31 March 2012

How to back up your Gmail and other Google stuff for safety, economy or switching

Whether you're a happy user of Gmail, Google Docs or other Google goodies, or a privacy-concerned current user considering alternatives but shackled by your stash of stuff on Google's servers, having local copies of your Google-stored possessions is valuable, wise and freeing. Loyal users can take comfort in having their data available offline on their own machines and backed up by Time Machine or whatever backup process they employ. Switchers will find their options broadened if their data is in their own hands and less subject to profiling or tracking. And those continuing with Google services can keep their service free if they periodically download their Google items onto their own computer and purge them from Google rather than paying an upcharge for exceeding the free storage threshold.

But Google doesn't make it easy to extricate your data from their grasp. After all, the more of your stuff resides on their servers, the stickier their services are for you, and the more data they have about you for targeting ads to you, and more.

Gmail poses particular difficulties for downloading your data in useful form, and it's the Google service most likely to bloom out of control, as it has for me.  But there are several ways to get your data into your own possession.

Here's how:

A) Use an email client

For downloading useful copies of all your Gmails you can in principle set up Mail.app, Thunderbird or some other email client to sluice it all down. But that takes a lot of time, and if your emails go back years you can choke those applications. I found Thunderbird prone to cataclysmic thrombosis when I tried using it to back up my out-of-control Gmail account, and even OS X Lion's fantastically-improved Mail.app labored mightily under the burden of keeping local copies of my multi-year Gmail inbox and all my label folders.  Plus, somehow my 16GB of Gmails turned into 118GB on my disk in Mail.app, due to (1) inefficient, repetitive downloading of emails in label folders, and (2) the Spotlight-searchable and Time-Machine-friendly single-email storage approach that Apple instituted several years ago.  By comparison, Thunderbird, Outlook and many other email clients use a database approach to storing emails.  This has the drawback of emails not being Spotlight-searchable, and Time Machine has to back up the whole database whenever a single email arrives, but it's space efficient.  Mail.app's approach is searchable by Spotlight and backup-friendly, but since each email is its own file, each consumes at least the file system's minimum file size, which I believe is 4kbytes.  The problem is exacerbated when your Gmail account has many labels-- and let's face it, labels are a key reason for using Gmail.  But if you're not careful (and what documentation exists on this point is pretty unclear) you can end up having multiple copies of emails bulging your disk.  Bottom line: using an email client is a Gmail-backup solution for simple and small Gmail setups only, and even then it requires lots of time, and careful setup not to make a mess of things.

B) Use a service

Backupify is another possible solution for getting hold of your Gmails (https://www.backupify.com/). It's a service-- it does the pull from Google's servers on its own machines, then sends you a .zip. The cost is low, $3 a month, and you can do a one-time snapshot for free. It looks like a great option, especially for enterprises reliant on Google's services.

C) Use a tool

CloudPull's setup is super-easy.
An even better solution for individual users and many businesses is CloudPull, an app that runs on your Mac and backs up your Google emails and documents in a format that's nicely databased but still plays well with Mail.app, your other applications and Time Machine. It's published by Golden Hill Software (http://www.goldenhillsoftware.com/) and is available for $24.99 directly from the Golden Hill site or via the Mac App Store. It'll do incremental backups of all your Google stuff, automatically, up to hourly. It maintains point-in-time snapshots for a default of 90 days. It can handle multiple Google accounts. You can select which services to back up-- Gmail, Docs, contacts, calendar, even Reader.

And since it's an app that runs on your own machine, you don't have to proffer up your passwords to a third party or run your data through anyone else's machines.  By default, it loads every time you boot your computer and will incrementally update your local store automatically.  It works great if your disk is protected by FileVault 2, too.

CloudPull really puts you back in charge of your data. Your data will no longer serve as a hostage that limits your mobility and choices. 
CloudPull lets you back up
the full gamut of Google services.

I've been using CloudPull for a few weeks to back up my Gmail account while I ponder the possibility of either switching, clearing out my stuff from Google's servers to avoid another year's storage fee, or otherwise adjusting my usage of Google's services.  CloudPull has a nice, clean, modern Mac user interface-- it was written using Apple's up-to-date Cocoa framework, is 64-bit, and requires OS X Lion. There are nice interactive pointers for setting Google options correctly for its usage. It's nice, period. Its good first impression has maintained throughout my use of it.

