Quick hit: here’s how to ensure all your past emails don’t vaporize when you migrate to a new hosting service

Just got done with trying to help a friend with the fallout of migrating from one hosting provider to another, and I had a couple of insights:

First, email is a deceptively simple issue, when you’re trying to deal with DNS settings, new billing schema, upgrading PHP, etc..

“email seems like one of the easiest technologies, because it’s been around so long – but in practice, it is truly thorny. Because email is a very attractive target for spammers/scammers, tech companies have had to add layer after layer of protections onto what is now 35-year-old technology. Think of an old UPS or FedEx delivery van that has been robbed & hijacked over the years, and now is bristling with security cameras, barbed wire, machine guns, etc. As long as the truck sticks to old patterns of behavior, everything is fine, but once you swerve off the road, things start getting unpredictable.”

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Next, the documentation for dealing with email migrations reads as though it were written by Cenobites who have infiltrated the IT department. A sampling

Migration endpoints are management objects that describe the remote server information and connection settings that are associated with one or more batches. When you provide server information during a migration batch request, you’re actually creating a migration endpoint. After you create migration endpoints, you can assign them to new migration batches or pending migration batches.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to make a whole bunch of choices, none of which are really explained all that well, and which seem to have all manner of long-term consequences. I can’t possibly predict what will happen, what will be needed, or how it can be best handled, but here’s an overview of a couple of terms, with language that might possibly make sense:

Email client: No, this isn’t a client that you’re emailing things to/from. This is the program on your computer that you use for email; common ones are Outlook, Mac Mail, Thunderbird, etc.

Online client: The program you use inside a browser to check your email – Gmail or Yahoo or Hotmail are the biggest players in this space.

POP3 and IMAP: These are settings that regulate how the local program on your computer handles getting, sending and storing your emails. There’s a difference between the two, explained in depth here.

IMAP: Your emails stay up on the server; if you delete or move an email to an inbox in Outlook, then the Outlook program will send a signal to your online inbox (Gmail or whatever) to mirror what was done on your local machine.

ADVANTAGE: You don’t need to download all the emails to see what’s going on; you can access your emails from a desktop computer, tablet, phone, etc., and whatever you do is mirrored across all your devices

DISADVANTAGE: Sometimes you delete emails on your local client, and then the server just replaces them from where they are stored on the server online.

POP3: You download all the emails to your local computer, and then you deal with them there.

ADVANTAGE: You clean your online mailbox out as clean as a whistle. Nothing there for anyone to root around in, if they ever compromise your passwords.

DISADVANTAGE: If your local computer hard drive crashes, you lose all your past emails.

WARNING: If you’ve been set up with a hosting service by someone else, and you were on IMAP (where changes aren’t destructive) but somehow wind up with POP3 email settings, BE VERY CAREFUL OR YOU COULD WIND UP DELETING ALL YOUR EMAILS.