E-mail hosting options

As part of my ongoing hosting services reorganization I’m looking for ways to improve the quality of our e-mail hosting. This is due to inadequacies with one of my current services and a recent problem that’s come up with another.

My requirements

I’ve been thinking about my e-mail requirements a lot lately and this is what I’ve come up with as my priorities. First and most simply, I need fast, reliable IMAP and webmail, and prompt processing of incoming mail. This is a no-brainer. I also need SSL on everything: SSL/TLS for IMAP and SMTP, and SSL on the webmail and account management applications.

Effective spam filtering is important, but I also don’t want any mail discarded outright, with a few exceptions. Viruses can be trashed, obviously, and I’m ok with rejecting mail from known open proxies and relays, and anything on the Spamhaus blacklists. Any spam caught via content filtering, however, should be tagged and sidelined into a spam folder I can access via IMAP in order to dig out false positives, should they occur.

The administrative interface should be intuitive and easy to use, and present a logical organization of domains, mailboxes, and aliases. I realize this is totally subjective, but if it doesn’t make sense to me I’m not going to feel comfortable using it. While I’d like a nice webmail application, I’ve already got my own installation of Roundcube and we’re fine with continuing to use that, as needed.

I’m a pretty heavy alias user. I only have two actual mailboxes and every address I have, anywhere, on any service, ends up in one of those two. This even includes things like my Gmail account and the e-mail addresses I got with my Speakeasy service. I’ve got role addresses (webmaster, postmaster) at every domain I own and many of these domains have additional addresses that forward to my primary mailbox. Because of this, address management needs to be logical and easy, and I need to be able to create my own server-side filters for things like mail routing, forwarding, and auto-replies.

Finally, my ideal mail hosting service should not set pointless limits on their plans. I’ve got no problem paying for actual resources used — disk space, bandwidth, mailboxes — but I don’t want to be charged more for things like additional domains or aliases, things that don’t impact the service in any way.

All that said, here are some comments on mail services I’ve used in the past, am using currently, or have evaluated as a possible replacement for what I’ve got now.

A note about terminology

When I say “support multiple domains” I mean that I want to be able to have a completely separate list of addresses at each distinct domain. Just accepting mail to multiple domains does not meet this requirement unless I can have the exact same address at different domains handled completely differently (eg, mail to webmaster@ handled differently on a domain-by-domain basis) without resorting to a complicated series of filters.

When I say “we” I’m speaking of Sarai and myself, as her mail is handled the same as mine. My needs are more complex but I’ve taken hers into account as well.

Dreamhost

Dreamhost mail was actually pretty decent, from a feature and interface perspective. Their spam filtering was pretty good and their control panel made it really easy to see what addresses I have at each domain and to add new ones. Server performance, however, was not as good as it could have been. I never had any major problems here, but the service went unavailable more often than I would have liked. That said, e-mail performance was not the reason I moved away from Dreamhost, and my mailboxes were the last thing to go.

Joyent

Through my lifetime Joyent (formerly TextDrive) account, I have two e-mail hosting options available to me: the standard shared hosting servers and Connector, their collaboration suite, which includes IMAP and webmail that runs on a different infrastructure.

I’m using the shared hosting for my mail currently. Performance and uptime are great but the control panel is the open source VirtualMin which is, frankly, awful. Functional, sure, but slow and hard on the eyes. All this might be ok if not for the one fatal flaw: Joyent shared hosting has no spam filtering. None. Ouch.

The Connector infrastructure, on the other hand, does have spam filtering and by nearly all accounts it works great. I’ve considered moving my mail over here but a couple problems have stopped me. Aliases are not supported at all, and the security model on the Connector web application is “share everything”, which means that all your mailboxes are available to everyone else with an account on your domain. This can be turned off manually, on a folder-by-folder basis, but this is obviously far from ideal. Connector also doesn’t support multiple domains.

Gandi

My domain registrar, Gandi also provides e-mail hosting and forwarding services with all domain registrations. I am currently using their forwarding services to route mail at all domains to our actual mailboxes on Joyent. This is great because it’s included for free with my domain registrations and works pretty well. The problem I have with Gandi handling my mail, and the reason I’m on the market for something new, is that their spam filtering silently drops mail with no way for me to view or retrieve it. I just discovered and confirmed this recently and have no idea how much legitimate mail I may have missed. This behavior directly violates my requirement above about user-accessible spam folders.