CloudPull stores your emails' metadata in a self-contained, space-efficient SQLite database for quick searching.  It pulls down each email's text and attachments separately in individual files for backup-friendliness.  Your label/folder format is preserved.  CloudPull provides its own fast search facility.  Or, you can export any label (folder) to a standard, Mail.app-compatible mailbox format, compatible with Spotlight.  

CloudPull can store your snapshots
for a selectable about of time.
On first run, CloudPull will ask for your Google account ID and password.  Next, you check-mark which services to download to your computer.  For Gmail, you're presented with a list of all your labels, which you can checkmark for downloading.  The download then begins, starting with CloudPull acquiring a comprehensive list of emails in your account.  CloudPull always uses a secure, SSL-encrypted connection for communications with Google.

Depending on how massive your Gmail store is, it may take time for it all to trickle down the first time.  In my case, over 300,000 emails comprising more than 16GB needed to be downloaded-- quite the severe test of CloudPull's stability!  This took three days.  It ran without a hitch, though.  I do recommend leaving it alone and resisting the temptation to play with its search facility or scrolling through its window until it's finished.  The current version (2.02) doesn't provide a lot of progress feedback, so just let it run until the little cloud icon in the menu bar indicates downloading is complete.

Interruptions are handled gracefully-- if you should restart your computer, sleep it or lose your WiFi connection, it will resume by checking with Google's servers and recommencing where it left off.

Once all is downloaded, you can tell CloudPull how often to back up your Google data.  Incremental backups take very little time.
Export any folder into a Mail.app-compatible,
Spotlight- and Time-Machine-friendly archive.

You have the option of keeping your Gmail emails in your CloudPull database or exporting them ("Restore as mailbox") to disk.  If your aim is to reduce your Gmail storage footprint or switch, you may want to export your inbox or important label folders since anything deleted from Gmail will remain in your CloudPull database for only the time you have specified for retention.  The default is 90 days, and though you can set this to "indefinite" it's probably safest to export.  
You can view your emails from within
CloudPull using its search facility
and snapshot browser.

If you haven't discovered Cover Flow for
Spotlight-searching old emails, you're in for a treat.

Though CloudPull reliably and unobtrusively copied my ridiculously overstuffed Gmail account onto my hard disk, according to the developer an update is planned/upcoming/imminent which will make handling really large archives like mine even better.  CloudPull support has been very responsive, too.


P.S. -- An absolutely wonderful usage totally aside from backup and switching

A few years back I was deposed in a lawsuit.  All my emails regarding the matter under litigation had been requested.  It took me a long, long time to find and collect all those emails in Outlook, which I'd been using at the time.

CloudPull combined with Gmail would have been a boon: You can create a filter in Gmail, make a label for it, and then CloudPull will automatically pull all those emails down to your machine.  Export those to a mailbox, and each will be in its own neat file.  Voila: a task that took hours and hours to satisfy a court order could be accomplished in less than ten minutes.


  1. Many thanks to Stephen Hackett, proprietor of the informative 512 Pixels blog, for his link to this post.

    512 Pixels is one of my daily go-to blogs, written by a former Apple Store lead Genius. Knows what he's talking about, connected, concise. Recommended!

  2. Ach, left off the 512 Pixels URL. It is: http://512pixels.net/ ...nice RSS feed too.

  3. Interesting product review.

    But you claim "Google doesn't make it easy to extricate your data" though I can't think of a single Google service that doesn't have an export option. They aren't always elegant but they are always available.

    And Google even has a 20% team called the Data Liberation Front that makes sure other teams data is exportable: www.dataliberation.org

  4. Eric Schultz notes, "I can't think of a single Google service that doesn't have an export option."

    Thanks for the comment, but: If there's an export option for Gmail that would work in my situation, I sure didn't find it. Sure, you can use an email client set up to POP your gmails from the server, but ...well, I tried it, and it was just an abysmal experience that simply didn't work very well and was glacially slow. If there's another tool, please let us know.

  5. Hello Everyone,
    I am one of the developer team member. I would like to share a simple application which helps you to backup your important mail called Beyond Inbox.
    It not only supports IMAP/Gmail backup but also supports feature to Restore backed up mail, Copy/move(transfer) mail from one Gmail account to another.
    It maintain separate file for each downloaded mail, which is compatible with other Email Client application like MS Outlook, Thunderbird etc.
    You can run this application on Windows, Linux as well as on Mac Os.
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    Ronak Jain