File Under: Software & Tools

Simple Solutions to Help You Avoid the Google Fail Whale

google fail whaleRecently some high-profile people have found themselves suddenly locked out of their Google Accounts. The lockouts have started some rumbling in the blogosphere that maybe, just maybe, we’re all a little to reliant on Gmail and the rest of Google’s very handy, but potentially unreliable, services.

It’s about time we started waking up.

This may be the only time I’ve ever whole-heartedly agreed with Richard Stallman, but the Free Software advocate’s message that handing all your data over to the cloud is “worse than stupidity,” is dead on.

The difference is that while Stallman thinks the cloud itself is a bad idea, I just think putting all your eggs in one basket — whether that basket is your hard drive or your Gmail account — is stupid. Hard drives fail, Google does too — use both, trust neither.

How do I do that, you ask? Well, our How To Wiki has some ways you can grab a local copy of the Gmail messages using a desktop e-mail client. That’s a good start, but it requires some manual effort and, if you’re like me, you’ll probably get lazy after a while and stop.

I’ve been wrestling with the backup dilemma for quite a while now and after much tinkering I’ve come up with a three-pronged approach that hopefully ensures that, even if Google were to shut down my account, I wouldn’t miss a beat.

  • Create some backup accounts — This one is so obvious I’m always surprised to hear that not everyone does it. Gmail is free and lets you have an unlimited number accounts… so open a second one. Mine is just my usual account with .bak appended to the username. Once that’s set up, login to your primary account and either enable forwarding for all messages (Settings >> Forwarding and POP/IMAP) or create filters to only forward the messages you really care about. Then just send those messages on to the backup account.

    I use my main Gmail account to manage five e-mail addresses, so I used the filters method and only back up a couple of them (the others are already backed up on the original domain’s mail server). I also have the forwarding set up to pass messages along to a Yahoo Mail account, an account on my own server and even a good old Hotmail account (or Windows Live Mail as it’s known these days).

    This setup is like a good investment portfolio, think of it as e-mail diversification — your’re hedging your bets by spreading your mail around to several servers. If something goes wrong on one account, just login to another.

    I don’t login to the other accounts much, so they aren’t as carefully filtered, organized and de-spammed as my main Gmail account, but at least my mail is there.

  • Automate local backups — Using a desktop client like Thunderbird to backup Gmail is simple, you just plugin your username and password and you’re done. The problem is you have to remember to launch Thunderbird from time to time so it fetches your new mail. I tried it and found that I did it about once a month. Not good enough. So I ended up wrestling my way through Fetchmail and using some cron scripts to automatically grab my mail every night.

    Fetchmail isn’t for everyone and using it to only make local copies of mboxes is a bit like hitting a fly with a sledge hammer. Another option is Getmail, sort of a lightweight cousin to Fetchmail and it might be worth a try if Fetchmail seems like overkill. The Getmail process is detailed on the How To Wiki.

  • The other stuff — Remember, Gmail isn’t the only thing you lose if Google locks you out of your account — Reader, Docs, Calendar and all the rest use the same login data. This is where things get a bit trickier. I use Google Docs itself as a remote backup, so I already have the ordinals safely stashed both on my local machine, local backup hard drive and on a remote subversion server where I track changes.

    If that level of paranoia is too much for you, or if you use Google Docs more heavily, be sure to check out our tutorial on using the GData API to automatically backup your Google Docs files.

    Google Reader I backup by hand, periodically exporting my subscriptions as an OPML file.

    Google Calendar is the most difficult, and truth be told I don’t have a backup of that data. That doesn’t bother me since about the only thing in my calendar is the Red Sox schedule, but if you use your calendar you’ll need to backup that data.

    You could try syncing your calendars using Mozilla’s Sunbird and Lightening Calendar tools, but frankly that’s manual, messy and doesn’t always work very well. I’m open to ideas on this one, let me know your suggestions in the comments.

I’ll be the first to admit that my system has some flaws (particularly the calendar backups, which don’t exist), but for the most part I’m pretty confident this would carry me through most of the disaster scenarios I’ve envisioned, including being locked out of my primary Google Account.

Of course I’ve left out some services that I don’t use, like Google’s Picasa, Blogger, GTalk, Notebook and others. If you have ideas on how to back up those, or if you have ideas on how I can improve my own system, be sure to post your thoughts in the comments.

[Update: If you do get locked out of your Google Account for some reason, be prepared to wait. The Google Help Center doesn’t have much to offer, save “Google has detection measures in place that flag accounts experiencing abnormal usage, or accounts that have been compromised.” Account reinstatement can take 10 minutes to 24 hours according to that page, but people who’ve had it happen report waiting as long as a week.

The two pages Google offers to reinstate your account are available here and, for reinstatement, here. Be prepared to answers the questions you filled out when you created your account.]

[image by ivanlanin, Flickr]

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