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3. How Electronic Mail Works

Now we'll explain the flow of information that typically takes place when two people to communicate by email. Let us suppose that Alice, on her machine, wants to send mail to Bob, on his machine Both machines are connected to the Internet.

It helps to know that an Internet mail message consists of two parts; mail headers and a mail body, separated by a blank line. The mail headers contain the source and destination of the mail, a user-supplied subject line, the date it was sent, and various other kinds of useful information. The body is the actual content of the message. Here's an example:

From: "Alice" <>
Message-Id: <>
Subject: Have you seen my white rabbit?
To: (Bob)
Date: Thu, 13 Nov 1997 12:04:05 -0500 (EST)
Content-Type: text

I'm most concerned.  I fear he may have fallen down a hole.

The arrangement and meaning of Internet mail headers are defined by an Internet standard called RFC822.

3.1 Mail between full-time Internet machines

Here's a diagram of the whole process -- I'll explain all the stages and terminology below.

                   +---------+          +-------+
+-------+  types   | sending |  calls   |sending|  
| Alice |--------->|   MUA   |--------->|  MTA  |::::>::::
+-------+          |         |          |       |       ::   on the
                   +---------+          +-------+       ::   sending
                                                        ::   machine
                             SMTP                       ::
 ::   +---------+          +-----+                +-------+
 ::   |receiving|  calls   |     |  delivers to   | Bob's |
 ::::>|   MTA   |--------->| LDA |===============>|mailbox|  on the
      |         |          |     |                |       |  receiving
      +---------+          +-----+                +-------+  machine
                                                    |   |
                                                    |   |
                     +----------------<-------------+   |
                     |                                  |
                +---------+         +-------+           |
                |  Bob's  |         | Bob's |<----------+
                | notifier|         |  MUA  |
                +---------+         +-------+
                     |                  |
                     |      +-----+     |
                     +----->| Bob |<----+

To send mail, Alice will invoke a program called a mail user agent (or MUA for short). The MUA is what users think of as `the mailer'; it helps her compose the message, usually by calling out to a text editor of her choice. When she hits the MUA `send' button, her part of the process is done. Later in this HOWTO we will survey popular MUAs.

The MUA she uses immediately hands her message to a program called a mail transport agent (or MTA). Usually this program will be sendmail, though some alternative MTAs are gaining popularity and may appear in future Linux distributions. Later in this HOWTO we will also survey MTAs.

The MTA's job is to pass the mail to an MTA on Bob's machine. It determines Bob's machine by analyzing the To header and seeing the on the right-hand side of Bob's address. It uses that address to open an Internet connection to Bob's machine. The mechanics of making that connection are a whole other topic; for this explanation, it's enough to know that that connection is a way for Alice's MTA to send text commands to Bob's machine and receive replies to those commands.

The MTA's commands don't go to a shell. Instead they go to a service port on Alice's machine. A service port is a sort of rendezvous, a known place where Internet service programs listen for incoming requests. Service ports are numbered, and Alice's MTA knows that it needs to talk to port 25 on Bob's machine to pass mail.

On port 25, Bob's machine has its own MTA listening for commands (probably another copy of sendmail). Alice's MTA will go through a dialogue with Bob's using Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (or SMTP). Here is what an SMTP dialogue looks like. Lines sent by Alice's machine are shown with S:, responses from Bob's machine are shown with R:.

      S: MAIL FROM:<>
      R: 250 OK
      S: RCPT TO:<>
      R: 250 OK
      S: DATA
      R: 354 Start mail input; end with <CRLF>.<CRLF>
      S: From: "Alice" <>
      S: Message-Id: <>
      S: Subject: Have you seen my white rabbit?
      S: To: (Bob)
      S: Date: Thu, 13 Nov 1997 12:04:05 -0500 (EST)
      S: Content-Type: text
      S: I'm most concerned.  I fear he may have fallen down a hole.
      S: -- 
      S:                                                 >>alice>>
      S: .
      R: 250 OK

Usually an SMTP command is a single text line and so is its response. The DATA command is an exception; after seeing that, the SMTP listener accepts message lines until it sees a period on a line by itself. (SMTP is defined by the Internet standard RFC821.)

Now Bob's MTA has Alice's message. It will add a header to the message that looks something like this:

Received: (from
        by (8.8.5/8.8.5) id MAA18447
        for; Thu, 13 Nov 1997 12:04:05 -0500

This is for tracking purposes in case of mail errors (sometimes a message has to be relayed through more than one machine and will have several of these). Bob's MTA will pass the modified message to a local delivery agent or LDA. On Linux systems the LDA is usually a program called procmail, though others exist.

