Setting up a mail server

1. Introduction

E-mail itself is a system consisting of several parts. A main E-mail protocol — SMTP is used for exchanging of mail between servers. For a user to manage his mail IMAP and POP3 protocols are used. Difference between IMAP and POP3 is that IMAP manages mail stored on a server, while POP3, once fetched mail, deletes it from server.

As SMTP server I use Postfix. For IMAP (I don't use POP3 because I need access from multiple devices) I use Dovecot. Dovecot is also being used for SASL authentication in Postfix. And Dovecot supports Sieve protocol, through its implementation called Pigeonhole, that allows users to write their own message filtering rules.

Server is configured in a simple way using PAM (real system users) with user's passwords and with mail stored in ~/Maildir.

But, as you know, there is a major problem called spam. And in order to withstand this problem there was mechanisms created. So that no one could impersonate you DKIM, DMARC and SPF were created. To ensure encrypted connection a MTA-STS (RFC8461) standard was made. To resist incoming spam anti-spam systems like SpamAssassin or spamd are used. Also it is good to check incoming mail for viruses, there are many antiviruses and I use one called ClamAV.

I have mentioned DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail), it is used to sign mail going out that it is indeed comes from your server, and verify incoming mail. And for that I use OpenDKIM implementation.

DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance) is a policy that tells the server what to do if received mail failed some checks. To perform DMARC policy checks I use OpenDMARC implementation. OpenDMARC also performs SPF policy checks.

SPF (Sender Policy Framework) allows the server to check that an incoming mail came from an IP address set in SPF DNS record for domain it originates from.

Many servers will reject mail from a dynamic IP-address, so a static address is a must. But, from my experience, GMail, Yandex and Rambler will at least place my message to Junk directory. On Gmail I get to Inbox most of the time btw. There is such thing used against spam called block lists, and Spamhaus is the biggest player here. So, if a server uses such lists I get rejected at the stage of establishing a connection with no chance to get through anti-spam system.

If you have a static address then in Spamhaus you can submit your address for deletion.

Also, while not stated by RFCs, some servers will still reject your mail if your IP-address doesn't have a PTR DNS record set, and some will expect a PTR record to be a hostname of your server, like, or like my

There is another problem known as not trusted top level domain, like mine .top domain. :) Because of how cheap it is, it is popular among spammers.

2. Installing

You need to install following packages: postfix, dovecot, pigeonhole (or could be named as dovecot-sieve), clamav, opendkim, opendmarc, and spamassassin.

3. Postfix SMTP server

Its configuration files are in directory /etc/postfix. There are two configuration files we'll work with. The first one is a file. Then we configure services in Also I'll show you how to make aliases for users.


So, you have opened, first we need to make changes in an existing configuration:

myhostname =
mydomain =
myorigin = $mydomain

myhostname should be a subdomain that points to an IP of a mail server. This hostname is usually an A DNS record even if you have only one IP-address it is discuraged making it a CNAME.

mydomain is your domain. In myorigin we set a domain name from what sent mail appear. Yes, you can use other options as a variable to reduce copy-pasting.

inet_interfaces = all

In inet_interfaces we list interfaces we listen on. In this case we listen on all available interfaces.

mydestination = $myhostname, localhost, $mydomain, mail.$mydomain

mydestination is a list of domains our server deliver mail for.

local_recipient_maps = unix:passwd.byname $alias_maps

Here we tell Postfix where to look for names of local recipients.

mynetworks = localhost,

It is a list of trusted remote clients allowed to relay mail through our server.

alias_maps = hash:/etc/postfix/aliases
alias_database = $alias_maps

For database of aliases we use /etc/postfix/aliases file in a special format we learn about later.

recipient_delimiter = +

A symbol used to separate username and an extension.

home_mailbox = Maildir/

Here we use a Maildir/ mailbox style when every message is stored in a separated file.

mailbox_transport = lmtp:unix:private/dovecot-lmtp

Here we tell Postfix what LMTP (Local Mail Transport Protocol) server to use.

inet_protocols = ipv4

Here we leave only IPv4 support, if you have an IPv6 address then you may want to add ipv6.

So here we are done with an existing configuration and ready to make our additions to add encryption, milters, configure SASL authentication, restrictions and make some tweaks.

And we start with configuring milters. Milter stands for mail filter, a special protocol originated in Sendmail SMTP server.

milter_default_action = accept
milter_protocol = 6
smtpd_milters =
non_smtpd_milters = $smtpd_milters

milter_default_action specifies default action of a milter to accept messages.

milter_protocol specifies protocol version used by milters, current is 6.

smtpd_milters is a list of milters the messages will go through. You can connect to milter with internet protocol with inet:, with a unix socket unix:. The last one with port 7357 is a ClamAV.

