Safeguard your email address by registering a domain

A primary email address tied to your email provider could set you up for a great deal of inconvenience if they shut down. Registering your own domain helps control your email regardless of which company you’re currently using.

On Thursday, 8th August 2013, a secure email service provider called Lavabit suddenly suspended operations. Its founder, Ladar Levison, wrote in an open letter on the company’s website that he would rather shut the company down than “become complicit in crimes against the American people.” Although Mr Levison took what he believed to be a principled stand, Lavabit customers were understandably angry at being blocked from accessing their emails. Without warning, long-time customers lost years worth of archived messages. Active users who relied on the company to host their primary email now face the inconvenience of updating their contacts and online accounts with a new address.

One may be tempted to think that a simple solution would be just to set up another email account elsewhere. After all, there are many free email providers offering reliable services. If you’re in this camp, ask yourself how your day-to-day life will be affected if you suddenly and unexpectedly lose access to your email account.

  • Do you conduct business over email? How much productivity will be lost re-establishing communication with clients?
  • Have you saved passwords, document attachments and important account information in your webmail folders? What happens if you can’t log in to the webmail account?
  • How much time will it take to inform all your relatives, friends and contacts of your new email address, especially if your address book was also hosted with the lost email service?
  • How easy is it to reset the passwords of your other online accounts (internet banking, Facebook, Skype, etc.) without that lost email address?

Keeping control of your email address

There are some important lessons we can learn from the Lavabit incident and two things can save you from similar trouble:

  1. Register your own domain and link it to your email provider. That way, you can switch providers while retaining the same email address.
  2. Do not rely on webmail as your only method of accessing your messages. Set-up an email client on your computer and regularly download copies of your email.

Exactly how you go about using your own domain and downloading emails depends on your existing set-up and requirements. I’ll give a quick overview in this post but please note that it only briefly touches on some steps which can be quite technical.

Step 1: Register your own domain

An email address under your own domain keeps it independent of the email host. Your current email provider may go out of business, get bought-out or become unreliable but having your own domain means that you can switch to another while retaining the same email address.

To get an email address under your own domain, you first need to register a name with a domain name registrar. (See this post for more information.)

You can register your domain with the following companies but a web search for “domain registration” will bring up a list of other providers:

  • Another Cup of Coffee Limited – we’ll handle the details of domain registration under your name for £9.99 GBP per year
  • 123-reg.co.uk – a popular UK-based registrar and hosting company
  • namecheap – a US-based registrar that seems to have a good reputation for customer service (I personally haven’t used them)
  • Network Solutions – one of the oldest and well-known registrars but quite expensive

Regardless of which domain registrar you choose, the whole process should only take a few minutes to complete. However, depending on their system, it could take a few hours to a day or more before it’s available for use.

Step 2: Link your domain to your email provider

Linking your domain to an email provider can be intimidating for non-technical people. To make matters more complicated, some end up with different combinations of registrar, free web-based email, business email hosting, and web hosting. Everything can be under one roof or you may have different companies handling each component. The exact steps needed will depend on your subscription packages so covering them in a short tutorial is not practical. (That’s why companies like us exist!)

In general, your registrar will give you an online control panel. This lets you specify settings to hand over control of the domain’s email to an external email provider. Alternatively, it may offer an email forwarding service that automatically redirects messages to another address, such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail.

Changing email providers then becomes a matter of adjusting the control panel to reflect the new company’s settings.

Here are some help pages for a few of the popular email providers:

Step 3: Download backups of your emails

For many people, their main method of checking and sending email is through their provider’s webmail interface. It’s very convenient because there are no programs to set up on your computer. All that’s needed is to open up a web browser and log in. The downside is that you do not retain any copies of your messages. As some of the Lavabit customers found, you will lose everything if the provider suddenly ceases operations.

The solution is to set up an email program (also known as an email client), like Mac Mail, Microsoft Outlook or Mozilla Thunderbird to download emails from your server. Even if you prefer webmail, periodically connecting from your email client ensures that you save the latest messages on your computer’s hard-drive.

Most email providers offer you a choice of ‘POP’ or ‘IMAP’ as mechanisms for retrieving your email. POP will simply download all the messages and if set in your email client, delete the messages after they’re read. IMAP synchronizes your email client with the server so it copies the same structure of read, unread, sent messages and saved folders. (This Rackspace article gives more detail on the difference between the two.) I find IMAP to be the most convenient option. If you mostly use webmail, you should also use IMAP if it’s available.

Too much trouble?

These steps might seem daunting but you don’t need to be a computer expert to get everything set-up. Business users usually have more complex configurations that may need an IT administrator to get everything working properly. However, for personal users and micro-businesses with simple needs, a little bit or research and background reading should allow you to get the job done without any help.

Of course, if you’d rather not go to the trouble of doing this yourself, we’ll be very happy provide you with a quotation. This is not a big budget job as the whole process is fairly quick for those familiar with what’s required.

Some background on the Lavabit incident

I’ll make a slight digression from technical matters as the Lavabit incident may have wider implications for anyone using US-based internet services.

