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How E-mail Works

Introduction to How E-mail Works

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 communication tool.

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 article, we'll take an in-depth look at e-mail and how it works.
An E-mail Message

According to Darwin Magazine: Prime Movers, 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.

E-mail Clients

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 message.
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 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 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 this:
From: jsmith
To: mbrain
Can we have lunch Monday?
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 eventually I 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, it would:

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 the separator)
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 this.

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 (see How Web Servers 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 I want to send e-mail to 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 -- When I compose a message and press the Send button, here is what happens:

Outlook Express connects to the SMTP server at 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 ( and breaks it into two parts:
The recipient name (jsmith)
The domain name (
If the "to" address had been another user at, the SMTP server would simply hand the message to the POP3 server for (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 (see How Web Servers Work for details). It says, "Can you give me the IP address of the SMTP server for" The DNS replies with the one or more IP addresses for the SMTP server(s) that Mindspring operates.

The SMTP server at 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 HowStuffWorks, 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 HowStuffWorks 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:

helo test
250 Hello
[], pleased to meet you
mail from:
250 2.1.0 Sender ok
rcpt to:
250 2.1.5 jsmith... Recipient ok
354 Enter mail, end with "." on a line by itself
subject: testing
John, I am testing...
250 2.0.0 e1NMajH24604 Message accepted
for delivery
221 2.0.0 closing connection
Connection closed by foreign host.
What the e-mail client says is in blue, 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

To be continue next week on sunday

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