1.3 Email and sendmail

A mail user agent (MUA) is any of the many programs that users run to read, reply to, compose, and dispose of email. Examples of an MUA include the original Unix mail program (/bin/mail); the Berkeley Mail program; its System V equivalent (mailx); free software programs such as mush, elm, and mh; and commercial programs such as Zmail. Examples of MUAs also exist for PCs. Eudora and ClarisWorks are two standalone MUAs. Netscape and Explorer are web browsers that can also act as MUAs. Many MUAs can exist on a single machine. MUAs sometimes perform limited mail transport, but this is usually a very complex task for which they are not suited. We won't be covering MUAs in this book.

A mail transfer agent (MTA) is a highly specialized program that delivers mail and transports it between machines, like the post office does. Usually, there is only one MTA on a machine. The sendmail program is an MTA.

Beginning with V8.10, sendmail also recognizes the role of a mail submission agent (MSA), as defined in RFC2476. MTAs are not supposed to alter an email's text, except to add Received:, Return-Path:, and other required headers. Email submitted by an MUA might require more modification than is legal for an MTA to perform, so the new role of an MSA was created. An MSA accepts messages from an MUA, and has the legal right to heavily add to, subtract from, and screen or alter all such email. An MSA, for example, can ensure that all hostnames are fully qualified, and that headers, such as Date:, are always included.

1.3.1 Other MTAs

The sendmail program is not the only MTA on the block. Others have existed for some time, and new MTAs appear on the scene every once in a while. Here we describe a few of the other major MTAs:


Stressing modularity and security, qmail claims to be a replacement for sendmail. The qmail program is an open source offering, available from http://www.qmail.org.


Written by Wietse Venema, a security expert on the IBM Research staff, Postfix is advertised to be a drop-in replacement for sendmail that purports to deliver email more quickly, conveniently, and safely. The Postfix program is an open source offering, available from http://www.postfix.com.

Sun ONE Messaging Server

This MTA is a multithreaded commercial product that purports to be faster and more scalable than sendmail, and is part of a large commercial offering. Information can be found at http://www.sun.com.

Sendmail Switch[1]

This is the same sendmail we describe here, but with selected commercial enhancements, and a suite of support software that forms a complete email solution. Additional information can be found at http://www.sendmail.com.

Many other MTAs exist, some good and some not so good. We mention only five here because, after all, this is a book about the open source sendmail.

1.3.2 Why sendmail Is So Complex

In its simplest role, that of transporting mail from a user on one machine to another user on the same machine, sendmail is almost trivial. All vendors supply a sendmail (and a configuration file) that will accomplish this. But as your needs increase, the job of sendmail becomes more complicated, and its configuration file becomes more complex. On hosts that are connected to the Internet, for example, sendmail should use the DNS to translate hostnames into network addresses. Machines with UUCP connections, on the other hand, need to have sendmail run the uux program.

The sendmail program needs to transport mail between a wide variety of machines. Consequently, its configuration file is designed to be very flexible. This concept allows a single binary to be distributed to many machines, where the configuration file can be customized to suit particular needs. This configurability contributes to making sendmail complex.

When mail needs to be delivered to a particular user, for example, the sendmail program decides on the appropriate delivery method based on its configuration file. The decision process might include the following steps:

  • If the recipient receives mail on the same machine as the sender, deliver the mail using the /usr/sbin/mail.local program.

  • If the recipient's machine is connected to the sending machine using UUCP, use uux to send the mail message.

  • If the recipient's machine is on the Internet, the sending machine transports the mail using SMTP.

  • Otherwise, the mail message might need to be transported over another network (such as BITNET) or possibly rejected.

    Part I: Build and Install
    Part II: Administration
    Part III: The Configuration File