Now lets add some tweaks:

biff = no
strict_rfc821_envelopes = yes
disable_vrfy_command = yes
smtpd_helo_required = yes
smtpd_delay_reject = yes

mailbox_size_limit = 0
message_size_limit = 52428800

biff set to no to disable local service for new mail notifications. It is a server, we don't need them here.

strict_rfc821_envelopes set to yes require addresses to be enclosed with <>.

Disabling VRFY command with disable_vrfy_command prevents some email addresses harvesting techniques.

smtpd_helo_required requires remote client to send HELO or EHLO command. This may stop some poorly written spam bots.

smtpd_delay_reject makes Postfix wait for RCPT TO command before evaluating some restrictions.

mailbox_size_limit and message_size_limit sets maximum size of a whole mailbox and of each email. Here I set no limit for a mailbox, and max of 50MiB for an email message.

And now it's time for SASL configuration:

smtpd_sasl_type = dovecot
smtps_sasl_path = private/auth
smtps_sasl_auth_enable = yes
smtpd_sasl_security_options = noanonymous
smtpd_sasl_local_domain = $mydomain
broken_sasl_auth_clients = no

It's pretty clear. We chose dovecot as our SASL server, set path to it that lies within /var/spool directory, and then enabled it. Then we prohibit anonymous connections. Add our domain for SASL authentication, and deny access for the clients with obsolete version of AUTH command.

It's time for encryption, lets specify a list of high (strong) ciphers to use:


I took this ciphers set from

Now lets configure encryption for outgoing connections.

smtp_use_tls = yes
smtp_tls_security_level = encrypt
smtp_tls_note_starttls_offer = yes
smtp_tls_connection_reuse = yes
smtp_tls_key_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/
smtp_tls_cert_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/
smtp_tls_mandatory_protocols = !SSLv2,!SSLv3,!TLSv1,!TLSv1.1
smtp_tls_protocols = $smtp_tls_mandatory_protocols
smtp_tls_mandatory_ciphers = high

First we enable it with a smtp_use_tls. Enforce use of encryption with (smtp_tls_security_level) set to encrypt. Noting servers of our ability to use encryption with option smtp_tls_note_starttls_offer. Reuse connection instead of opening the new one each time.

smtp_tls_key_file and smtp_tls_cert_file are paths to our TLS key and certificate.

In smtp_tls_mandatory_protocols and smtp_tls_protocols we disallow old vulnerable protocols to use. Leave only TLS version 1.2 and 1.3 available.

In smtp_tls_mandatory_ciphers we declare to use only good secure cyphers we previously set.

For incoming connections everything is the same, just a few more options added:

smtpd_use_tls = yes
smtpd_tls_security_level = encrypt
smtpd_tls_auth_only = yes
smtpd_tls_key_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/
smtpd_tls_cert_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/
smtpd_tls_mandatory_protocols = $smtp_tls_mandatory_protocols
smtpd_tls_protocols = $smtpd_tls_mandatory_protocols
smtpd_tls_mandatory_ciphers = $smtp_tls_mandatory_ciphers
smtpd_tls_loglevel = 1
smtpd_tls_received_header = yes
smtpd_tls_session_cache_timeout = 3600s
tls_random_source = dev:/dev/urandom

smtpd_tls_auth_only allows authorisation only on encrypted connections.

smtpd_tls_loglevel set to 1 to log a summary of a TLS handshake.

smtpd_tls_received_header makes Postfix include information about the protocol and cypher used to a Received: header.

smtpd_tls_session_cache_timeout is for how long to store session. tls_random_source is for setting an entropy source.

The final part is my "favorite". :) The restrictions! There is a set of them for each stage the message falls through. Here are the ones I configured:smtpd_helo_restrictions, smtpd_relay_restrictions, smtpd_data_restrictions, smtpd_sender_restrictions, and smtpd_recipient_restrictions.

So lets roll. This my working restrictions setup:

smtpd_helo_restrictions =
smtpd_data_restrictions =
smtpd_sender_restrictions =
smtpd_recipient_restrictions =

In order to explain what every restriction does I'd have to copy-paste from man 5 postconf. :)

The first set of restrictions are for HELO or EHLO command, that we force the client to send with priorly set option smtpd_helo_required to yes. Here reject_unknown_helo_hostname rejects hostnames that doesn't have DNS A or MX records. reject_invalid_helo_hostname rejects malformed hostnames, and reject_non_fqdn_helo_hostname ensures that the hostname is a fully-qualified domain name.