The LDA's job is to append the message to Bob's mailbox. It's separate from the MTA so that both programs can be simpler, and so the MTA can concentrate on doing Internet things without worrying about local details like where the user mailboxes live.

Bob's mailbox will normally be a file called /usr/spool/mail/bob or /var/mail/bob. When he reads mail, he runs his own MUA (mail user agent) to look at and edit that file.

3.2 Notifiers

There's yet another kind of program that is important in the mail chain, though it does not itself read or transmit mail. It's a mail notifier, a program that watches your email in-box for activity and signals you when new mail is present.

The original notifier was a pair of Unix programs called biff(1) and comsat(8). The biff program is a front end that enables you to turn on the comsat service. When this service is on, the header of new mail will be dumped to your terminal as it arrived. This facility was designed for people using line-oriented programs on CRTs; it's not really a good idea in today's environment.

Most Unix shells have built-in mailcheck facilities that allow them to function as notifiers in a rather less intrusive way (by emitting a message just before the prompt when new mail is detected). Typically you can enable this by setting environment variables documented on the shell's manual page. For shells in the sh/ksh/bash family, see the MAIL and MAILPATH variables

Systems supporting X come with one of several little desktop gadgets that check for new mail periodically and give you both visible and audible indication of new mail. The oldest and most widely used of these is called xbiff; if your Linux has a preconfigured X desktop setup, xbiff is probably on it. See the xbiff(1) manual page for details.

3.3 Mail to part-time Internet machines

If you were reading carefully, you may have noticed that the information flow we described above depends on Alice's machine being able to talk to Bob's machine immediately. What happens if Bob's machine is down, or is up but not connected to the Internet?

If Alice's MTA can't reach Bob's immediately, it will stash Alice's message in a mail queue on It will then retry sending the mail at intervals until an expiration time is reached, at which point a bounce message notifying Alice of the failure will be sent back to her. In the default configuration of the most popular MTA (sendmail), the retry interval is 15 minutes and the expiration time is 4 days.

3.4 Remote mail and remote-mail protocols

Many Linux users nowadays are connected to the Internet via ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and don't have their own Internet domains. Instead they have accounts on an ISP machine. Their mail gets delivered to a mailbox on that ISP machine. But typically these users want to read and reply to their mail using their own machines, which connect to the ISP intermittently using SLIP or PPP. Linux supports remote mail protocols to support this.

Note how this is different from the scenario we discussed in the last section. Mail sitting in a queue awaiting retransmission is not the same as mail dispatched to a server mailbox; mail in a queue is not considered to have been delivered and is subject to expiration, but mail delivered to an ISP server mailbox is considered `delivered' and can sit there indefinitely.

A remote-mail protocol allows mail on a server to be pulled across a network link by a client program (this is the opposite of normal delivery in which an MTA pushes mail to a receiving MTA). There are two remote-mail protocols in common use; POP3 (defined by the Internet standard RFC1939) and IMAP (defined by the Internet standard RFC2060). Effectively all ISPs support POP3; a growing number support IMAP (which is more powerful).

Here is what an example POP3 session looks like:

      S: <client connects to service port 110>
      R:    +OK POP3 server ready <>
      S:    USER bob
      R:    +OK bob
      S:    PASS redqueen
      R:    +OK bob's maildrop has 2 messages (320 octets)
      S:    STAT
      R:    +OK 2 320
      S:    LIST
      R:    +OK 2 messages (320 octets)
      R:    1 120
      R:    2 200
      R:    .
      S:    RETR 1
      R:    +OK 120 octets
      R:    <the POP3 server sends message 1>
      R:    .
      S:    DELE 1
      R:    +OK message 1 deleted
      S:    RETR 2
      R:    +OK 200 octets
      R:    <the POP3 server sends message 2>
      R:    .
      S:    DELE 2
      R:    +OK message 2 deleted
      S:    QUIT
      R:    +OK dewey POP3 server signing off (maildrop empty)
      S:  <client hangs up>

An IMAP session uses different commands and responses, but is logically very similar.

To take advantage of POP3 or IMAP, you need a remote mail client program to pull your mail. Some mail user agents have client capabilities built in (which one supports which is noted below), and the Netscape browser's mail facility supports both POP and IMAP natively.

