Choosing Email Providers

Part 4 of “My Own Email Address”.

Domain Name Registrars and DNS

I already registered the domain name a few years ago through my ISP Andrews & Arnold. However that no longer seems like the most cost-effective way to do it, at £45 a year for one domain name, DNS and a basic web site.

Three big American companies are often suggested: NameCheap, DreamHost, GoDaddy. A consideration for me is whether they fully offer UK domain names, including “” and the new plain “.uk“. It looks like NameCheap does, and looks like one I would be willing to use. DreamHost doesn’t offer “.uk“. GoDaddy does but has a reputation for sleazy advertising.

In the UK I like the look of VirtualNames for just domain name registration and DNS. They offer a much smaller range of other services such as web site hosting than do the bigger American companies, which is fine if I think separation of concerns is valuable. On the other hand, managing everything would be a bit easier and perhaps cheaper at an all-in-one service provider.

I’ve also been pointed to Gandi, a large domain name and hosting company based in France, which I like because it claims to support Free Software as part of its “mission”. It looks like a good choice for me.

The main kinds of UK domain name all seem to cost from around £5 a year from most registrars, and are some of the cheapest domain names around, compared with £10 or more for “.com” or “.org”, so price isn’t much of a factor.

Professional Email Services

Among many recommendations for high quality, low cost email services, a few stand out as being very widely recognised:

  • Google Apps (all office services)
  • Zoho (all office services)
  • Rackspace (all web services) / Mailgun (email only)
  • Fastmail (email only)
  • Pobox (email forwarding)

And Dave mentioned a very interesting alternative that is based entirely on open-source software:

  • KolabNow (office services)

I have used Google Apps at work, and like it and would recommend it for work. I ran a free trial of Google Apps for my own domain, and it works of course, and no doubt works well. The price is low at about £35 a year per user for a big set of services, but if I only use it as a mailbox and then want another mailbox or two for family members, or if I want to upgrade it in any way, it could get much more expensive. Much as I like Google’s products, I was getting that feeling of being sucked in to a single vendor’s huge system and pricing whims and becoming dependent on it.

Zoho I haven’t tried, but it sounds like a smaller company’s version of much the same thing as Google Apps. I should resist being lured in to their free account just because it’s free, as no doubt I’d sooner or later need to upgrade.

Fastmail was recommended by an open-source software colleague. I’m seriously considering buying either a full email account or a forwarding service from them. It seems like they care about providing an email service: it’s been the core of their business for a long time rather than just something their business does at the moment in order to attract customers. And apparently they contribute seriously to open-source software.

KolabNow (formerly MyKolab) is based in Switzerland and touts privacy, ethical relationship with customers, not tying you in, and being entirely based on and contributing open-source software as some of its main attractions.

The others I’ve only read about; they sound fine for what they are.

Helpful Articles

These are some of the most useful articles I found that give an overview of the range of options. This gives an overview of pretty much the same list of solutions as above:

This about a complex migration, including moving old emails from multiple systems to the new system:

Scott Hanselman: Migrating a Family to Google Apps from Gmail, Thunderbird, Outlook …

And this about setting up redirection (forwarding), particularly with Pobox:

Eric Mill (konklone): Take Control of Your Email Address


Free Email Services

Part 3 of “My Own Email Address”.

It would seem foolish not to look for a free email solution first, but in fact there are not many. Most of the suggestions I found from the last few years are no longer free. That suggests I should be cautious in choosing any free offering, as it will likely become paid in the future.

Registering a domain name is rarely free, and then only with an unusual top-level domain, not a common one like *.uk or *.com. Not practical for me.

There’s little need for a free DNS service as it’s often provided with domain name registration. The only one I found that I would be happy to use is Namecheap’s FreeDNS.

There are a few free email redirection (forwarding) services — e.g. Mailgun (by Rackspace) and Namecheap’s Free Email Forwarding which is available if I use their (free or paid) DNS services. I could use this to redirect my mail into my Gmail mailbox.

Incoming mail redirection is little use to me without an SMTP service, because I want to send mail from my domain as well as receive it. Free Gmail accounts used to support sending through their SMTP server but, like most others, they no longer do. The only free SMTP services I know of, that would allow sending email from my own domain, are

Zoho currently seems to be the only major provider of a free, high quality, own-domain email service. It seems to be similar to Google Apps. Of course the free account will have restrictions; I’m not sure how onerous these are.

Components of an Email System

Part 2 of “My Own Email Address”.

Plenty of articles list some steps to set up email at your own domain. It’s harder to find one that explains the principles of how it works, various ways to do it, and the pros and cons of each way.

