From Gmail to Fastmail

Email is crucial to me, I can’t even remember the last day I didn’t check my inbox. It’s my preferred channel for communicating and interacting with other people “electronically”. Like many developers I also use emails to keep track of the activity of all the projects I contribute to. I also receive all sorts of emails from machines, sometime server alerts or even from my Arduino powered home automation. Finding a good email provider is a hard task. You need a company you can trust to receive, manage and deliver all your emails especially when you have more than 80k+ emails in total (like I do).

In this article I’m going to do a quick overview of the reasons I chose Fastmail as my new email provider.

A bit of history

I bought the domain name in 2003 and at the time I was building my first hosting company so I naturally started to self host all my emails on a server I owned. I remember starting with a qmail, vpopmail, spamassassin and squirrelmail stack and it was a lot of fun. I eventually started to host friend’s emails too but after doing so for few years it really became clear that doing things right with email is hard. It requires a lot of work to keep spam away (RBL, greylisting, …) and to be nice with other SMTP servers that may basically refuse any messages originating from your server for no obvious reason.

The Gmail experience

While I started university around 2005 I had less and less time to spend managing my email server and keeping spam out of my inbox became even more complicated. By the time almost everyone I knew had already switched to Gmail and in early 2006 Google Apps was launched. The promise was simple: a Gmail experience with your own domain name, for free. A cool user interface with IMAP support and a spam-free inbox? I was sold.

Over time Google Apps gained ads, IMAP was working less reliably and I felt more like the product than the customer. I’ve tried to self-host my emails again quite a few times but these attempts failed for various reasons, the main one being that I was lazy.

Getting my data back under control

In the past months we’ve had a lot of scary revelations about privacy violations, the biggest being of course the NSA spying scandal. It became urgent to regain control of my data. I could have used GPG for exchanging privately with more people but encrypting everything is complicated especially considering the number of my contacts that are not used to it.

It was time to find a better email provider. At this point it was clear to me that choosing a non-free provider was the best deal. I would finally be able to enjoy a great service while not having the hassle of managing everything myself again. After few days of research for the best provider, my attention was drawn on Fastmail.

Fastmail is nothing new. The company was founded in 1999 and they’re still alive today, and rather healthy. The company was bought by Opera in 2010 and Fastmail former employees bought the company back in 2013. What I really like about them is that they only do email and they do it well.

Their privacy policy is really short and comprehensible, far away from most providers. And since they are an Australian company they are subject to Australian law which has strong privacy laws in relation to email.

Yet they surprisingly run their main servers in the US and not in Australia but as stated in a post on their blog, the location of their server doesn’t make them subject to US laws because they are an Australian company. But this seems to be true only for their customers living in the USA. From my understanding their statement contradicts the Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that allows the NSA to conduct an investigation if the target user is not located in the USA. Yet it needs to be confirmed since I’m not a lawyer.

Anyway I really wish they opt to host some of their servers outside the USA in the future.

As noted in our recently updated privacy policy, we are an Australian company subject to Australian law. We are required to disclose information about specific individual accounts to properly authorised Australian law enforcement with the appropriate supporting documentation, which means a warrant signed by an Australian judge. We do not co-operate with any kind of blanket surveillance, monitoring or “fishing expeditions”, and we do not give out user information to anyone outside Australia.

Nevertheless they take privacy and security very seriously, SSL/TLS is mandatory, emails are replicated off-site in Iceland (where they own a bunch of servers) and they use full-disk encryption just in case. Pretty much like Lavabit but without some of the downsides. They even allow you to create alternative passwords (OTP, OTP 1h, SMS, Google Authenticator) which can be very useful when using unsecure computers. But still, even with this level of security there is still room for unauthorized people to read your emails. I strongly urge you to use PGP if you really need to protect your conversations.

The webmail

Usually I prefer reading my emails using a desktop client with IMAP capabilities because I’ve not been impressed by any webmail I’ve used so far. But it’s nice to have one when you’re on the go.

I must admit this is the first time I was frankly impressed by a webmail. It really feels like it’s a desktop client, trust me. It’s responsive, supports tons of keyboard shortcuts and it works equally well on mobile (but with gestures!). The look is professional and clean, it’s a pleasure to use.

Taking the leap

I went for an Enhanced account (now called Standard) with a two months free trial. The migration from Google Apps was painless even to try Fastmail out. Follow these simple steps to migrate seamlessly without losing any email in the process.

If you plan to signup for an account it would be awesome if you could use my referral link so I can maybe save few bucks during my next subscription and you’ll get 10% off*. Thanks!*

Step 1: Redirecting everything

The first step was to create few personalities to handle all my email addresses (personal, work, …) and forward every new incoming email to my new Fastmail inbox using their provided alias (which is also your login). If you’re like me and you own your own domain, don’t forget to adjust your SPF records to be able to send emails from your Fastmail account in addition to your current email provider.

Step 2: Preparing your account

If you’re finally ready to use Fastmail as you main email provider you’ll need to configure your Virtual Domains so that Fastmail knows which domains to handle for you. This is easy and only take few seconds to setup.

Step 3: Changing your DNS

Change the MX records of your domain(s) to the Fastmail ones and adjust your SPF records (if any). This might take some time (depending of the TTL of your MX records) to be fully functional. It’s a good practice to reduce the TTL before doing the actual switch.

Step 4: Moving all your emails

Use the built-in Migrate IMAP feature (available in the advanced settings) to copy all your emails from your old provider. This operation can take a very very long time. It took two days to copy my 5GB of emails out of Google Apps.

You might notice a lot of duplicated emails caused by Gmail’s non-standard way of handling folders and labels but don’t be afraid. Fastmail managed to provide a tool to do exactly that. Just launch the Mass delete/Download/Remove duplicates tool to deal with it.

Done! Now say goodbye to your old provider and enjoy Fastmail features that will make you more productive.

I hope you found this article useful and that it gave you an interesting overview of Fastmail. For more information you can read their blog, consult their status page and maybe follow them on twitter. There’s also a HN thread.


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