There are numerous reasons users may choose to use Google’s GMail system rather than native Birdhouse mail services. GMail provides an unparalleled webmail experience which small hosts such as Birdhouse just can’t provide. They also provide gargantuan mail quotas of 8GB per account (free), with even more available on a paid basis. And they have excellent spam and virus protections built in.
GMail accounts can be set up receive mail from your personal domain account, and to reply from your custom addresses as well (correspondents won’t know that you’re using a GMail account).
As with desktop mail applications, GMail can be configured to check mail from multiple accounts (you might want to use a single GMail login to manage both your work and personal email, for instance).
If you prefer to use GMail’s services with a desktop mail client rather than their webmail system, you can configure Outlook, Mail.app, Thunderbird, or other mail application to send and receive mail to/from GMail rather than Birdhouse. This way you get all the advantages of a desktop client, and all the advantages of GMail’s mail system.
There are several ways to switch to using GMail. Depending on how “complete” you want the conversion to be, these may either be extremely easy, or fairly involved.
The simplest way is to set up an email “forwarder” in your cPanel’s Forwarders section, so that any mail destined for your account is simply passed over to your GMail account. This method can generally be done by the account holder without any tech support.
Note that if you do this, mail will both be forwarded and stored in your physical mailbox on Birdhouse. But since you’ll no longer be checking mail on Birdhouse, your physical mailbox will fill up after a while, resulting in your account going over quota. The solution is to delete your physical mailbox in cPanel, keeping only the forwarder. If you do this, make sure you’ve retrieved and safely stored a local or backup copy of all of your Birdhouse mail first!
The forwarding solution gives you the flexibility to put some of your domain mail users on GMail, while leaving others on traditional Birdhouse mail service, or to migrate users over one at a time.
Configuring GMail to Use Custom Addresses
With just a forwarder in place, you can have mail for email@example.com routed to firstname.lastname@example.org. But when Bob replies to those messages from GMail, they’ll come from email@example.com. You can configure GMail to reply from your custom address instead. In GMail, click on Settings, then Accounts and Import, and find the section labeled “Send Mail As.” Click on “Send Mail From Another Address.” GMail needs to confirm that you are the owner of the other address. Step through the wizard that comes up, and enter your Birdhouse domain mail address. When it asks about which SMTP server to use, select Send Through GMail. On the last step, GMail will send a confirmation message to the custom address with a confirmation code. Check your mail and paste the code into the last page of the wizard. You’ll now be able to send mail from GMail with your custom address.
Migrating Your Organization
If you provide domain emails to multiple people in an organization and you want to move them all to GMail, you can set up forwarders for everyone as above, or you can go the “enterprise” route, called Google Apps for Your Domain. The system gives you not just email addresses, but integrated/unified calendaring with Google Calendar and other goodies. That page implies that Google Apps is only available on a paid basis, but Google also offers a Standard Edition which is free for up to 50 accounts.
Google Apps works by changing DNS records, which results in mail being routed directly to GMail without ever passing through Birdhouse. It also means you’ll get a control panel at Google from which you can configure and manage other addresses for team members. This is ideal, but it requires that everyone in your organization move to GMail on the same day (changing the DNS record means that all of your emails will be routed to GMail simultaneously).
Switching to Google Apps means you’ll need to coordinate the move with Birdhouse – please let us know if you intend to do this. It also means you may need a tech person on hand to help change the mail server settings in all of your organization’s mail clients (including mobile phones).
Importing Old Mail to Your GMail Account
Whether you convert via Forwarders or Google Apps, you have two choices regarding your old mail. You can either:
1) Leave all of your old mail stored in your desktop app, essentially making a “clean break.” This may be inconvenient at the start, but is the easiest approach. After a few weeks you’ll have all of your current contacts and mail threads happening in GMail and it won’t be much of an issue. You can always return to your desktop client to retrieve old messages.
2) Plan to have all of your old mail migrated to GMail. There are several ways to do this. The two primary methods are:
2a) If you’ve been keeping a lot of mail on the Birdhouse server, you can migrate it by going into GMail’s settings and setting up a POP account. Configure it to get mail from Birdhouse. If you have a lot of mail, this process may take hours or days! Once all of your old mail has been migrated, you can turn off this feature.
2b) If most of your mail is stored in a desktop mail client and you want to upload it to GMail, configure your desktop client to communicate with GMail via IMAP. Then you can simply drag mail from your local client up to your GMail account.
Google for more tips on migrating old mail to GMail.
Importing Your Address Book to GMail
Google Contacts accepts data imports in CSV or VCard format. Go to your desktop address book and look for the Export option in the File menu and export to one of those format. On the GMail side, go to Contacts, click on More Actions, and select Import. Navigate to the .csv or vcard file you exported. The rest should be self-guiding.