The components we need are:

  • a registered domain name
  • domain name service (DNS) records
    • to direct incoming mail to my mailbox (or redirection service)
    • to prove the authenticity of outgoing mail
  • an SMTP server
    • to send outgoing mail
  • a mailbox (containing an “in-box” and other folders)
    • to receive incoming mail
    • to hold all my mail for this account (received, sent, drafts, etc.)
    • with IMAP and/or POP interface
  • (optional) a Web mail user interface
    • to send mail and access the mailbox from a web browser

The mailbox is the heart of a standard mail system. It is notable that the SMTP server for sending mail is a separate component.

Alternatively, instead of a mailbox, I could use

  • a redirection (forwarding) service

to redirect incoming mail addressed to my domain to an existing mailbox at another domain, such as my Gmail account. This kind of forwarding is not like the “Forward” function in an email client, but rather passes each incoming email message to a new server without altering the body text or subject or “From” header or (more or less) any other headers. The target mailbox will thus receive messages whose “To” address contains my domain name, not that mailbox’s domain name. The mailbox has to be willing to accept this.

No matter whether I choose to set up a separate mailbox or redirect mail into my Gmail account, my incoming and outgoing mail will look the same to other people: they will see my own email address not Google’s. It would just make a difference to the email headers which are normally hidden from view in most people’s mail readers.

The choice will, however, greatly affect how I read and manage my mail.

Each component listed above is conceptually separate, and in practice can be hosted and administered independently. However, it is usual to host some of them together, which tends to make administration easier.

I currently have both my domain registration and my DNS (as well as my web site) hosted by Andrews & Arnold. It’s usual for the mail-specific components (SMTP, mailbox with IMAP/POP interface, web interface) to be hosted by the same provider. When using redirection, however, some services support redirection of incoming mail but not SMTP for outgoing mail.

The components need to co-operate. In particular:

  • The registered domain name has an “NS” (name server) record attached to it, which tells everyone which DNS server controls the DNS records for this domain.
  • The DNS server holds the DNS records that describe all services attached to this domain name: web server, email, and anything else. For email, we need to put in “MX” records that tell other mail servers how to reach the mailbox (or redirector) for incoming mail, and other records for authentication and configuration.
  • The SMTP server needs to be willing to send mail identified as being “from” my domain name, and to “sign” it as such. It used to be common for any SMTP server that you were authorised to use, to be willing to send anything you asked it to send, but in recent years they have been much more locked down to control spam and abuse. In particular, I can’t use free Gmail account’s SMTP server to send mail from my domain name. (If I paid for a Google Apps account then it would let me do that.)
  • The mailbox needs to be willing to accept mail addressed to my domain. Of course if it’s a mailbox set up for this purpose then it will do. If I want to redirect mail addressed to my domain to my Gmail mailbox, however, I’ll need to check if Gmail will accept it.

My Own Email Address

I am going to have my very own email address.

julian at foad .me .uk

At last, an address that I own and will always control.

I don’t want to identify myself any longer as Julian Foad At Gmail or Julian Foad At BT. Each of those companies, and several more before them, gave me a “free” email address with their name in it. Each time, I used it because it was easy and free. They make it easy to use, and they figure out how to set up the software, and they pay for the servers, the disk drives, the electricity, the maintenance, the upgrades, the backups. Isn’t that awesome… and isn’t that completely normal, too?

I looked through about forty of my contacts, many of whom are computer literate, and was surprised to see only two of you using your own name for your email domain. If that’s you, well done!

My first email address was at Southampton University. When I graduated, I asked if I could keep the address and they said no, but granted me a three month extension. I opened a free email account with some company called Free-something, I forget what. After a few years, they said “We’re terribly sorry but we’re closing down this service.” So I scrambled to download and save all my mail before they deleted it, and to find another provider, and set up a new account, and tell all my friends about the new address, and update all my online banking, services and shopping registrations. I used Hotmail for a bit, then got disillusioned with it for making it very difficult to download my email for archiving, and for being a Microsoft company, so I quit that and went through the same hassle. Another company wrote to me, “You’ve reached your storage limit,” and I scrambled again: do I pay, do I delete stuff, or do I switch?

A few years on, I had a BT account. That seemed like a safe company to be with for the long term. When I got married and moved house, BT said “This account was only free while you were paying for our broadband. You must now start paying £1.60 a month to keep it.” I thought that was a reasonable fee for the service, so I am paying it. Recently I was finding their web interface cumbersome and their spam filtering poor, and started switching to Gmail. I have kept the BT account going so as not to have to tell all my friends to update my address, as I’ve had it for quite a long time now, but I configured Gmail to fetch the BT mail so I handle all my mail within Gmail. Now the BT email address is basically just functioning as an alias for me.

