Every day, the citizens of the
Internet send each other billions of e-mail messages. If you are online a
lot, you yourself may send a dozen or more e-mails each day without even
thinking about it. Obviously, e-mail has become an extremely popular
Have you ever wondered how e-mail gets from your desktop to a friend
halfway around the world? What is a POP3 server, and how does it hold your
mail? The answers may surprise you, because it turns out that e-mail is an
incredibly simple system at its core! In this edition of
we'll take an in-depth look at e-mail and how it works!
An E-mail Message
this (extremely interesting) article, the first e-mail message was sent
in 1971 by an engineer named Ray Tomlinson. Prior to this, you could only
send messages to users on a single machine. Tomlinson's breakthrough was the
ability to send messages to other machines on the Internet, using the @
sign to designate the receiving machine.
An e-mail message has always been nothing more than a simple text
message -- a piece of text sent to a recipient. In the beginning and
even today, e-mail messages tend to be short pieces of text, although the
ability to add attachments now makes many e-mail messages quite long. Even
with attachments, however, e-mail messages continue to be text messages --
we'll see why when we get to the section on attachments.
You have probably already received several e-mail messages today. To look at
them, you use some sort of e-mail client. Many people use well-known
stand-alone clients like Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora or
Pegasus. People who subscribe to free e-mail services like Hotmail or Yahoo
use an e-mail client that appears in a
Web page. If
you are an AOL customer, you use AOL's e-mail reader. No matter which type
of client you are using, it generally does four things:
- It shows you a list of all of the messages in your mailbox by
displaying the message headers. The header shows you who sent the
mail, the subject of the mail and may also show the time and date of the
message and the message size.
- It lets you select a message header and read the body of the e-mail
- It lets you create new messages and send them. You type in the e-mail
address of the recipient and the subject for the message, and then type
the body of the message.
- Most e-mail clients also let you add attachments to messages you send
and save the attachments from messages you receive.
Sophisticated e-mail clients may have all sorts of bells and whistles,
but at the core, this is all that an e-mail client does.
A Simple E-mail Server
Given that you have an e-mail client on your machine, you are ready to send
and receive e-mail. All that you need is an e-mail server for the
client to connect to. Let's imagine what the simplest possible e-mail server
would look like in order to get a basic understanding of the process. Then
we will look at the real thing.
If you have read
How Web Servers
and the Internet Work, then you know that machines on the Internet can
run software applications that act as servers. There are Web servers,
FTP servers, telnet servers and e-mail servers running on millions of
machines on the Internet right now. These applications run all the time on
the server machine and they listen to specific ports, waiting for
people or programs to attach to the port (see
How Web Servers
and the Internet Work for details). The simplest possible e-mail server
would work something like this:
- It would have a list of e-mail accounts, with one account for each
person who can receive e-mail on the server. My account name might be
mbrain, John Smith's might be jsmith, and so on.
- It would have a text file for each account in the list. So the server
would have a text file in its directory named MBRAIN.TXT, another named
JSMITH.TXT, and so on.
- If someone wanted to send me a message, the person would compose a
text message ("Marshall, Can we have lunch Monday? John") in an e-mail
client, and indicate that the message should go to mbrain. When the person
presses the Send button, the e-mail client would connect to the e-mail
server and pass to the server the name of the recipient (mbrain), the name
of the sender (jsmith) and the body of the message.
- The server would format those pieces of information and append them to
the bottom of the MBRAIN.TXT file. The entry in the file might look like
There are several other pieces of information that the server might save
into the file, like the time and date of receipt and a subject line; but
overall, you can see that this is an extremely simple process.
As other people sent mail to mbrain, the server would simply append those
messages to the bottom of the file in the order that they arrived. The text
file would accumulate a series of five or 10 messages, and eventuallyI
would log in to read them. When I wanted to look at my e-mail, my e-mail
client would connect to the server machine. In the simplest possible system,
- Ask the server to send a copy of the MBRAIN.TXT file
- Ask the server to erase and reset the MBRAIN.TXT file
- Save the MBRAIN.TXT file on my local machine
- Parse the file into the separate messages (using the word "From:" as
- Show me all of the message headers in a list
When I double-clicked on a message header, it would find that message in
the text file and show me its body.
You have to admit that this is a VERY simple system. Surprisingly, the
real e-mail system that you use every day is not much more complicated than
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 a POP3 Server, where
POP stands for Post Office Protocol. The POP3 server handles incoming mail.
A typical e-mail server looks like this:
The SMTP server listens on well-known port number 25, while POP3 listens
on port 110 (see
How Web Servers and the Internet Work for details on ports).
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 actually 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 email@example.com. I am using a stand-alone e-mail
client like Outlook Express.