Now we’re on to the services I’ve evaluated as alternatives to the above, Google Apps and FuseMail. For my trials with these services I set up accounts using an otherwise unused domain of mine so my regular mail delivery was not interfered with.

Google Apps

Google Apps is the big one and the choice of a lot of people frustrated with their other hosting options, people wanting powerful spam filtering, and people who love the Gmail webmail interface. I’m actually not a fan of the Gmail UI but now that they support IMAP I thought I should give them a try. Unfortunately, while they’re probably great for hosting single domains, their multiple domain support does not meet my requirements. You can add additional domains, but these become complete aliases to your primary one, which means you can’t handle mail differently on a per-domain basis.

FuseMail

The second service I tried out is FuseMail, a dedicated e-mail hosting service. Their feature list is impressive and they look like just the thing I was looking for, so I signed right up for a free two week trial.

The service was good. Their IMAP and SMTP servers are fast (although slightly slower than Joyent’s during my trial period) and I had no connection problems. Their spam filtering is configurable and they support extremely flexible user-defined filters which meet my other needs, as outlined above. Their pricing model is based on mailboxes and disk space and so they have no limits on the number of domains or aliases you can create.

I only have one complaint about FuseMail. It’s not a fatal flaw — they’re still in the running — but it’s something that I suspect may really annoy me over time. It’s the way they organize e-mail addresses. Their model is mailbox-centered, so to add an alias for an existing user, I would first add the domain to the account and then select the user I want to set up an alias for and add it. This seems backward to me. I prefer a domain-centered model, where I can view a list of domains, and see the addresses associated with each one, and add/edit/remove them as needed. I don’t think I can even get a list of addresses organized by domain. The way FuseMail does it probably works great for organizations with a lot of users and very few domains, but I’m the exact opposite.

In conclusion

This was a lot longer than I expected it to be. My conclusion after all this is that I think I’m going to continue looking. Maybe I’m setting myself up for disappointment but I refuse to believe that there isn’t something out there than can meet my needs and preferences. I’m willing to pay as much as $10/month or $120/year, which is what FuseMail would cost me, so I won’t even rule out getting service from a web hosting company and just using them for e-mail. As long as I can continue using an external DNS service, even this would work fine (this rules out going back to Dreamhost, by the way).

I’ve still got one more service to evaluate, Tuffmail. They’re a little hard to take seriously with that 1990s-style web site design but I hear good things about them so I’ll give them a fair shot.

Who am I missing? What great e-mail service have I overlooked?

Comments

Charlie C says:

Interesting read, as I have similar requirements, especially wrt the need for spam filters which never delete any email. It really shouldn’t be so difficult to find a service which meets such basic needs! I recently have been looking at ovh.com, but the interface is poorly divided up with completely separate lists of mailboxes, aliases, filters, etc – and there’s a one-time charge per domain, so it may not suit your requirements..
I wonder how many people/businesses have suffered financially or otherwise as a result of “vanishing email”.
I hope you find a good solution… and let us know about it!

Have you looked at FastMail? I think they do everything you want…

Kenn Christ says:

I looked at Fastmail, but got the same impression from them as I did from Tuffmail, namely that their web site hasn’t been updated since the 1990s.

Their offerings are a little confusing too, particularly with regard to the terminology used to describe things and their arbitrary limits on username length and number of domains and aliases, even with the highest-level, “Enhanced” plan. Finally, it seems they only support a single mailbox, so I’d need multiple accounts for separate mailboxes.

Overall, their service seems to have not been designed very well (not to mention their web site).

sdb says:

FastMail is very good. They have family- and business account now and changing their interface soon: http://www.emaildiscussions.com/showthread.php?t=49476
What do you want actually? A fancy website or a solid email service?

Kenn says:

I don’t need a “fancy” web site, but it should be usable. I want solid mail service with a user interface that doesn’t get in my way; that lets me do what I need to do quickly, easily, and without trying to sort out difficult navigation and bizarre terminology. Fastmail failed on all counts.