Guess what has just arrived while I was writing this post? An email from BT, saying “Your monthly fee is changing from £1.60 to £5, from next month.” Seriously.

(Update: I called BT, said I only use it for forwarding, and asked if I could stay at the old price for a further year else I’d leave. They agreed.)

Lots of other people, such as Dan Gillmor in The Guardian, have given their own reasons why we should have our own email address, or our own domain name (a prerequisite). Now I have found my own reasons and have been jolted into doing it.

The other part of the story for me is that since I was made redundant I have been deliberately exploring areas of software and the IT world that I ought to be more familiar with. Using my own domain name is one such area, so I’ve been happy to spend several days learning about this and trying different approaches. Several days? you might ask; need it take that long? There are plenty of how-to guides that say just do 1-2-3 and in half an hour you’re there. But there isn’t just one standard way to do it. I don’t want to just select some “random” guide and follow the steps to create a new email account. That would be too much like choosing Hotmail or Gmail and just pressing the “set it up for me” button. Rather I want to understand what’s possible and how it works, and make sure it plays nicely with my existing accounts (especially Gmail) and will not hold me back or tie me in to keeping the same service provider in the future.

I won’t identify myself any longer as my name at Gmail or BT or whichever other company is offering a nice “free” service this year. I don’t have to. I will identify myself by my own name. I’m going to have ownership and control of my address for as long as I like. I’m happy to pay a little bit for the privilege. (It won’t cost much.)

Now I just have to work out how to do it.

I already registered the domain name a few years ago, so that’s the first step done.

C-Jump — Is This Board Game Really a Thing?

Lots of computer geeks love them, but I have an aversion to board games. At most once a year I can gently enjoy playing a round of Monopoly, draughts or even (if rather badly) chess. I trust the classics, knowing they’ve stood the test of time. What makes me cringe, though, is the board game that has been invented — no, that’s too kind — that has been produced as a brand tie-in, like The Top-Gear Board Game¹. Knowing the only motive is profit, how can I expect an enjoyable well-crafted game playing experience?

c-jump board gameSo what shall I make of C-Jump? It looks like the motive in this case is good educational intentions, and so instinctively I cringe for the game play. And I cringe for the C code. It claims to be “based on the code of a real computer program” but most of the moves are written as expressions with no assignment of the result (“x + 2;”).

At the same time, I am fascinated by the possibility it might be able to sow a seed of familiarity and fun in a child’s mind, just enough to provoke a curiosity later in life on encountering the same symbols again, in the same way that playing with fluffy toy horsies², even if they are green and blue and yellow, might for a certain child spark a vet’s career.

I have to admire the effort that seems to have been put into it. It might even be playable. Once a year.

¹ I have no idea if that’s really a Thing, but I bet it is. [UPDATE: Yes, I checked, it is.]

² Dear spelling checker, “horsies” does indeed have an “i” in it.

Vaguely related…

Surname Geographical Profiler

I have been looking at maps of my name at It indicates the Foad name is very strongly associated with Kent, more so than I expected. It was fun looking up some other surnames from my extended family too.

Foads in 1998

I first came across this site ten years ago when it was at, and noticed it again now only because I was updating my old broken links. It seems to be run by a few academics.

Their Great Britain Family Names Profiler shows more detail than their World Family Names Profiler.

The site asked for my email address and one or two other personal details before showing me the maps, and I was willing to submit these.

LyX – semantic editing

I want to like LyX: it has the right attitude, saying don’t bother me with choosing a font style and size, concentrate on the meaning of what I’m writing.

Reading an introduction to it (years ago), I quickly came up against this nugget (paraphrased):

To emphasise text, don’t mark it “italic”. The LyX way is to mark it with “emphasis”. The default rendering of “emphasis” is italic.

So far so good, if emphasis is what I want.

Let’s say I’m writing about part names and project names and I want to make those terms stand out like I’ve done here — partly to emphasise them, I suppose, but also to group related terms together, and potentially later on I may want to distinguish the part names from the product names by displaying them in different ways. I don’t just want these terms lumped together with ever other phrase that’s emphasized.

How do I define and apply the new semantic mark-up for “part name” to the part names (default rendering: italic), and “project name” to the project names (default rendering: also italic)?

Last I looked, LyX didn’t make it easy.

Unfortunately the take-away impression was more like this: for italic, press the “Emphasis” button or Control-E; for bold, press the “Strong” button or Control-S.

The button for applying the style “part name” needs to appear next to those for the predefined styles such as “emphasis”. And when I first decide I want a style for a part name, I need to create this new style very quickly and easily.

Of course I’m not talking only about italics. This attitude should pervade any semantic mark-up software such as LyX.