around from one computer to another.

    03 Mar 2007, 14:18

  26. The Mozilla knowledgebase suggests maintaining Thunderbird’s data on removable storage (e.g. a memory stick) and switching it between machines. Although as you’ve pointed out, getting both Linux and Windows to share the same piece of memory can be tricky.

    11 Mar 2007, 20:58

  27. The removable storage idea is neat, and actually works nicely at least with Ubuntu linux (I haven’t tried memory sticks on other linuxes). It does require you to carry your emails around with you though, which is a burdensome thought.

    13 Mar 2007, 01:43

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