The second one are for DATA command. And here man page is better than me at explaining it. Here is the link for reject_multi_recipient_bounce and reject_unauth_pipelining. Or just look them up in man 5 postconf. All I can say is that it is better to have them than not to. :)

The rest is simpler, permit_sasl_authenticated in smtpd_sender_restrictions accepts the senders that were authenticated by SASL (e.g. Dovecot or Cyrus). And all the reject_unknown_* and reject_non_fqdn_* has the same meaning as for theirs *_helo_* counterparts, just used in theirs specific places.


The following services are needed: smtp, submission, smtps, and we add spamassassin service. The rest in this file left untouchable.

smtp       inet  n       -       n       -       -       smtpd
 -o content_filter=spamassassin
submission inet n       -       n       -       -       smtpd
 -o syslog_name=postfix/submission
 -o smtpd_tls_security_level=encrypt
 -o smtpd_sasl_auth_enable=yes
 -o smtpd_tls_auth_only=yes
 -o milter_macro_daemon_name=ORIGINATING
 -o content_filter=spamassassin
smtps      inet  n       -       n       -       -       smtpd
 -o content_filter=spamassassin
 -o syslog_name=postfix/smtps
 -o smtpd_tls_wrappermode=yes
 -o smtpd_sasl_auth_enable=yes
spamassassin unix -     n       n       -       -       pipe
user=spamd argv=/bin/vendor_perl/spamc
 -e /sbin/sendmail -oi -f ${sender} ${recipient}

smtp is listening on port 25, and smtps on port 465. submission is listening on port 587 and is used by mail client to send mail.

3.3. User aliases

User aliases are in aliases file. They has a form "<alias>: <username>", e.g. me: arav. Where username may be other alias. After editing you need to run newaliases program to update aliases.db file.

3.4. Starting Postfix

To start a Postfix service on systemd-based Linux distro run systemctl start postfix. To make Postfix run on every boot run systemctl enable postfix.

4. Dovecot POP3/IMAP server with Sieve mail filter

As I stated in the Introduction I use only IMAP, since it keeps mail on a server.

First we need to create a /etc/dovecot directory and copy example configuration there, but we don't need everything. Example configuration lies in a /usr/share/doc/dovecot/example-config directory.

Copy dovecot.conf file and conf.d directory.

We will need dovecot.conf and files from a conf.d directory: 10-auth.conf, 10-mail.conf, 10-ssl.conf, 15-mailboxes.conf, 20-lmtp.conf, 90-sieve.conf, 10-logging.conf, 10-master.conf, 15-lda.conf, 20-managesieve.conf, auth-system.conf.ext.

Here I will leave a brief necessary explanation of options, since you will see theirs documentation when will be editing configs.

4.1. Configuration files

4.1.1. dovecot.conf
protocols = imap lmtp sieve

Here we activate IMAP for access to mailbox, LMTP for local message delivery from Postfix and Sieve protocol for user-defined custom filters.

listen = *

Here we simply tell Dovecot to listen on all available interfaces.

base_dir = /var/run/dovecot

Uncomment setting to set a base directory for runtime files.

instance_name = dovecot

A new for this instance. In case you run multiple you can set a different names for them.

login_greeting = Dovecot ready.

A greeting message for the clients.

login_trusted_networks =

A list of trusted network ranges.

shutdown_clients = yes

I chose to force closing client connections on master process shutdown.

Here we are done with dovecot.conf file and let's go to conf.d directory.

4.1.2. 10-auth.conf
disable_plaintext_auth = yes

It disables login without encryption.

auth_realms =

A list of realms for SASL authentication. Just leave here your domain.

auth_username_format = %Ln

I chose to drop domain.

auth_mechanisms = plain

I use a plain mechanism.

And, finally, at the bottom leave auth-system.conf.ext include directive.

4.1.3. 10-logging.conf

Simply uncomment log_path = syslog there.

4.1.4. 10-mail.conf

In 10-mail.conf we set following:

mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir

We use Maildir/ scheme and store it in user's home directory.

Next set mail_server_admin = admin@%d, or whatever name you want. Here %d will expand to a domain.

4.1.5. 10-master.conf

In section service imap-login uncomment everything in inet_listener sub-sections for IMAP and IMAPS.

If you want to use POP3 protocol, then do the same for service pop3-login section.

Go to service lmtp section and add following sub-section to enable LMTP service on a UNIX socket:

unix_listener /var/spool/postfix/private/dovecot-lmtp {
  group = postfix
  user = postfix
  mode = 0666

Then go to service auth section and add following UNIX listener:

unix_listener /var/spool/postfix/private/auth {
  user = postfix
  mode = 0666
4.1.6. 10-ssl.conf

Set ssl = required to enable and enforce encryption.

