(Just to bring you up to speed: cloud-based services are tools that run via the Internet on a server hosted by somebody else like Google or DropBox)
Today we'll be looking at another very important tool that we should consider moving into the cloud: email.
Now some people may be a little confused about that. After all, email is part of the Internet right? Doesn't that mean it's already in the cloud?
Well yes, kind of, but not always.
If you're using your company email account, odds are it's not cloud-based. Most medium to large companies keep their own email server which runs on their local IT network. If you pop down and visit the boys in IT, they could probably show you the email server. When you access your work email from inside your office, you're probably accessing it over the local network, not the Internet.
|Your email server probably looks like this|
There are some good reasons for doing it this way, mostly so that your email server (which is probably running Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino or something similar) can talk directly to the other servers on your network and exchange information with them freely.
If you use the email account your Internet service provider (ISP) gave you, that's not quite cloud-based either. Their email server will likely sit in a server room with all their other various servers. When you connect to that server, you're doing it through your service provider's network, not technically through the Internet.
In both these cases if you've set up your laptop or smartphone to connect to that email account, that connection will generally happen over the Internet, so I suppose you could say that they're cloud-based in a way, but that's not really the kind of thing we're talking about here.
So What Are We Talking About?
If you've been on the Internet for a while, in that time you've probably come across (and maybe even used) two services: Hotmail and Gmail. They are the leading cloud-based email providers. In both cases you can only connect to these services via the Internet, and therefore the cloud.
But Why Would I Want That?
One thing you've probably noticed with your work or ISP email service is that there tends to be a fair amount of down-time. It may go down for hours, even days at a time during which you're stuck without email. The reason for that is that your company or ISP has a relatively small staff of engineers and technicians, and they're tasked with keeping an eye on a bunch of different servers at the same time. Not only that, but they often can't afford "fail-over" servers (backup servers that take over immediately if the main server goes down). So when there's a problem, you usually have to wait for those techies to fix it, which will sometimes take a while.
Proper cloud-based mail providers aren't limited by that. Gmail and Hotmail have colossal server farms dedicated to nothing but provide their email service. If one server, or even one whole datacentre, goes down, there are others that pick up the slack and keep providing the service with little or no interruption to you.
The redundancy these guys use is so robust that it takes a pretty rare and severe problem to cause any real interruption of the service. These things do happen, but not often. In 2010 Gmail recorded an average of 7 minutes' down time per month. Just to give you an idea, that's 46 times more reliable than your average Microsoft Exchange server.
As is the case with cloud-based backup tools, cloud-based email stores all of your old emails on their server, which means you can access it from any computer. And since Hotmail and Gmail offer you quite a lot of storage space, you can keep a much longer history of emails than you could with your corporate or ISP email account. So much so that you will probably never have to delete an email (Gmail didn't even have a delete function at first... they only introduced it later because the users really wanted it).
Gmail in particular puts that extra server capacity to work in a number of ways for you, one of which is the ability to send much larger attachments than with other services. You can now send attachments up to 25MB in size via Gmail (for context, your average Word document is less than 1MB).
But I Like Outlook!
If you've been using Microsoft Outlook or some equivalent email application for a long time, you've probably grown accustomed to it. Although the web interfaces for Gmail and Hotmail are quite intuitive, some people just don't like having to change to a new application to do the same old thing.
Fortunately both Gmail and Hotmail allow you to connect up to your Outlook or other email clients, so you can use your email the way you've always done it and still be working in the cloud! Of course there are limitations - you'll still need to log into the Gmail or Hotmail website to search your archives for very old messages, but you probably won't need to do that often anyway.
(Connecting your Gmail or Hotmail to Outlook can be a bit tricky. Although there are helpful guides on how to do it, you might want to ask your local IT-savvy person to help you with it.)
But I Have Too Many Email Accounts!
If you've been online for a while, odds are you've accumulated quite a few different email accounts over the years, many of which you might still be using. One of the advantages of an application like Microsoft Outlook is that it lets you plug in a number of separate email accounts into one application.
Fortunately Gmail lets you do the same thing. Gmail has connectors that let you link up to your Yahoo Mail account, and both Gmail and Hotmail have a built-in POP3 client (POP3 is an email protocol that's supported by most email servers) that let you pull your various different email accounts into your Gmail or Hotmail Inbox and archive. Unfortunately they don't yet support Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino email accounts - for those you'll still need to use your corporate software.
But I Use Email on my Smartphone!
|Gmail for Android|
In addition, most smartphones also have Gmail and Hotmail apps available that allow you to send and receive emails, as well as search your vast archive right on your mobile device.
So How Much Does All This Cost?
Nothing. That's right, it's free. You "pay" for the service by looking at the ads on the page, but you don't even have to buy anything.
Both Hotmail and Gmail have corporate equivalents that allow you to have your whole company, school or other organisation using cloud-based email instead of a local server - and those generally aren't free. But they are competitively priced, and worth considering if your company has had trouble keeping its local email server up.