A good reason never to use your broadband ISP’s email service..

Once upon a time, Google offered internet service providers a branded version of Gmail and associated Apps.  For a while, all was good. Then Google decided it no longer wanted to offer the service and gave the ISPs a deadline to get the hell out of town.

Unfortunately for some, this has proven to be a complete and total farce. Virgin Media (who happen to be my broadband provider of choice – no, seriously, and I’m currently happy with them) appear to have flummoxed their own email service after migrating away from Google.  One issue has been Virgin’s spam filters blocking legitimate mail.  Now an argument has broken out over spoofed emails.

(But don’t worry, Virgin Media, BSkyB also had problems moving away from Google – although they migrated to Yahoo!)

Let me tell you something.  Managing email is bloody hard work.  It has increasingly been made difficult over the past two decades with the increase in spam, phishing and malware.  And when you’re dealing with poorly designed/implemented email clients (Outlook stands out as being one such culprit despite having some fairly decent features) on top of that, you’re asking for trouble.

And this is why many broadband ISPs outsource their email service to third parties such as Yahoo!, Google, etc. because they know full well that it takes a lot of effort to manage and maintain many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of email addresses.

I’ve been running mail servers for close to 20 years.  And I can tell you that, even managing small number of people/mailboxes, it can be mad.  Back at the Moving Picture Company – around 2002 – I migrated mail from an ancient 486 machine running an obsolete OS to a more modern and updated OS and upgraded Exim.  SpamAssassin was moved to its own server because the thing was a PITA when it came to using resources.  When you’re scanning lots and lots of incoming email, it pays to offload these resources to other machines.  Add Mailman to the mix to provide mailing lists for individual projects, and already you’re juggling a delicate service.  Things were made more complicated when Microsoft Exchange was brought in for business services.  It was expensive, required specialist knowledge, and a complete pig.  I proposed the much cheaper MDaemon (if you were going to run a Windows mail server, you might as well use something decent) which offered pretty much the same features at less cost and fewer resources.  But nope – MPC management thought Microsoft were wonderful and kissed their bottoms to kingdom come.

At Imagineer Systems, I faced the open source Zimba mail server.  It offered calendaring facilities and a reasonable web interface.  But boy, was it a resource pig.  It ran as a virtual server under Xen on a server based in the US and despite upping resources, it was still a pig even for a small company such as Imagineer.  So I persauded them to move over to Google Apps.

I’ve been a Google Apps for Work customer since around 2007 when it was first a limited feature beta.  I even spent a little while as a Top Contributor on the product forums helping out users of the free version.  But when Google started to add premium features for prices I’d couldn’t believe (seriously, it’s one of the lowest cost mail systems out there – plus you get collaborative word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. included). I use a web browser to access my mail.  I read mail and compose mail from within my browser.  I’m practically online all the time, but there is the option to read mail offline if I wish.  I also have access to standard mail protocols such as IMAP and POP3.  I tend to use Gmail’s own iOS app on the iPhone.  For the iPad Pro, I use Apple’s own mail client because Google are extraordinarily slow at updating all their iOS apps to use the higher resolution of the iPad Pro.

But even before Google Apps I’ve had my own email address at this domain and have hosted all my own mail myself.  I’ve gone through so many ISPs over the years that it’s made it necessary to do so.  And this is the problem.  If you’re unhappy with your ISP and you want to move – you’ll lose access to your ISP mail.

One of the biggest problems with ISP email – as well as the ability to scale and keeping everything running smoothly – is that one can’t use additional security features such as two factor authentication.

Even if an ISP offers webmail, I’m pretty sure they won’t offer two-factor authentication when logging in.  Do ISPs offer brute force protection for their accounts?  Many people are likely to be using exceptionally poor passwords.  And even more likely won’t change them every few months.

So people need to look into:

  • Buying their own domain.  A domain doesn’t have cost more than £5 per year, and in some cases it can be cheaper or even free.
  • Finding an email hosting provider.  There are few hosting providers that specialise in just hosting email.  You’re more likely to find a web hosting company that can provide you with your own server (probably running the excellent cPanel/WHM control panel system) for which you can run your own web site and email addresses.  Some provide a simple web hosting service, but you’ll need to look around to find what you need.  People can struggle if they take out their own server.
  • Using a password manager.  Use different passwords for different services (the password manager should be able to generate secure passwords – you shouldn’t need to remember them all – just the master password for your password vault).  Change passwords regularly.  Use two-factor authentication wherever possible.
  • Use Google Apps for Work.  Doesn’t have to be used for work!  You could start off with just one account and add more with the flexible option.  Prices are around £4 per user per month.  Includes 24/7 support.  And no adverts unlike regular Gmail.  Offers two-factor authentication too.