In ssl_cert and ssl_key set paths to your TLS certificate and key.

Next you will see ssl_key_password where you type in your certificate's password if it is set.

And if you run your own PKI then you can specify your CA cert in ssl_ca.

Next good thing to do is to generate Diffie-Hellmann parameters file and set it in ssl_dh option. How to do it is written in a help comment for this option.

Next set a cipher list ssl_cipher_list to a list you previously specified in Postfix's file.

And finally ssl_prefer_server_ciphers = yes.

4.1.7. 15-lda.conf

Here we simply uncomment and set mail_plugins = $mail_plugins sieve in protocol lda section.

4.1.8. 15-mailboxes.conf

Here in a namespace inbox leave Drafts, Junk, Trash, and Sent mailboxes. Additionally, for every mailbox I added auto = subscribe options so they will appear in a mail client.

4.1.9. 20-managesieve.conf

Uncomment protocols option, service managesieve-login, and service managesieve sections.

Within service managesieve-login section uncomment fully inet_listener sieve sub-section. And next you can tweak service_count, process_min_avail and vsz_limit options to your taste.

4.1.10. 90-sieve.conf

Here I just have sieve_before = /var/lib/dovecot/sieve.d/ option uncommented, the rest is default.

4.1.11. auth-system.conf.ext

Here is default except for in passdb I added failure_show_msg=yes in args.

5. SpamAssassin spam filter

Here we are working with a file to configure SpamAssassin.

I didn't any fancy tweaking, didn't make any custom rules. I just changed options presented in file.

I left rewrite_header option commented since I don't want to append anything to a Subject header of spam messages.

Option report_safe I set to 2 to save spam messages as a text/plain attachment instead of modifying original message.

trusted_networks sets networks and hosts that are considered trusted, i.e. not spammers.

lock_method left to be flock, since I don't use NFS.

required_score left to be its default value of 5.0.

I use Bayesian classifier, so options use_bayes and bayes_auto_learn are set to 1.

I chose to normalise charset to UTF-8 with option normalize_charset 1.

5.1. Updating built-in rule set

I sometimes run sa-update util to update built-in rules and pre-compile them with sa-compile util. After that restart SpamAssassin.

And so SpamAssassin make use of compiled rules ensure that a plugin Rule2XSBody in a v320.pre is uncommented.

5.2. Bayesian classifier training

After you set up SpamAssassin for the first time you have to train Bayesian classifier. It will start to work after 200 messages will be examined.

For training use sa-learn utility and use --ham and --spam to mark messages as normal mail and spam. I additionaly have to specify a path to database with --dbpath /var/lib/spamassassin/.spamassassin, otherwise it will complain, so try first without it.

6. OpenDKIM signing and verifying filter

On ArchLinux I got a problem that OpenDKIM is unable to write in /run, so I created /var/spool/opendkim directory for it.

After configuring it, you need to add DNS record with your public key, it is covered in href='#art-8-5' section.

6.1. opendkim.conf

Well, that's main config file:

KeyTable           refile:/etc/opendkim/keytable
SigningTable       refile:/etc/opendkim/signingtable
InternalHosts      refile:/etc/opendkim/internal-hosts
Socket local:/var/spool/opendkim/opendkim.sock
PidFile /var/spool/opendkim/
UMask  000
UserID opendkim:opendkim
Mode sv
SubDomains yes
Canonicalization relaxed/simple
Syslog yes
SyslogSuccess yes
LogWhy yes
SoftwareHeader yes

I myself set up a multi-domain variant just in case. So, here we have two main tables: KeyTable and SigningTable. Those files tells OpenDKIM where to find keys and what domains to sign. You may use one key for all domains or generate keys for each domain.

InternalHosts tells OpenDKIM what hosts should be signed rather than verified.

Socket tells where to listen to connections, in this case we use UNIX sockets.

Mode selects operating mode(s). In our case we have two modes: (s)igner and (v)erifier.

SubDomains set to yes tells that we allow subdomains of our domains to be signed and verified.

Canonicalization selects the canonicalization method(s) to be used with signing. We set relaxed for header and simple for body. I don't fully understand it and just use what suggested.

Below are logging options that tells to write in syslog.

With SoftwareHeader set to yes OpenDKIM will be always adding "DKIM-Filter" header field.

6.2. Generating keys

opendkim-genkey -r -s myselector -b 2048 -d

This command will generate a key pair stored in files "myselector.private" and "myselector.txt" for a given domain.

-r restricts the key to emails use only. -s is a name of selector.-b is the size of the key in bits. -d is our domain.

