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The Real E-mail System
For the vast majority of people right now, the real e-mail system consists of two different servers running on a server machine. One is called the SMTP server, where SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. The SMTP server handles outgoing mail. The other is either a POP3 server or an IMAP server, both of which handle incoming mail. POP stands for Post Office Protocol, and IMAP stands for Internet Mail Access Protocol. A typical e-mail server looks like this:
The SMTP server listens on well-known port number 25, POP3 listens on port 110 and IMAP uses port 143.
The SMTP Server
Whenever you send a piece of e-mail, your e-mail client interacts with the SMTP server to handle the sending. The SMTP server on your host may have conversations with other SMTP servers to deliver the e-mail.
Let’s assume that I want to send a piece of e-mail. My e-mail ID is brain, and I have my account on howstuffworks.com. I want to send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am using a stand-alone e-mail client like Outlook Express.
When I set up my account at arpittak.com, I told Outlook Express the name of the mail server — mail.arpittak.com. When I compose a message and press the Send button, here’s what happens:
- Outlook Express connects to the SMTP server atmail.arpittak.com using port 25.
- Outlook Express has a conversation with the SMTP server, telling the SMTP server the address of the sender and the address of the recipient, as well as the body of the message.
- The SMTP server takes the “to” address (email@example.com) and breaks it into two parts: the recipient name (jsmith) and the domain name (mindspring.com). If the “to” address had been another user at arpittak.com., the SMTP server would simply hand the message to the POP3 server for arpittak.com (using a little program called the delivery agent). Since the recipient is at another domain, SMTP needs to communicate with that domain.
- The SMTP server has a conversation with a Domain Name Server, or DNS. It says, “Can you give me the IP address of the SMTP server for mindspring.com?” The DNS replies with the one or more IP addresses for the SMTP server(s) that Mindspring operates.
- The SMTP server at arpittak.com connects with the SMTP server at Mindspring using port 25. It has the same simple text conversation that my e-mail client had with the SMTP server for arpittak, and gives the message to the Mindspring server. The Mindspring server recognizes that the domain name for jsmith is at Mindspring, so it hands the message to Mindspring’s POP3 server, which puts the message in jsmith’s mailbox.
If, for some reason, the SMTP server at arpittakcannot connect with the SMTP server at Mindspring, then the message goes into a queue. The SMTP server on most machines uses a program called sendmail to do the actual sending, so this queue is called the sendmail queue. Sendmail will periodically try to resend the messages in its queue. For example, it might retry every 15 minutes. After four hours, it will usually send you a piece of mail that tells you there is some sort of problem. After five days, most sendmail configurations give up and return the mail to you undelivered.
The SMTP server understands very simple text commands like HELO, MAIL, RCPT and DATA. The most common commands are:
- HELO – introduce yourself
- EHLO – introduce yourself and request extended mode
- MAIL FROM: – specify the sender
- RCPT TO: – specify the recipient
The POP3 and IMAP Servers
When you check your e-mail, your e-mail client connects to the POP3 server using port 110. The POP3 server requires an account name and a password. Once you’ve logged in, the POP3 server opens your text file and allows you to access it. Like the SMTP server, the POP3 server understands a very simple set of text commands. Here are the most common commands:
- USER – enter your user ID
- PASS – enter your password
- QUIT – quit the POP3 server
- LIST – list the messages and their size
The IMAP Server
As you can see, the POP3 protocol is very simple. It allows you to have a collection of messages stored in a text file on the server. Your e-mail client (e.g. Outlook Express) can connect to your POP3 e-mail server and download the messages from the POP3 text file onto your PC. That is about all that you can do with POP3.
Many users want to do far more than that with their e-mail, and they want their e-mail to remain on the server. The main reason for keeping your e-mail on the server is to allow users to connect from a variety of machines. With POP3, once you download your e-mail it’s stuck on the machine to which you downloaded it. If you want to read your e-mail both on your desktop machine and your laptop (depending on whether you’re working in the office or on the road), POP3 makes life difficult.
IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol) is a more advanced protocol that solves these problems. With IMAP, your mail stays on the e-mail server. You can organize your mail into folders, and all the folders live on the server as well. When you search your e-mail, the search occurs on the server machine, rather than on your machine. This approach makes it extremely easy for you to access your e-mail from any machine, and regardless of which machine you use, you have access to all of your mail in all of your folders.