The main drawback of POP client facilities built into MUAs is that you have to explicitly tell your mailer to poll the server; you don't get notified by xbiff(1) or equivalent, as you would for mail that is either local or delivered by a conventional SMTP `push' connection. Also, of course, not all MUAs can do POP/IMAP, so you may find yourself compromising on other features.

Your Linux probably comes with a program called fetchmail that is designed specifically to talk to remote-mail servers, fetch mail, and feed it into your normal mail delivery path by speaking SMTP to your listener.

Unless you need to keep your mail on the server (for example, because you move around between client machines a lot) fetchmail is probably a better solution than whatever POP/IMAP features your user agent has. Fetchmail can be told to run in background and poll your server periodically, so your xbiff(1) or other mail-notifier program will work as it would for SMTP mail. Also, fetchmail is rather more tolerant of various idiosyncracies and nonstandard server quirks than the clients in MUAs, and has better error recovery.

Here's a diagram showing how both cases (with and without fetchmail) work:

                   +---------+          +-------+
+-------+  types   | sending |  calls   |sending|  
| Alice |--------->|   MUA   |--------->|  MTA  |::::>::::
+-------+          |         |          |       |       ::
                   +---------+          +-------+       ::   on the
                                                        ::   sending
                             SMTP                       ::   machine
 ::   +---------+          +-----+             +-------+
 ::   |receiving|  calls   |     |  delivers   | Bob's |
 ::::>|   MTA   |--------->| LDA |============>|server |::::>::::
      |         |          |     |    to       |mailbox|       ::  on the
      +---------+          +-----+             +-------+       ::   mail
                                                               ::  server
                          POP or IMAP                          ::
 ::                  +-----------+ 
 ::                  |           |
 :::::::>::::::::::::| fetchmail |::::::::               on the
 ::                  |           |      ::              receiving
 ::                  +-----------+      ::               machine,
 ::                                     ::             with fetchmail
 ::   ::::::::::::::::<:::::::::::::::::::
 ::   :: 
 ::   ::   +---------+          +-----+                +-------+
 ::   ::   |receiving|  calls   |     |  delivers to   | Bob's |
 ::   ::::>|   MTA   |--------->| LDA |===============>|mailbox|
 ::        |         |          |     |                |       |
 ::        +---------+          +-----+                +-------+
 ::                                                      |   |
 ::                                                      |   |
 ::                       +----------------<-------------+   |
 ::                       |                                  |
 ::                  +---------+         +-------+           |
 ::                  |  Bob's  |         | Bob's |<----------+
 ::                  | notifier|         |  MUA  |
 ::                  +---------+         +-------+
 ::                       |                  |
 ::                   .   |                  |
 ::     without       .   |                  |
 ::    fetchmail      .   |                  |
 ::                   .   |      +-----+     |
 ::   +----------+    .   +----->|     |<----+
 ::   |  Bob's   |    .          | Bob |
 :::::| POP/IMAP |----.--------->|     |
      |   MUA    |    .          +-----+
      +----------+    .

3.5 Mailbox formats

When incoming mail gets appended to a mailbox, it's up to the MTA to provide some kind of delimiters that tell where one message stops and the next begins.

Under Unix, the convention almost all mailers use is that each line beginning with ``From '' (the space is significant) begins a new message. If ``From '' occurs at the beginning of a line in text, a Unix MTA will generally prefix it with a greater-than sign, so it looks like ``>From ''. RFC822 headers follow this From line (which usually continues with the sender name and receipt date).

This convention originated with Unix Version 7, so this kind of mailbox is referred to as a ``V7 mailbox''; it is also sometimes called ``mbox format''. Unless otherwise noted, all programs mentioned in this HOWTO expect this format. It is not, however, quite universal, and tools expecting and generating different formats can confuse each other badly.

The four other formats to know about (and beware of!) are BABYL, MMDF, MH, and qmail maildir. Of these, MMDF is the simplest; it uses a delimiter line consisting four control-As (ASCII 001) characters followed by CR-LF. MMDF was an early and rather crude Internet mail transport; a descendant is still in use on SCO systems.

BABYL is another survival, from an early mail system at MIT. It is still used by Emacs's mail-reader mode.

MH and qmail maildir are `mailbox' formats which actually burst each mailbox into a directory of files, one per message. Running grep on such a `mailbox' will get you nowhere, since all grep will see are the directory bits.

Microsoft Outlook Express .mbx mailboxes can be converted to RFC822 format with mbx2mbox app.

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