Lavabit offered encrypted email services and was reported in the press to have been used by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Unlike most email systems, the company’s technology meant that there was no way for them to directly read user emails. While we may never know the truth, it seems likely they were ordered to participate in ongoing surveillance in a form that the founder believed to be against the United States Constitution. Levison was issued with a ‘gag order’ preventing him from giving details on the matter. Shortly after the Lavabit news broke, Silent Circle, another secure email provider, pre-emptively shut down its own service in order to protect its customers.

There is increasing industry speculation that the US government’s surveillance is jeopardizing the country’s businesses since they can no longer be trusted to protect their users’ privacy.

It’s clear that no matter which country you’re in, if your email is hosted with a US provider, you need to assume that the US government will want (or already has) backdoor access to them. Whether or not this is acceptable is a discussion outside the scope of this post. Regardless of where you stand, it’s important to realize that the industry landscape is changing and we can no longer be complacent about safeguarding our data.

Q: Can I use an email program such Outlook to send bulk mail?

Quite a few clients have asked if they can run an email marketing campaign through our servers using an email program like Microsoft Outlook. The main thing to note is that email accounts provided by our hosting company, Rackspace, are not really to be used for sending out bulk emails. Although it is technically possible this method is not recommended for several reasons:

  1. You may breach Rackspace’s terms of service
  2. It’s more error-prone and therefore the results are unreliable.
  3. There is no way to gather metrics such as view and click-through statistics.
  4. There is a risk of getting your domain blacklisted as a spam sender by ISPs. Once you’re on the blacklists, some or all of your email accounts will keep ending up in the recipient’s spam filters. It may be very difficult to get off the blacklists.

However, many of our clients are small and micro-business who send out nowhere near the levels of bulk mail as many larger corporations. I’ve therefore contacted Rackspace to ask what are the allowable limits under their Rackspace Cloud service. Based on their reply, you should be safe if you:

  • Send no more than 250 messages per 20 min
  • Send no more than 5,000 messages per day
  • Include an unsubscribe link in the messages (and act on the request)
  • Send only to people who’ve given you permission to contact them about this

Nevertheless, I recommend that you a dedicated bulk emailing service to send to your distribution lists. The catch is that there’s a fee and the legitimate ones are very strict with how you’ve gathered the email addresses. (They won’t allow you to send to people who haven’t given you their permission.) However, the messages are more professional and you’ll be able to track statistics such as the number of emails that have been opened, unsubscribed or bounced.

We use such a system and if you’re interested, I’ll be happy to put together a quotation for you. As a rough idea, our profile of clients tend to average approximately £10 per campaign to use the system.

For your reference, Rackspace have a Knowledge Center article that states the following:

If your application is going to be sending out single messages (or less than 25 messages at a time), we highly suggest using SMTP. SMTP is a better option for sending out small amounts of mail. If you have questions on configuring your application to use SMTP, please visit with a member of our support team.
On the other hand, you may need to use our mail relays if your application will be sending out messages to a larger mailing list. If that’s the case, please review the following rules for sending messages through our mail relays:
1. Your message must have a working unsubscribe link, which must be demonstrated to us upon request.
2. The message must have a valid Return Path. This means the message must have a valid from address listed in the message.
3. The message of the email can only refer to the domain the message is being sent from. This means “DomainA.com” cannot send messages for “DomainB.com.”
4. You must obtain Rackspace Site’s advance approval for any bulk or commercial e-mail, which will not be given unless you are able to demonstrate, at a minimum, that your intended recipients have given their consent to receive e-mail via some affirmative means, such as an opt-in procedure, your procedures for soliciting consent include reasonable means to ensure that the person giving consent is the owner of the e-mail address for which the consent is given, you retain evidence of the recipient’s consent in a form that may be promptly produced on request, and you honor the recipient’s and Rackspace Site’s requests to produce consent evidence within 72 hours of receipt of the request.
5. We do not allow bulk or commercial e-mail being sent to more than five-thousand (5,000) users per day at a rate of 250 messages every 20 minutes.
6. Rackspace Sites may test and otherwise monitor your compliance with its requirements, including requesting opt-in information from a random sample of your list at any time.

Apple Mail setup

Email Setup Instructions for Apple Mail

Your Settings

If you are hosting your email with our preferred hosting company, Rackspace Cloud, the settings for your email server are as follows.
Incoming server: secure.emailsrvr.com
Outgoing server: secure.emailsrvr.com
Username: Your full email address
Password: This will be sent to you separately

Setting up a new account in Apple Mail

  1. Open Apple Mail and in the menu, click Mail > Preferences
  2. Click the Accounts setting
  3. Click the + (Create an account) button
  4. Mac Mail Accounts pane

  5. The Add Account settings will appear
  6. Mac Mail Add Accounts

  7. Enter your Full Name, Email Address and Password, then select Continue
  8. Set the Incoming Mail Server settings
  9. Account type: select IMAP
    Description: this is up to you but I suggest you enter your company name
    Incoming Mail Server: type secure.emailsrvr.com
    User Name: type your user name
    Passwrord: type your password

  10. Select Continue and if the details you entered were correct, it will take you to the Outgoing Mail Server screen
  11. Set the Outgoing Mail Server settings
  12. Description: this is up to you but I suggest you enter your company name
    Outgoing Mail Server: secure.emailsrvr.com
    Check Use only this server
    Check Use Authentication
    User Name: type your user name
    Password: type your password

  13. Select Continue and if the details you entered were correct, it will take you to the Account Summary screen
  14. Select Take account online and click Create
  15. Close the Account Settings by clicking the red close button on the top-left of the screen.

