Set up a mail server

From Linuxintro

Understand what you are doing

To set up a mail server, you must first be clear about

  • what an MTA is
  • what a MUA is
  • what imap is
  • what pop is
  • what smtp is
  • what an MX record is
  • what sendmail is

To explain all this, here is a little story how Alice and Bob communicate via mail: Alice wants to write a mail to Bob. Alice uses kmail as mail program. kmail is her mail user agent, her MUA. She writes to Bob whose address is Of course, the content of her mail is secret so we won't tell it here. After she clicks "send", her MUA transmits the mail to Alice's outgoing mail server. This server has a little program on it called sendmail. This program looks up's MX record. You can do this on your own using the command

dig -t mx

It uses the IP address that it gets and, using the IP protocol, sends Alice's mail there.

Ok, and at this IP address, the message transfer agent of can be reached. This is a server that "speaks" the simple mail transfer protocol SMTP. It can receive mails, and also send them. It has also run on Alice's outgoing mail server. The smtp server receives the mail for Bob and puts it into his mailbox. Bob is asleep at the moment.

The next morning, Bob wakes up and uses his kmail to check his mail. kmail must know how it gets Bob's mailbox. There are two possibilities for that. Either Bob has a pop service running on his server where his mailbox is. In this case, kmail just fetches all mails from the mailbox and (optionally) deletes them. Or Bob has an imap service running there. In this case, Bob gets all mails displayed in his kmail, but they remain on the server. First when Bob presses "delete" in his mail program, the mails are deleted from the mailbox.

Bob can also collect his mails from his various mail accounts around the net. This is where fetchmail comes into the game.

This little story explains:

  • an MTA is responsible for sending and receiving mail
  • a MUA is responsible for displaying mail
  • for a MUA to be able to display mail, you still need an imap or pop server

Know your options

  • Well-known MTAs are postfix and sendmail (both use the command sendmail to send mail)
  • Well-known MUAs include kmail and thunderbird
  • imap and pop can be done by courier and cyrus

In this tutorial we use

  • postfix as MTA
  • courier as imap server
  • kmail as MUA

Set up your MTA

We will use the postfix software for the MTA service. We use its default configuration, so every operating system user will get an e-Mail-address in the form username@domain.

  • Install postfix:
yast -i postfix
  • Should it already be installed, no matter. Now run it:
/etc/init.d/postfix start
  • Find out your hostname. The server will only accept mails for addresses @hostname:
cat /etc/postfix/ | grep "myhostname *="
myhostname =
in this case you must send mails to
  • As a test, send yourself a mail:
sendmail -t root@ << EOF
this is test mail number 1
  • See if the mail has arrived:


cat /var/spool/mail/root
Content-Description: Undelivered Message
Content-Type: message/rfc822

Received: by (Postfix, from userid 0)
        id 09AAC18BAC06A; Tue,  5 Aug 2008 22:09:03 +0200 (CEST)
Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue,  5 Aug 2008 22:09:03 +0200 (CEST)
From: (root)
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

this is test mail number 1



  • Now let's provoke an error. We stop postfix now and see if it still works:
/etc/init.d/postfix stop
  • We send a mail
sendmail -t root@ << EOF
this is test mail number 1
  • and look if it has arrived:
cat /var/spool/mail/root
  • It has not arrived. To see that the mail is still in the mail queue, issue the command mailq and see the result:


tweedleburg:~ # mailq
postqueue: warning: Mail system is down -- accessing queue directly
-Queue ID- --Size-- ----Arrival Time---- -Sender/Recipient-------
8BD931648935       88 Mon Aug  4 21:14:48  root

-- 0 Kbytes in 1 Request.

</source> As you see, the mail is still in the mail queue and you get a warning "Mail system is down".

