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August 6, 2010, 11:00 AM ET

Backing Up a Campus Email Account: GMail, iCal, and a Desktop Application

GMail ErrorRyan recently wrote about the dilemma of whether to adopt the technology choices made by your campus or continue using the applications you personally prefer. Sometimes, it's possible to do both. In this post, I'll take a look at using GMail in conjunction with a campus email system, and backing up the backup that GMail creates. Assuming that you choose to leave copies of your messages on the campus servers, the steps I outline below let you use your campus system while using GMail and a desktop application to create a double backup of your messages. Alternatively, you can simply use GMail to access your campus email account.

The initial backup: Getting your campus email into your GMail account

I personally prefer the organizational and storage capabilities of GMail over the standard email system at my campus. Last fall, Brian and I wrote about using GMail to check campus email. Depending on what makes sense for your situation (and the settings on the campus server), you might forward your campus email to GMail, or just have GMail check the campus email address. Again, depending on preferences and available storage, you might have GMail leave copies of the original on the campus server (or have the campus server keep the original once it's been forwarded), or you might have the original deleted (again, depending on one's preferences and available storage space).

It's also possible, as Brian and I noted, to send messages from GMail using your campus email address. (If you regularly send to campus listservs, you'll want to check out the possibility of having GMail send such messages using your campus's own servers; otherwise, the listserv might think you're an unauthorized user and refuse to distribute your message. If, for whatever reason, GMail won't play nicely with your campus server, you can always log in to your campus account directly when you need to send a listserv message.)

If you have things set up to leave messages on your campus server, you'll have them both there and in GMail, so you've already got a nice backup. But you might want to take things one step further.

The backup of the backup: Using Automator and iCal with a desktop client

AutomatorLet's face it: No server is totally immune from problems. Even GMail, good as it is, is occasionally a little wonky (see the first image in this post). So even if you've opted to leave copies of your messages on the campus server, having an extra backup (yes, most of us here at ProfHacker a paranoid when it comes to protecting our data) isn't a bad idea. This is where a desktop application can come in very handy. Throw in Automator and iCal, and you won't even have to remember to do your own backup; most of the necessary steps can be handled automatically.

Here's my setup (which is admittedly Mac-centric; recommendations about how to do something similar in Windows or Linux are welcome in the comments): My campus email is set to forward automatically to my GMail account, and delete the message as soon as it's forwarded. I've configured my GMail account so that I can send mail from my campus account, using the campus servers (n.b. this seems to work only for the web version of GMail; if you need to send a message from your campus's servers from a mobile device, you'll have to log in to your campus account directly).

Then I introduced a desktop client. I've chosen to use Mail.app, but any desktop Check GMail event client should do. I've configured my GMail account to allow POP access, and set up a POP account in Mail.app. Once a day, I check my mail using the desktop application, mark it all as read, and drag it to a folder labeled "Backed up GMail." This creates an offline archive of my entire account, so if GMail's servers are behaving strangely, or even if I have no internet connectivity, I can still access older messages if needed. I've also created a program using Automator that checks mail, and used iCal to schedule it (all I had to do was set the alarm type to "open file" and then direct iCal to the program I created). So I don't have to remember to back up my mail; my computer does the bulk of the work at a set time each day. If I don't have the computer on at that time, it all happens the next time I power on. Since I use TimeMachine on a regular basis, my messages are also backed up to an external drive.

What system do you use to be sure your email is backed up on a regular basis? Or do you not find it necessary to back up your email? Let's hear from you in the comments.

[The lead image in this post is by Flickr user Remko van Dokkum and is Creative Commons licensed. The remaining images are by the author, and are also CC licensed.]

Comments

1. nmhouston - August 06, 2010 at 02:38 pm

Great post! Some suggestions for PC users can be found here: http://chronicle.com/blogPost/How-to-Back-Up-Your-Cloud/23933/

2. acavender - August 06, 2010 at 02:43 pm

Thanks--and thanks for the link! (You'd think I'd have remembered that one....)

3. hasslera - August 09, 2010 at 11:15 am

As a person interested in security and privacy, I worry about institutional email being stored off campus.

4. george_h_williams - August 09, 2010 at 11:49 am

@hasslera: You might be interested in this ProfHacker post from Ethan Watrall, "Understanding FERPA & Educational Records Disclosure."

Procedures and expectations vary from campus to campus. As Ethan writes in comment #22: "[C]hecking with the person (or people) who are officially responsible for FERPA stuff at your university is the best way to go."

5. oh_richard - August 09, 2010 at 11:53 am

I used to be worried about the privacy of this as well. However, many schools have moved to having students use a school provided gmail account hosted on the gmail servers, instead of an outlook/exchange account hosted on the school's servers. Thus, when a student emails me about their grades, or when I email back an assignment with a grade, these emails are stored on a gmail server.

I don't know all the FERPA issues involved in this, but would guess school's doing this have considered it carefully, and would list reasons for the move to be
1) a password is used on all accounts, and
2) the gmail server is probably more secure as well as more reliable than the school server, as google has a far larger IT staff to manage security, configuration, reliability... issues. Following that, saving a backup on your password-protected computer would be in line with both.

If I used gmail for work (and I think about it sometimes), there are instructions online (http://www.labnol.org/internet/backup-gmail-emails-online/13477/) for ways to do the above with a PC, and backup to Thunderbird, an open-source email client. That's how I would do it if I used gmail for work. The main thing that makes me hesitate is the calendar functions - syncing a gmail and outlook calendar used to be tricky, and I don't know if it's gotten much better... is anyone doing this?

Since I find the "folder" approach a little easier than the "tagging" approach for work emails, in outlook I export folders to an access database or excel spreadsheet. Neither saves attachments to the emails, however, but you can use a vba script in outlook (http://www.fontstuff.com/outlook/oltut01.htm) to do this. Not elegant... but it is easier to save and to access emails this way than using the outlook archive feature (which does save attachments, but outlook sometimes chokes on opening the archived pst file).

6. evergreeners - August 09, 2010 at 12:57 pm

First off, I love Gmail, and use it for my personal email.

I'd like to ask others if using an outside service like Gmail to send and receive email, even if the campus servers are hosting, is appropriate in a state system.

Our state has some pretty tight Public Records laws. I worry about using off-campus services for what is technically a public, state-owned record.

7. george_h_williams - August 09, 2010 at 01:02 pm

@evergreeners: The best answer to what you're worried about will be provided by "the person (or people) who are officially responsible for FERPA stuff at your university" (to quote Ethan Watrall from his ProfHacker post on FERPA).

8. acavender - August 09, 2010 at 03:44 pm

@oh_richard Thanks for the link on PC/Thunderbird. I'm afraid I don't know how well GCal will play with Outlook's calendaring. I've never really been an Outlook user.

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