If the tests at step 7 or 9 failed, the most likely reasons are:
The user name was entered incorrectly. For example, you may have only entered the part before the @ sign. On our system, the user name is made up of the while email address. e.g. [email protected]
The password was entered incorrectly. If you copied and pasted from an email, you may have inadvertently included a space character.

Editing an existing account in Apple Mail

  1. Open Apple Mail and in the menu, click Mail > Preferences
  2. Click the Accounts setting
  3. Select the Account Information tab
  4. Mac Mail Account Information pane

  5. Set Incoming Mail Server to: secure.emailsrvr.com
  6. Under Outgoing Mail Server, click the drop-down and select Edit server list
  7. Click the + button and a new server should appear (a grey note to ‘Double-click to enter’ should appear in the Server Name column.
  8. Mac Mail Server pane

  9. Double-click it and enter: secure.emailsrvr.com
  10. Select Advanced
  11. Use these settings
  12. Set the Use default ports option
    Check Use Secure Sockets Layer
    Authentication: Password
    Enter your usual username and password

  13. Click OK
  14. Make sure secure.emailsrvr.com is set under Outgoing Mail Server
  15. Close the Mail preferences window

BlackBerry mobile email options for small businesses

In response to my post about running your own email server, a reader mentioned the BlackBerry mobile email service. According to his computer consultant, running Exchange (Microsoft’s messaging and collaboration software) as an in-house email server is necessary for the BlackBerry. Coincidentally, this subject came up with three other clients over the past year so there’s obviously another common misunderstanding here—they were going to install a company server for the same reason.

The consultant was partly correct, but it really depends on your needs. BlackBerry has two types of solutions:

  • BlackBerry Enterprise Solution, which is aimed at larger corporations
  • BlackBerry Internet Service for personal users and small to medium-sized businesses

The BlackBerry Enterprise Solution is designed to extend a company’s in-house email system. Choosing this solution does indeed require Microsoft Exchange. (There is also a version for Lotus Domino and Novell GroupWise, two other commercial messaging systems.) Keep in mind that you’ll also need to buy and install the Blackberry Enterprise Server. As you can imagine, this route can get complicated and expensive.

Smaller businesses should consider the BlackBerry Internet Service, where your mobile operator takes care of the complicated software. (To use the terminology in my main article, they will host your BlackBerry service.) Here, you simply use a BlackBerry handset together with a regular email account (say from your internet service provider or Gmail). All you need do is configure the settings using the mobile operator’s web-based control panel. Emails will then be forwarded to your BlckBerry handset.

After learning of the options, all three clients chose the Internet Service. So far they’re happy with it.

Should you run your own email server?

A common misconception amongst small-business owners is that you need your own email server. For most companies I’ve encountered, this is just not necessary.

Before continuing, it may help if I explain some basics. There are essentially two ways to have email:

  • Hosted email. This is when someone else manages the email server. If you have a personal Gmail or Yahoo email, it is ‘hosted’ by another company, in this case Google or Yahoo. The same is true if you use the email address provided by your internet service provider or website hosting company.
  • You run your own email server. Many medium-sized and large organisations take this route. They have a server room or data centre space, and an I.T. department who takes care of the servers.

Small-business owners sometimes feel that they need to emulate bigger companies by installing their own email server, perhaps assuming that it’s the way things are ‘supposed to be’. This is unsurprising since founders often come from a corporate environment where this set-up is normal. Furthermore, computer services companies love suggesting this route because it’s a great source of income: not only do they supply you with the hardware and software, they also get continued work through ongoing support.

Nevertheless, while email is critical for most companies, having an in-house mail server is a distraction from running the business. Do you have the resources to keep yours running reliably? Here are some examples of the many worries you’ll have if you take care of your own email server:

  • What happens to your messages if you lose power, say, from a blown fuse or road works?
  • Will the new cleaner unplug the cable to use for the vacuum cleaner?
  • What if the server is stolen during a break-in?
  • Do you have spare parts in case a component fails?
  • Can you keep the server virus-free?
  • Are you running regular backups?
  • Which software updates can you apply without causing problems?
  • Will the server overheat in the summer?

Compare this with a hosted service. Reputable providers house the servers in a data centre with backup power generators, building security, air conditioners and a round-the-clock technical team. The chances are that your email service will be more robust with them than in a computer sitting in the corner of your office.

If you think you genuinely need your own server, make sure that you’re aware of the implications. Don’t let your technology advisor push you towards this direction without a clear explanation.