Sunday, July 31, 2005

Use your Gmail account as a backup drive

Sunday, July 31, 2005

With the storage space available to Gmail users currently approaching 2.5 gigabytes, you wouldn't be alone if you've begun wondering what purposes (other than email warehousing) you can put your account to. My inbox is relentlessly inundated with exciting job offers and marriage proposals from beautiful women, and even I can't utilise such a generous allocation of web space.

You may be accused of being a cheapskate for using your Gmail account to backup your treasured, irreplaceable documents and whatnot, but I think that's unwarranted unless this is your only backup solution. I use a mini, external, USB, Lacie hard drive and a USB thumb drive to stash away my preciouseses, though stupidly leave them lying right next to my computer, usually permanently connected.

This is stupid because if someone broke into your house they'd swipe the lot, or if your house went up in smoke, similarly, your original files and backups would be lost. It makes perfect sense to take your backup drives with you whenever you leave the house, or at least keep them somewhere other than on your computer desk, but how many of us make a habit of this? It's just so much hassle to have to keep disconnecting, reconnecting and hiding your failsafe devices.

Gmail provides the ideal second backup solution because their servers don't live in your house... unless maybe you're a down on your luck Google employee sleeping under the desk in your office. Gmail accepts attachments up to 10mb in size, so what you can do to safeguard your important documents is zip them up, attach the compressed archive to an email and send it to yourself.

I did this recently with all my HTML document blog entries. The file arrived safely and I archived it for future reference (Gmail cunningly established that the message was from 'me', and so excluded it from the mail available to be downloaded by my email client, which I thought was quite nifty).

When I tried to do this with a batch of Word and Excel documents, the zip file was rejected by the Gmail server. With a bit of investigation I discovered that this was because Gmail automatically scan inside zip files to check if they contain anything which could be construed as malicious. Office documents can contain macro viruses and so Gmail wrinkles up its nose and looks at them as though they're something squidgy you might step in on the pavement.

One way to avoid Gmail's scrutiny is to compress your documents using a lesser known format. Being primarily a Mac user at home, the first one that sprung to my mind was Apple's disk image format. I downloaded FreeDMG and used it to create an archive of my documents and tried again to send it as an attachment. This time Gmail lapped it up without protest. Hoorah!

When you've found a file format Gmail can't look inside, you might like to make some changes to your account so as to better manage your backups. You can do this using the 'create a filter' page, linked from your inbox. Filters are designed to allow Gmail to recognise and process emails bearing predefined characteristics. For instance, if you ticked the 'has attachment' checkbox and typed 'backup' into the 'subject' box, you could arrange for any emails carrying an attachment and containing the keyword 'backup' in the subject field to be assigned a helpful label and automatically archived - the latter two options are available from the page you are taken to when you press the 'next step' button.

Gmail labels operate much like folders in that they allow you to group together collections of emails making them easier to retrieve at a later date. The main advantage they offer over traditional folders is that emails can be assigned with multiple labels without having to duplicate them. Any labels you create are displayed below the links to your inbox, drafts, trash etc. folders for easy access. Whenever you click on one of these labels you are presented with a list of all the emails previously allocated to that category.

If you want to reduce the chance of emails being wrongly assigned to your new backup area, you could beef-up the precision of your filter using 'plus addresses'. Plus addresses can be created 'on the fly' by appending a + symbol and a series of numbers or characters to your username, like so:

Whenever you send yourself a backup, use this address and remember to edit your filter so the 'to' address matches your +backup address and it will be labelled and archived accordingly. Of course, if disaster struck and you needed to recover your files, you'd have to contact the kooky scientologist and ask him to hand them over. ;)

Plus addresses have many more practical applications besides. You can use them to split invitation replies into 'accept' and 'decline' categories, trash spam or monitor how your email address is used by the companies you submit it to.

Windows users might like to skip all this emailing yourself malarkey and instead use their Gmail accounts as they would any other drive from within Explorer. If this appeals you'll want to check out the Gmail Drive shell extension.


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