Making Yourself at Home

Posted by Phil on September 10, 2017

A recent news announcement from one of New Zealand's biggest Internet Service Providers (ISP) meant that near on 250 000 email accounts were being shuttered and their owners were now in a position of having to look to a new contact address.

People are generally more than comfortable with providers like Microsoft Outlook, Google GMail or Zoho mail but that's not an ideal fit for everyone and sometimes you just want to have a more personal, meaningful and distinctive address than the combination of your name and various numbers or characters needed to set aside your identity from thousands of others before you. For some people, the cluttered user experience of Gmail or other web based providers is a turn-off, and there are very legitimate reasons to feel uncertain about how much privacy these freely-hosted options are (for example, how confident can we be that Google aren't sourcing advertising metadata from your personal mail).

Committing your family email address with an ISP (e.g. "emma.chan@ihug.co.nz") means your family's mail is largely taken care of for you: you pay your provider some money for an internet connection and "Hey! Here's a helpful email address for you too. It's all set to go". This is fine until the company decides that the mail address you've used for years can no longer be supported and it's time to move on.

This is a big deal! You register with loads of other services with your email address. You do internet banking in part with an email address. All the notifications you've signed up for or identified with require that address. Now you not only have to decide on a new one, but you have to update ALL those other services and how do I do that if I've forgotten my password anyway? Who's to say I won't have to do all this again some day when the next mail issue happens? Which provider should I use now and who should I sign up with? Is it going to be hard because I don't feel like I know enough to even start?

"Argh! It's just all too hard!"

In this post, I'll try to explain how to take control of your online identity and secure your own slice of the Internet so that you can decouple yourself from your ISP. This not only gives you more certainty around your identity management, but removes barriers and opens doors that were hard to deal with previously, like taking advantage of cheaper services from ISP competitors or setting up your own website.

This post looks like a pretty long and complex wall of text, but don't panic. It's just that I've tried to be as descriptive as possible.

What's in a name?

Cost: ~$25 p.a.

Time: ~10 minutes

A domain name is simply a friendly, readable label that points to a place on the Internet. Similar to street addresses in real life where houses are all numbered on the street, locations on the Internet are numbered with an "Internet Protocol address". You've likely heard the phrase "IP Address" before. An IP address typically belongs to a computer - a web server, a mail server or some other device. The domain name is associated with that address so that people don't have to remember all the numbers. For example, you're reading this post on my domain at wheeler.kiwi.nz but you could also reach it by browsing to http://108.161.134.185 (if I'd set up my site's security to handle the address properly).

Registering a domain name is very easy and usually only takes a few minutes. The time-consuming task is deciding on a domain address that you like. There are a range of services that will register domain names for you. I like to use https://iwantmyname.com because they're simple and low-cost but others (e.g. Freeparking.co.nz) offer largely the same services. There are others: just search for "register domain name" in your search engine of choice. Once you've decided on a name search your service of choice for the options. It's possible "yourname.co.nz" or "yourname.net" might have been purchased by somebody already but you'll likely be presented with other similar choices that are available. Once you've made your selection, you can follow the payment options just as you would for any other online shopping experience.

Make sure you shop around!

The fee charged should typically be around NZD $20 - $30 dollars and will be for a full year. I have seen examples - even from companies within New Zealand - where fees for registering that same name have been double the cost they're retailing at from less-prominent services (I'm looking at you, domainz.co.nz!).

You've got mail!

Cost: ~$1 p.mth.

Time: 20 minutes

That's step one taken care of. Next, we want to look at mail options.

Your domain name register may offer easy mail setup as part of its services for a small fee. If it's easier and you're comfortable with the price they're quoting, you could choose to simply keep everything in one place. It's easier to get set up because the provider takes some of the thought out of it.

If you're not convinced that you want to spend the money they're quoting, or you want to have the confidence that you're making informed choices that fit best with your own interests, read on.

Mail providers and mail servers are conceptually similar to the central post office in your home town: mail gets delivered from around the world and winds up in your post office in a container specifically set aside for you. Your task is to pop in to the post office occasionally to check if you have any new mail. What you need to do is decide which post office you feel meets your needs. Geography generally doesn't need to come into the equation (unless that's something you feel is important).

There are plenty of low-cost mail hosting services. Here are just a few and their prices:

There is a bit of a set-up process for getting your mail hosted. The mail hosting service needs to know a few things if it's going to manage things correctly for you:

  • What is your domain name?
  • How can we prove you own it?
  • What email addresses do you want?

Similarly, your domain name provider will want to know:

  • Where is your mail exchange hosted?

In addition to that, you'll also likely want to set up your mail client (Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail, etc.) to check and retrieve your mail periodically. We'll come to that shortly.

"This sounds like a lot of complicated stuff. I'm not very good at computers. I don't think I'm up for this task"

Someone learned this stuff before, which means you can learn this stuff. You can absolutely manage this; it's just a matter of taking your time to find each piece of the puzzle. Let's get started.