When I set up my account at howstuffworks, I told Outlook Express the
name of the mail server -- mail.howstuffworks.com. When I compose a
message and press the Send button, here is what happens:
- Outlook Express connects to the SMTP server at mail.howstuffworks.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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) and
breaks it into two parts:
- The recipient name (jsmith)
- The domain name (mindspring.com)
If the "to" address had been another user at howstuffworks.com, the
SMTP server would simply hand the message to the POP3 server for
howstuffworks.com (using a little program called the delivery agent).
Since the recipient is at another domain, SMTP needs to communicate with
- The SMTP server has a conversation with a Domain Name Server,
or DNS (see
How Web Servers
and the Internet Work for details). 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 howstuffworks.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 How Stuff Works, 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 How Stuff Works cannot 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 actual conversation that an e-mail client has with an SMTP server is
incredibly simple and human readable. It is specified in public documents
called Requests For Comments (RFC), and a typical conversation looks
something like this:
250 mx1.mindspring.com Hello abc.sample.com
[188.8.131.52], pleased to meet you
mail from: email@example.com
250 2.1.0 firstname.lastname@example.org... Sender ok
rcpt to: email@example.com
250 2.1.5 jsmith... Recipient ok
354 Enter mail, end with "." on a line by itself
John, I am testing...
250 2.0.0 e1NMajH24604 Message accepted
221 2.0.0 mx1.mindspring.com closing connection
Connection closed by foreign host.
What the e-mail client says is in red, and what the SMTP server replies
is in green. The e-mail client introduces itself, indicates the "from" and
"to" addresses, delivers the body of the message and then quits. You can, in
fact, telnet to a mail server machine at port 25 and have one of
these dialogs yourself -- this is how people "spoof" e-mail.
You can see that 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
- DATA - specify the body of the message (To:, From: and Subject:
should be the first three lines.)
- RSET - reset
- QUIT - quit the session
- HELP - get help on commands
- VRFY - verify an address
- EXPN - expand an address
- VERB - verbose
The POP3 Server
In the simplest implementations of POP3, the server really does maintain a
collection of text files -- one for each e-mail account. When a message
arrives, the POP3 server simply appends it to the bottom of the recipient's
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 have 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
- USER - enter your user ID
- PASS - enter your password
- QUIT - quit the POP3 server
- LIST - list the messages and their size
- RETR - retrieve a message, pass it a message number
- DELE - delete a message, pass it a message number
- TOP - show the top x lines of a message, pass it a message
number and the number of lines
Your e-mail client connects to the POP3 server and issues a series of
commands to bring copies of your e-mail messages to your
Generally, it will then delete the messages from the server (unless you've
told the e-mail client not to).
You can see that the POP3 server simply acts as an interface between the
e-mail client and the text file containing your messages. And again, you can
see that the POP3 server is extremely simple! You can connect to it through
telnet at port 110 and issue the commands yourself if you would like to (see
How Web Servers
and the Internet Work for details on telnetting to servers).
Your e-mail client allows you to add attachments to e-mail messages you
send, and also lets you save attachments from messages that you receive.
Attachments might include word processing documents, spreadsheets, sound
files, snapshots and pieces of software. Usually, an attachment is not text
(if it were, you would simply include it in the body of the message). Since
e-mail messages can contain only text information, and attachments are not
text, there is a problem that needs to be solved.
In the early days of e-mail, you solved this problem by hand, using a
program called uuencode. The uuencode program assumes that the file
contains binary information. It extracts 3 bytes from the binary file and
converts them to four text characters (that is, it takes 6 bits at a time,
adds 32 to the value of the 6 bits and creates a text character -- see
How Bits and Bytes
Work to learn more about ASCII characters). What uuencode produces,
therefore, is an encoded version of the original binary file that
contains only text characters. In the early days of e-mail, you would run
uuencode yourself and paste the uuencoded file into your e-mail message.
Here is typical output from the uuencode program:
begin 644 reports
M9W)E<" B<&P_(B O=F%R+VQO9R]H='1P9"]W96(V-C1F-
The recipient would then save the uuencoded portion of the message to a
file and run uudecode on it to translate it back to binary. The word
"reports" in the first line tells uudecode what to name the output file.
Modern e-mail clients are doing exactly the same thing, but they run
uuencode and uudecode for you automatically. If you look at a raw e-mail
file that contains attachments, you'll find that the attachment is
represented in the same uuencoded text format shown above!
Considering its tremendous impact on society, having forever changed the
way we communicate, today's e-mail system is one of the simplest things ever
devised! There are parts of the system, like the routing rules in sendmail,
that get complicated, but the basic system is incredibly straightforward.