  • A server is a background program listening on a network port. What was smtp's port again?


tweedleburg:~ # cat /etc/services | grep smtp
smtp             25/tcp    mail         # Simple Mail Transfer


  • It is 25. Let's see if postfix listens there, first install nmap:
yast -i nmap
nmap localhost
  • no port 25. Start postfix again:
/etc/init.d/postfix start
  • And see:


tweedleburg:~ # nmap localhost

Starting Nmap 4.20 ( ) at 2008-08-05 06:19 CEST
Interesting ports on localhost (
Not shown: 1689 closed ports
22/tcp   open  ssh
25/tcp   open  smtp


Set up Maildirs

We want to use Maildirs as special mailboxes. This is because courier can only handle those. So, change /etc/postfix/, replace

#home_mailbox = Maildir/


home_mailbox = Maildir/

and restart postfix:

/etc/init.d/postfix restart

Now look that you can receive mails:

sendmail -t testuser@localhost << EOF
This is the 2nd test mail.
cat /home/testuser/Maildir/new/*
This is the 2nd test mail.

Now you can use kmail to read your mails.

Set mydestination

Let's assume you want to receive mails for As long as postfix does not know it is supposed to accept mails for the destination it will not do it. To tell postfix to accept mails for, set the variable mydestination in /etc/postfix/ like this: <source>

mydestination = $myhostname, localhost.$mydomain,


mail aliases

Maybe you want webmaster@yourdomain and info@yourdomain to be delivered to yourname@yourdomain. In this case:

  • edit /etc/aliases to read like:
# See man 5 aliases for format
postmaster:    root
dev:    thorsten
in this case we have inserted the alias dev to redirect mail to thorsten. So mail to dev@yourdomain will be delivered to thorsten@yourdomain.
  • check if /etc/aliases.db contains the new alias:
# strings /etc/aliases.db 
it does not
  • create the new /etc/aliases.db with the command
  • check /etc/aliases.db contains the new alias:
# strings /etc/aliases.db 


postfix dies

If you call

/etc/init.d/postfix status 

and get the message "dead", see /var/log/mail.err what happened. If you see something like <source>

postfix/master[5573]: fatal: bind port 25: Address already in use

</source> use

lsof -i 

to find out what process is blocking the smtp port and kill this process using the command kill.

Set your MX record

If you want to receive mail that goes to the address, you need to set the MX record of The MX record must be the ip address of the server where the MTA is running. To find out your current MX record, use dig: <source>

tweedleburg:~ # dig -t mx

; <<>> DiG 9.4.2-P1 <<>> -t mx
;; global options:  printcmd
;; Got answer:
;; ->>HEADER<<- opcode: QUERY, status: NOERROR, id: 9367
;; flags: qr rd ra; QUERY: 1, ANSWER: 1, AUTHORITY: 0, ADDITIONAL: 1

;                        IN      MX

;; ANSWER SECTION:         86400   IN      MX      50

;; ADDITIONAL SECTION:     86400   IN      A

;; Query time: 59 msec
;; WHEN: Sat Sep 20 14:43:23 2008
;; MSG SIZE  rcvd: 68

</source> In this case, the MX record points to whose ip address is

adapt "mydestination"

Before you set the MX record, all mails arriving were addressed to whatever@localhost. Now, say we are talking about, mails arriving can also be addressed to We need to tell postfix to accept those. Modify /etc/postfix/ <source>

mydestination = $myhostname, localhost.$mydomain,

</source> and restart postfix:

/etc/init.d/postfix restart

adapt inet_interfaces

Next thing is that you tell your server to accept connections from the public internet. Modify /etc/postfix/

inet_interfaces = localhost,

and restart postfix:

/etc/init.d/postfix restart 

verify the network is open to the outside: <source>

netstat -putan | grep 25
tcp        0      0  *               LISTEN      18022/master
tcp        0      0*               LISTEN      18022/master

</source> In this case, will be replaced by your IP address.

Using Spamhaus/Greylisting for blocking

Adding Spamhaus to smtpd_recipient_restrictions: <source> smtpd_recipient_restrictions = permit_mynetworks,

       reject_rbl_client,  <- Spamhaus Blocklist
       check_policy_service inet:  <- Greylisting


Now strange users (i.e. users which cannot be identified with SASL) will be blocked, if they are listed in the Spamhaus Directory and are subject to Greylisting.

What comes next?