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Monday, June 9, 2008

Google Apps: Hella IMAP

As the kids say in North Oakland and Berkeley, the IMAP service built into Google Apps and Gmail is "hella good." Why such a strong accolade? It is because Gmail is now the leading mass-market free email system, and adding IMAP to that free offering puts it over the top. With the Google Apps packaging and support for custom domain names, the system is tailor-made to accept the content of other repository-based enterprise accounts. This is an opportunity for Google to grab market share from Microsoft in the elusive small business category. And, it is an opportunity for small business IT specialists like Berkeley Logic to provide the services and support necessary to ensure a smooth transition to what looks like email nirvana in the cloud.

IMAP promotes Gmail into an efficient, standards-based email repository system. With IMAP one may use a client like Thunderbird or Outlook and not even see the Google advertising. This new, freely available IMAP server's feature list is extensive: search (one may "google" ones own email, easily finding old correspondence), carrier-class infrastructure, 6 Gb storage capacity, very large attachments, and the cost is literally zero.

Creating an alternative to Microsoft Exchange is a holy grail in the Open Source and ABM (Anybody But Microsoft) worlds. Thousands of huge enterprises around the world have a crack-like addiction to the email, shared folders, and calendaring functions of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. There is a continuous churn in companies relicensing Exchange and some big enterprises are looking to avoid the big hardware and software investment to go with an Exchange 2007 upgrade.

There are also thousands of small businesses (5 to 100 employees) in the United States that are using in-house implementations of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. Google Apps is aimed squarely at those small enterprises who don't use the advanced features of Exchange or could adapt to Google Calendar and Google Docs as a practical groupware solution.

I think the IMAP feature for Gmail released in late 2007 might just be the pixie dust needed to accelerate the advance of Google Apps for small businesses. With the availability of the feature-rich IMAP protocol for Gmail, it and Exchange now share a critical set of features that enables a smooth migration to Google Apps. Using a scripting language like Python or PHP, several developers, including Google, have already deployed web-based tools that transfers an email repository from Exchange to Google Apps using the IMAP protocol.

At Berkeley Logic we use a Linux-based tool called imapsync to write shell scripts that transfers cpanel-based IMAP email repositories to Gmail. Our imapsync server runs in the LMi.net data center directly connected to a high-speed Internet backbone. While this hot connection makes transfers go a lot quicker, we have found that one needs to be careful not to overload any IMAP server with multiple simultaneous transfers.

For home and small business users I think the greatest feature of Gmail is the fact the data is stored in the Google global "cloud" which is backed up by one of the world's most extensive data networks. This means that all that valuable personal and business data locked in personal hard drives doesn't have to be vulnerable to the eventuality of hardware failure. And, all of that old data all of a sudden becomes useful once again.

I became sold on this technology after I used Gmail IMAP to upload my old mail archives. I have managed to keep an email archive dating back to 1997. Using Thunderbird I was able to upload 57,000 old email messages into my All Mail and Sent folders. I should have used imapsync, which was thankfully found later, but this exercise helped me get used to the nuances of IMAP Gmail, such as the fact it doesn't store duplicate messages.

The ability to quickly find any old email is a stunning productivity-enhancer. Not only is much time saved looking for a critical document, but I have begun to use the feature to look for things I wouldn't have bothered with in the past. It definitely has made keeping that 57,000 message archive intact worth the effort.

We are definitely very excited about the possibilities that Gmail, Google Apps, IMAP and Thunderbird gives Berkeley Logic and our customers. We are now actively looking for more small businesses who want to switch over to what we believe is email nirvana in the cloud. We believe the safety, speed, search power, and the flexibility of Gmail and Google Apps provides a compelling solution for thousands of small businesses in the East Bay.

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