January 11, 2012

Gmail Backup

For most people, e-mail is a critical part of their life. Many important documents and collections of information can be stored there, the loss of which can be devastating. But we all assume that "since it's stored in the cloud, it must be safe, right?"

Well, yes and no.

While most companies have server-level backup and disaster recovery plans, they may not support account level recovery. So for example, if one of their data-centers burns down, everything can be safely restored to another data-center. But if the contents of your account are lost, there may be no way to get it back. This is generally true of Gmail*, although there are some cases where messages deleted as a result of a compromised (hacked) account may be able to be restored.

Because of this, it's critical that people provide their own backups of their e-mail accounts, and in fact all important information that is stored in "the cloud". There are various ways the information can be lost, the most common of which is a compromised (hacked) account, and the provider may not have a way to restore it.

For Gmail accounts, you have three primary backup paths to choose from:
  • An e-mail client (like Thunderbird, Outlook or Pocomail).
  • A stand-alone backup utility.
  • A cloud-based backup service.

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to using an e-mail client:
  • The saved messages can be easily viewed with the client.
  • The messages can be sorted or have other actions performed that Gmail may not support.
  • It may not be possible to do automated backups, you may have to manually open the client and do an update.
  • If may not be obvious where the messages are saved on the computer.
  • The file format may not be convenient to use by anything other than the e-mail client.
  • It may not be easy or obvious how to restore the messages back to a Gmail account.
  • Configuration errors could result in messages being deleted from from Gmail or the client when it synchronizes (using IMAP).

A stand-alone utility will have a different set of advantages and disadvantages:
  • It will be a smaller program than a full e-mail client.
  • The utility will probably be easier to setup and use than a full e-mail client.
  • The utility should provide an easy way to restore the backup.
  • The location where it stores the messages will be easier to determine so they can be included in normal computer backups.
  • The utility probably won't be able to view the messages (although, depending on the format, an e-mail client might be able to view the message files).

Finally, a cloud-based service has some things to consider:
  • It requires no local storage space on your computer.
  • It is probably fully automated with a regular schedule requiring no actions on your part.
  • The service may support backups of other Google services: Docs, contacts, etc.
  • If available, free accounts tend to be small (2G) and paid accounts are subscription based so the expense is ongoing.

There will be one further choice in a backup utility. You might use a generic POP or IMAP utility that will work with most any e-mail provider, or you might use one that's specifically designed to work with Gmail. The latter means it may do a better job of handling labels (which are not the same as folders) and other Gmail-specific attributes.

Additionally, be aware that most tools/services are account specific. That means you may only be able to restore to the specific account you were doing backups on. That's fine if you loose the contents of the account, you can just restore them. But if you loose the account itself (deleted, disabled, etc) and you can't restore to a new account, then the backup becomes worthless.

The following is a partial list of stand-alone utilities and cloud-based services you can use to backup your account. Some are much better than others. Some are free, some cost money. One of the big differentiators (and the reason several are rated "inadequate" is that some do not support restoring the backup to your account again. A backup without the ability to restore is pretty close to useless.

