Bye bye spam

Google AppsI am helping the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie switch to Google Apps, primarily for better a email system. The current email server, a RedHat Enterprise 3 box is getting antiquated and the SpamAssassin software isn’t stemming much of the spam flow, based on the number of not-so-happy emails and calls we receive from parishes on the topic.

Setting up Google Apps is pretty straightforward. Just register, configure the DNS for email, and upload a CSV file of the accounts you need.

Now for the hard part.

The real challenge to this migration is getting all of the parishes set up properly. The last time we tried to get all parishes set up with accounts, we sent out letters, emails and faxes. How many set up the accounts on their own? Close to none, so we spent a lot of time on the phone, walking not so technical people through the myriad of clicks and inputs – not my idea of a fun afternoon. This time around, I was determined to make this a better experience for everyone involved by making the process as simple as possible.

Almost all of the parishes use Outlook Express, so I looked for ways to automate the setup of a new account. I experimented with:

  1. Using some kind of batch installer program, but couldn’t find anything that would just run on its own that didn’t require some kind of install of its own first (and thus not adhering to the simple protocol).
  2. Emailing a registry file containing all of the account information. Outlook Express stores all of its account info in the registry, so opening a .reg file would be a simple and accurate process. The catch? OE blocks .reg files by default, so they can’t be opened. A reasonable default, but a pain in the butt for me.
  3. Emailing a link to download a registry file. This time, I got bit by IE, which ignores the file type described in the download header. Argh! When I finally got a workaround for the file type issue, I discovered the default IE blocks registry files also. Gee, what’s an honest system admin to do?
  4. The chosen solution was #2 with specific steps on how to turn off the security feature so that the file could be opened.  The email and attached files were created using a simple python script, an email template and a csv file with the account-specific data. I was a little worried that non-techie parish secretaries might still be confused, but a few test parishes worked out fine, so at last, a working solution!

Chance of email lost or disrupted close to zero

The nice part is the chances of losing any email or having any disruption in email service is close to nil. The parishes will have their old and new accounts active at the same time, even after the switch is made, so any email that arrives in the old account just before the switch will still get downloaded. This happens because Google has its own mail server name different from the Diocese’s current one, and we’re keeping the DNS records for both mail servers. The actual switch will involve changing the MX record priority, so that the new server becomes the first choice for incoming mail.

The odds are only good, of course, if parishes actually install their account in time. The actual switch is happening at the end of this week, on Friday March 30. Fortunately the Google control panel shows me which accounts have been accessed (and hence activated) so I’ll know who to *remind* in the coming days.

Check back next week to see what proverbial bits hit the fan!

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