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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Thu, 03 Jan 2013

My Hostgator e-mail setup: Roundcube webmail plus filtering in cPanel

While I continue to use Gmail for my work e-mail -- a decision enforced by my employer's move to Google Apps for Business, I've been seeking solutions for my personal e-mail that include less back-end effort and more flexibility on my part -- plus no spying/marketing in exchange for the service.

My chief concerns:

  • I don't want to manage a full mail-server system
  • I don't want Google/Yahoo/other spying on me and marketing to me on the basis of my e-mail's content
  • I do want webmail -- I'm tired of client applications on the desktop

The third point in this list means that while I maintain a Mozilla Thunderbird (or in my case the Debian-rebranded Icedove) mail client on my Linux desktop, I'd much rather use webmail day to day and only use a desktop client application for occasional archiving.

Since I have a shared-hosting account with Hostgator, that's where I've been doing my personal e-mail. My account lives on a CentOS server with a cPanel management interface. (I quite like cPanel; it really speeds up and simplifies management of my hosted account.) The Hostgator people manage the server, for which I'm grateful. I have my account and do what I want with it, be that web services, e-mail or other.

When you think about how inexpensive shared hosting can be, the e-mail accounts that come along with it are a nice dollup of added gravy. And since I'm actually paying for the service, however little it may be, I can send and receive e-mail without subjecting myself to the dogged spying, analysis and subsequent marketing efforts of the Googles, Yahoos and Microsofts of the world.

While Gmail is a great application (I especially like the "tagging" concept as opposed to the traditional mail "folder" arrangement), the price of free is a whole lot of Google using the content of my mail to sell me crap in the form of ads.

A few bucks a month to get a huge tech company out of my in box? Not a problem.

Through Hostgator's cPanel you can set up as many e-mail accounts as you wish on as many domains as you have. You can use POP and IMAP. You can get your mail over an encrypted connection. That's something I recommend, especially when using shared coffeehouse WiFi.

Were I doing this on a VPS (virtual private server) or in an Amazon EC2 instance, I'd have to configure and maintain the whole stack just to get e-mail. I'd much rather have Hostgator take care of the dirty work.

Of course, for this all to work there needs to be some degree of trust between me (the user) and Hostgator (the hosting provider). There is.

Back to the point: Hostgator offers three webmail client applications: Horde, SquirrelMail and RoundCube. I've tried them all and much prefer RoundCube, especially with the interface's recent redesign. RoundCube is coded in PHP and is very drag/drop intuitive.

What RoundCube is missing is filtering -- a feature slated for future development.

But that's OK because Hostgator offers e-mail filtering through its cPanel interface. Upon logging in to your e-mail account, you get an onscreen message telling you that your webmail client of choice will load in about five seconds, during which time you can cancel that load and instead set up e-mail filters by clicking a separate icon on what looks like a micro-mini-cPanel just for e-mail.

With this Hostgator/cPanel feature, I've been setting up filters just like I do in Gmail or Thunderbird (OK, not just like that, but there's quite a bit of similarity).

Now I'm using the ultra-smooth RoundCube to read mail pre-filtered by whatever Hostgator is doing on the back end (something having to do with the Exim mail transfer agent).

I still have Thunderbird/Icedove set up, but I rarely use it. When reading my mail, I make sure I always use an https:// link -- you can do that in Hostgator, even if you don't have a static IP; they provide an alternate URL for which there is a valid SSL certificate.

I get mail on my own domain, I don't have to run the mail server, and no big Internet company is trying to sell me crap based on my mail's content.

It's yet another reason to have a shared-hosting account from a reputable provider.

Related tangent: I don't have a VPS (virtual private server), but as I mention above I have been experimenting with Amazon EC2. I can tell you right now that if shared hosting is working for you, chances are that it will be both cheaper and easier to stick with it than move to a cloud provider such as Amazon or Rackspace. It's certainly simpler.

I'm not saying that Amazon or Rackspace cloud services don't have their use cases. They're certainly fun to play with and are excellent choices in situations where you need extreme amounts of flexibility.

But for the small-potatoes web sites that more of us are running than we might care to admit, shared-hosting continues to solve a whole lot of problems at a still-attractive price.