Name of a selector is usually a mail, but that's just what I use, you can choose whatever you want.

6.3. Populating KeyTable and SigningTable

KeyTable has following structure (a line per domain):

And SigningTable this one:


6.4. internal-hosts file

As stated above in this file we put hosts whose mail should be signed rather than verified. And its structure is the following: is necessary to be there according to a manual.

6.5. Starting OpenDKIM

systemctl start opendkim and systemctl enable opendkim to start and enable OpenDKIM service to run on OS start up if you got Poetteringed just like me. :)

7. OpenDMARC email policy filter

Its configuration lies in /etc/opendmarc/opendmarc.conf and is fully documented. Here are the options I changed:

AuthservID OpenDMARC
FailureReports true
IgnoreAuthenticatedClient yes
RejectFailures true
RequiredHeaders yes
Socket unix:/var/spool/opendmarc/opendmarc.sock
SoftwareHeader true
SPFSelfValidate true
Syslog true
UMask 002

What's in a Socket option should be added to Postfix's smtpd_milters and non_smtpd_milters.

Creating DMARC DNS record covered in 8.4.

8. DNS records

8.1. MX and A/AAAA

It's good to have a dedicated A (IPv4 address) or AAAA (IPv6 address) record for a mail server's hostname instead of a CNAME record so other servers won't need to do two DNS requests. Hostname is usually if there's just one server, you can call it whatever you want. Remind you that we set it in Postfix in myhostname option.

And A record looks like this:

mail  IN  86400  A

Where mail is a hostname, 86400 is a TTL of a record in seconds.

Next we need to add a MX (mail exchanger) record that looks like this:

  MX 10

Here 10 is a priority of a record. The lower a number the higher a priority.

A period at the end of the hostnames is necessary in DNS records.

8.2. PTR

PTR is a reverse DNS record that stands for pointer and is used to “bind” a hostname to IP-address. Mail servers looks for this record and check so this name equals to a hostname provided in EHLO. Most servers will reject your mail if your PTR looks something like or not set at all.

There are three ways to set this record: ask your hosting or internet-provider, or get your own Autonomous System (:^)).

Example of this record:

1  IN  PTR

8.3. SPF

SPF stands for Sender Policy Framework and in my case it looks exactly like this:

v=spf1 +a +mx -all

So, v is a version of a protocol. +a +mx means that only servers specified in the A and MX DNS records could send email, and -all that no one else could do that.

8.4. DMARC

DMARC stands for Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance. And its DNS record could be like this one that I use:

_dmarc    IN    TXT    "v=DMARC1; p=reject;;; adkim=s; aspf=s"

v is a version of a protocol.

p is a default policy that could be set to none, quarantine and reject. I chose to reject mail that comes from «me” if there's something wrong with a origin of a message. If you could get email from subdomains then you need to set sp as well.

rua is an address for the reports and ruf is for the forensic reports. aspf verifies that an address in the MAIL FROM command and From: header matches in strict (s) mode, and in relaxed (default, r) mode matches domain or its subdomains. For adkim is the same except in this case sender domain name should match a domain in d=domain in a DKIM-Signature header.

8.5. DKIM

In 5.2 we generated a key pair for our domain and now we'll take what's inside a myselector.txt file and add it to our DNS.

DKIM DNS record looks like this:

myselector._domainkey    IN    TXT    ( "v=DKIMv1; k=rsa; s=email; p=<public key goes here>"
                                        "<public key continues here>" )

Brackets are used in case a content of a record doesn't fit on one line, and it won't fit.

9. Setting up a ClamAV antivirus

All you need to make it work together with Postfix is to add /run/clamav/milter.sock to smtpd_milters and non_smtpd_milters options in Postfix, also make some changes in configs of ClamAV.

In clamav-milter.conf you need the following:

MilterSocket unix:/run/clamav/milter.sock
ClamdSocket unix:/run/clamav/clamd.ctl

Also, in case you need ClamAV to add headers also in case a message is free of viruses add AddHeader Add or AddHeader Replace option. The difference between them is detaily described in config file itself.

Before starting ClamAV you need to update its virus definitions with freshclam util. Also, enable and start clamav-freshclam systemd service to keep definitions recent.

I don't know how it is in other distros, but, for whatever reason, an Arch Linux's package doesn't come with a systemd service file for the ClamAV milter. So I just copy it here from ArchWiki:

Description='ClamAV Milter'
ExecStart=/usr/bin/clamav-milter --config-file /etc/clamav/clamav-milter.conf

Save it as /usr/lib/systemd/system/clamav-milter.service and run systemctl daemon-reload.

Next you need to enable and start clamav-daemon and clamav-milter.