Setting up your mail exchange

The "Post Office" part of your mail is setting up the Mail Exchange (MX) records. These tell people sending stuff to your domain where the mail needs to be directed. You will usually find this information in the provider's help pages, or in the "Settings" section of the mail provider's site once you're logged in. I find the easiest way to get those details is to find a "help" or "support" link and search there for "domain email hosting". Any link that discusses "MX records" is likely to be the one you want.

You should expect to find something that has a list or a table stating an MX entry (between 1 and 3) and a "priority". The priority is basically a number saying "which one of these should be tried first?". Often there'll be more than one entry in the list but it depends on the provider. This is the information you need to update your domain name records.

If we switch back to your domain name provider's site, when you signed up for your domain name you will have been logged in to an admin area that allows you to manage the domain. There are a lot of things you can do here but for now, we're only interested in telling users of the domain where to direct mail.

In your domain settings, there will be a section that lists the name servers. Alongside this information, there is typically a link or button allowing you to manage or edit the DNS records. DNS stands for "Domain Name Service" and broadly speaking, it handles the look-ups for your domain name and the list of services and locations associated with it. We want to update your domain records to include mail services, so we need to update your DNS records. Click the link that allows you to do that.

Zoho DNS configuration

Now we can add the values your mail exchange listed. You'll see a dropdown with a bunch of letters (e.g. 'A', 'CNAME', 'MX', etc.) - you want to select "MX", then type in the mail server value and priority. With each value, click the "save" or "add" button and repeat for however many MX records your mail exchange listed.

Once you're done, click the big save button (assuming there is one - your records may get updated as you go) and that's step one done! Your domain is now set up to handle mail. There's only one more step: verifying to your mail provider that you are the true owner of the domain.

Verification

Verifying your domain involves adding one more record so that your mail provider has an assurance that you're not setting up a spam bot using their service as the unwitting accomplice. Verification is the same process as your MX records: adding a simple record to the DNS records.

Your mail exchange will likely have a step that requires you to add a unique code as a text value to your DNS records. For example, ProtonMail describes its process here. Zoho's process is here. ServerMX is here. And so on. When you log in to your mail provider's admin area, there should be a link somewhere that handles custom domains. You want your mail provider to handle mail for your personal domain, so it will prompt you with a verification code. Add this code as a 'TXT' record in the same manner as your MX records earlier, copying the value into the DNS entry's text box.

Who's getting the messages?

The last step of course is to define some actual mail accounts. Your mail provider will ask you at some point to set up a new mailbox. This part is entirely up to you. You can create whatever mail address you want as long as it has "@yourdomain.place" after it. Typically, people might opt for "myname@domain.place" or "firstname.lastname@domain.place" or variations along those lines. You'll also want to set a password. This is information your mail client (e.g. Outlook, Mail, etc) will need when you check your mailbox.

That's the hard stuff out of the way. You're set to go.

Sending and receiving

I use Outlook for managing my mail. You may well use something else. Whichever it is you use, chances are you've had to set it up once to send and receive. Remember earlier when I mentioned "popping" in to the post office? That's what we'll set up now and it's the last task on our list.

In order to get mail from your mail exchange / mail provider, you need to tell your mail client how to go and get mail, and how to transfer it out to someone else. To do this, your computer will use a "Post Office Protocol" (POP), which is a set of steps it has to follow for getting mail, and a "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol" which defines how it will send mail out.

Your mail client has an option for setting up a new mail account. You need to find the account management screen (e.g. in Outlook 2016, this is in the "File" tab, under "Account Settings") and select "new account". You'll be prompted to add a POP address (sometimes a POP3 address, but it's the same result) and the SMTP address. These are the mail agents on your mail provider's servers that handle the requests for incoming and outgoing mail.

The values for these are usually reasonably easy to find. When you're logged in to your mail provider you'll typically have a "settings" or "options" menu somewhere. If the POP and SMTP information isn't on the first screen you land on, there's probably a link that mentions "email forwarding" or "pop / smtp". Follow that link and you should see the values you need. Enter those into your mail client and that's the first key bit of information. The next thing you'll need is the "user name" and password. The user name is almost always your actual email address. Enter the address you just created earlier and the password you set for it.

That's about all there is to it. Send a test message out and you should find that your mail client connects to your mail exchange and dutifully sends the message.

 

I hope this helps! You can message me on Twitter or send me a message via the contact form on my home page to leave a comment or ask a question.

Offer

I am offering personal consultation services for anyone impacted by Vodafone's mail service wind-down for a one-off fee of $20. This extends to phone support for people living outside of Dunedin or a house visit for people living in the Dunedin urban area. Contact phil@wheeler.kiwi.nz for details.

 

Photo Credit

Stephen Crowley

Alexander Andrews