IMAP – what’s that?

Late in 2007, we quietly rolled out access to IMAP, a powerful email access protocol that our customers can use to manage their email. Email is the Internet’s killer application. While the web is essential, it’s email that most folks use first, every day.

Most Internet users either use POP (post office protocol) to access their messages, or a webmail interface of some sort today.

POP is simple – an email client such as Outlook Express or Thunderbird connects to our servers, authenticates, and fetches all of your email. The client tells our servers that everything has been received, and the messages are deleted from our storage here. If you’ve just got one PC, this is adequate, and convenient. All of the messages are stored locally though, so if you keep emails for future reference, a computer crash can mean the loss of your archive.

Webmail is the direction that many Internet users have gone, because there’s a natural desire to be able to access email from any PC. At home, at work, while at a friend’s house, etc. This desire has caused many Internet users to select a free webmail service such as Yahoo, MSN’s Hotmail or Gmail. The down side of these free services is that they have very limited accountability, and they are supported by advertising. You can’t phone up Yahoo’s support line if your messages go missing or call Google if you can’t log into Gmail – they don’t have a phone number and simply don’t want to talk to you. It’s free, so it’s not reasonable to expect much from them.

IMAP solves these problems. It centralizes the message storage here at Sonic.net, on reliable storage, and makes the entire inbox and archive available from multiple locations and via the web. Sonic.net is the only mainstream Internet Access Provider that I know of who provides IMAP, and it’s a feature that I’m very excited about.

IMAP diagram
(click image to enlarge)

It might seem odd to be excited about something this simple, but because email is so essential, and such a big part of so many people’s daily lives, I know that changes to the way that we access and use email can make a huge difference.

Like POP, you can use IMAP with clients like Outlook, Thunderbird (which I use and recommend), etc. It also allows access from portable devices such as Apple’s iPhone. And finally, when you’re at a random PC, you can use it via our webmail interface.

A unified inbox is wonderful, particularly as your email volume grows. You receive an email while you’re at work, read, respond, and delete it. On the way home, you check mail on your iPhone – and your inbox is shown at exactly the state you left it in when you departed the office. Once home, you respond to a few items and delete them, and back at work the next day your inbox is identical to the way you left it when you departed home. If you’re using a PC that’s not your own (and which thus doesn’t have your email client (Thunderbird!) installed with your settings), you can use the web interface, and the messages are all right in the state that you left them in.

There are a lot of advantages to using IMAP over both traditional POP and free webmail solutions, and if you use more than one PC or want to access your email from anywhere aside from your primary PC, I recommend that you switch right now.

IMAP is easy to set up – in your client software, you simply select the IMAP protocol instead of POP, and use the server imap.sonic.net instead of pop.sonic.net. You’ll duplicate these settings as you install client software (Thunderbird, Outlook, etc) on any additional PCs (at work, laptop, etc). If you need any assistance, phone our support group at 707-547-3400 and they’ll help you through the settings right now.

IMAP allows unified access to email without using a free webmail service. This provides you with the ability to establish a long term email address, knowing that it will be available to you for as long as you like. With free webmail, the service could become restrictive or fee based, may become too ad-laden to be usable, may include ads sent at the bottom of every email (Yahoo does this), or you may simply lose access because someone sent spam using your name. There is no one to call, and no reason for them to help you, because you are just another free mailbox.

There’s too much risk in free webmail, your email and email address are too important.

The practical risks involved have however been judged to be worth taking by many Internet users, as you can see by the proliferation of @yahoo.com and other similar addresses. The upside was unified access, which POP just couldn’t provide.

Now, with IMAP at Sonic.net, that problem has been solved, providing individuals with a more powerful way to manage their messaging.

  • neil dunaetz

    Thanks for educating me about IMAP. I’ve been using only sonic webmail for 5 months, so now I’m eager to try accessing through Thunderbird. As always, sonic.net rules! Neil

  • emanuel

    Just a quick question if I may.
    From time to time, I had setup Thunderbird and/or Outlook to leave copies of emails on the POP server. In this case doesn’t the POP server feel like an IMAP?

  • Robert Farmer

    The problem with webmail and IMAP too as I see it is one of security. I simply don’t want all my personal email sitting around forever in some archive for someone else (either within the company or outside affiliates such as advertisers or insurers or credit agencies or even govt) to be able to access. You are saying to me “Trust me with all your personal mail, I will take care of it for you.” Just like Google or Yahoo. NO WAY.

    Thanks for giving me the chance to sound off.

    RF

  • How much does IMAP cost. Right now I can get my e-mail from other computers-I am at work now-Why switch?

  • The big difference between IMAP and POP’s “leave mail on server” option is that the mailboxes are synchronized. This means that if you delete something, it’s gone, as viewed from all devices (multiple PCs, mobile devices, etc). Also, if you file something in a folder, it’s there, on all devices. This lets you work from many locations, all in sync.

    Regarding your comments Robert, privacy is always a valid concern. Here at Sonic.net, we’ve got a privacy philosophy that would protect you from concerns about advertisers and such. But, if you commit some crime and we get a subpoena that requires us to provide access to the message store, we’d be obligated to do so. Likely in this sort of incident they’d have already come to your door and taken your PC, so if you saved the data locally you might not be any better off. Just some thoughts.

    -Dane

  • I wanted to ask about the performance hit you guys will take on your servers, by handling tons of IMAP requests, are you going to be able to scale with the demand? Sonic.net users IMAP folders can get pretty big. Are you guys storing the mail normally in files or do you have a database to store each sonic.net users IMAP mail?

  • POP and IMAP are very different in their performance demands. IMAP means repeated access, lots of updates and potentially huge amounts of storage. Our webmail platform also uses IMAP, so we’ve got experience with these requirements.

    The powerful capabilities that IMAP makes available are worth the investment in these resources. It’s our hope that customers will choose our service or stay with our service partly because of features like IMAP.

    -Dane

  • Dave

    I currently use Gmail. I know I’ll never reach the storage capacity. How much storage is sonic allocating to users?

  • Jim Puskar

    I currently use sonic.net for our DSL service at my workplace, but I’m a Mac user at home, and I currently use Earthlink for my home DSL service. Are there any considerations with using sonic.net’s DSL, e-mail, web hosting, etc. on a Mac?

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