  • Recommended
    • Got Your Back - https://github.com/jay0lee/got-your-back/wiki
      This is the current best-in-class for a Gmail backup solution. It's supported, and written specifically for Gmail (which means proper handling of labels and other tags). It can restore to the original account, or a different account (if the original was lost). It's a command-line tool which is important to be able to run it as a scheduled task. It's only negative is that it's command-line only, there is no graphical interface for it (which may scare some users off). As an aside: this is the tool I use.
  • Acceptable
    • IMAPSize - http://www.broobles.com/imapsize/
      A free stand-alone program to backup and manage an e-mail account using IMAP. Very flexible, but treats labels as folders.
    • Backupify - http://www.backupify.com/
      A cloud-based subscription backup service (free for a 2G Gmail account) that handles GMail, Docs, Contacts, Sites, etc.
    • OwnMyCopyhttp://ownmycopy.com/
      This one appears to be full-featured (backup and restore, handles labels), it's a paid utility (which ranks it below a free one).
    • Beyond Inbox - http://www.beyondinbox.com/
      Backup utility that appears to be feature-rich (some really nice stuff). It's a paid utility, but the extra features may be worth the money to some people.
    • Backup Gmail - http://backupgmail.m4ss.net/
      A light-weight backup to your local computer. For Apple computers only.
  • Inadequate
    • MailStore - http://www.mailstore.com/
      A paid utility (free for home use) generic backup tool. Since it's generic it doesn't fully handle Gmail labels (treating them more like folders) which would create some issues for a restore.
    • Gmail Backup - http://www.gmail-backup.com/
      This used to be the preferred solution for a free Gmail backup utility. Unfortunately, it's no longer supported, and has an IMAP bug that causes it to mark all messages as read when doing a backup.
    • BackupGoo - http://en.backupgoo.com/
      A paid utility that does not support restore.
    • SysCloudSoft - http://www.syscloudsoft.com/
      A subscription backup solution that handles Gmail, Docs, Contacts, Sites, etc., but only for Google Apps domains.
    • Spinbackup - https://spinbackup.com/
      A cloud-based subscription backup service (free for 4G Gmail account, but cripple ware makes it unacceptable as a full account backup/restore solution).
    • SysTools - https://www.systoolsgroup.com/gmail-backup.html
      A paid utility.  Can not do restore.
    • UpSafe - http://www.upsafe.com/
      Free for Gmail accounts (paid for Google Apps) both computer and cloud-based (3G limit).  Limited restore abilities.
    • CloudAlly - http://www.cloudally.com/
      Paid cloud-based service.  Does not retain labels on restore.
  • Obsolete (past options that are no longer available)

  • The Backupify service warrants additional mention. While it's not well suited for backing up e-mail, it can also backup Google Docs, Calendar, Contacts, and Sites. When paired with another of the above utilities/sites it can provide a more complete backup of your account than just the e-mail messages themselves.

    As you can see there are a variety of good choices (if you're willing to spend some money).  There are also a number of "feel good" choices (you feel good because you're doing a backup, but the inability to access the backup or restore it may make them less useful).

    Of course, once the messages are saved to your computer, you can and should include them in your normal computer backup, or you can manually save them to an external device (like a USB drive).

    Some may well ask if it's really safe to use a cloud-based service to backup another cloud-based service (e-mail). The key to a good backup is both redundancy and separation. You want multiple backups, and you want them in multiple locations. So, for example, an external USB disk setting on top of the computer it's used to backup is not a good idea. You only have one copy of the backup, and if the location is hit by fire/flood/disaster, both the computer and the backup will be lost. But the odds of two independent companies experiencing a major disaster with data loss is small enough to justify a cloud-based backup.

    Even so, you can do better with even more redundancy and separation. Consider the following:
    • Gmail using Got-Your-Back to local disk (automated, daily)
    • Gmail (contacts and docs) using Backupify to the cloud (automated, weekly)
    • Local disk using http://www.idrive.com/ to the cloud (automated, daily)
    • Local disk using http://www.2brightsparks.com/syncback/ to a rotating set of USB drives (manual, monthly)
    • One USB drive stored off-site (manually, 3-6 months)

    That has Gmail backed up to a computer, which is itself backed up to the cloud and some number of USB drives (one of which is stored at another location). That clearly satisfies both redundancy and separation. And yes, that's my personal backup model (all free).

    An alternative to using a service like iDrive (yes, that's a referral sign-up link for a free 5G account) would be to use a free file-sharing site like DropBox to save the most important files from your computer up to the limit of the free space provided. One could setup Got-Your-Back to backup Gmail directly to the DropBox folder which would then be immediately backed up to cloud storage.

    Whatever backup method you choose, make sure it either gives you access to the messages (like an e-mail client) or a well-defined way to do a restore (like Got-Your-Back). A backup you can't view or restore isn't a backup at all. And if it's a manual process make sure you do it on a regular schedule as a badly out-of-date backup isn't of much value either.

    As mentioned above, you may also want to backup your contacts with Export. There is also a Labs feature to allow you to export your filters as a backup, or you can simply copy/paste them from Settings->Filters and e-mail the definition to yourself so you can re-create them if needed. The Google Data Liberation project (http://www.dataliberation.org/) also provides tools and documentation to help you export information from your account for safe keeping.

    So now you know why, you know how, and you know what tools to use. Set it up today so tomorrow you aren't another statistic posting to the forum: "Help, my account was hacked and everything deleted. How do I get it all back?"

    * Gmail is a trademark of Google, Inc. This page is not sponsored by or affiliated with Google.