11.2 Parts of a Queued Message

When a message is stored in the queue, it is split into pieces. Each piece is stored as a separate file in the queue directory. That is, the header and other information about the message are stored in one file, while the body (the data) is stored in another. All told, six different types of files can appear in the queue directory. The type of each is denoted by the first two letters of the filenames. Each filename begins with a single letter followed by an f character. The complete list is shown in Table 11-1.

Table 11-1. Queue file types





Section 11.2.2

Data (message body)


Section 11.2.3

Lock file (obsolete and removed as of V5.62)


Section 11.2.4

ID creation file (obsolete and removed as of V5.62)


Section 11.2.6

Temporary qf rewrite image


Section 11.2.7

Transcript file


Section 11.2.5

Queue control file (and headers)

The complete form for each filename is:


The X is one of the leading letters shown in Table 11-1. The f is the constant letter f. The ident is a unique queue identifier associated with each mail message.

In the following sections we first describe the identifier that is common to all the queue file parts, then describe each file type in alphabetical order. The internal details of the qf file can vary depending on the version of sendmail, so it is discussed separately at the end of this chapter.

11.2.1 The Queue Identifier

To ensure that new filenames are not the same as the names of files that might already be in the queue, sendmail uses the following pattern for each new ident:

AApid            prior to V8.6 
hourAApid        beginning with V8.6 
YMDhmsSEQpid     beginning with V8.10 

Here, pid is the process identification number of the incarnation of sendmail that is trying to create the file. Because sendmail often fork(2)s to create queue entries, that pid is likely to be unique, resulting in a unique ident. The AA is used as a clock to prevent duplicate filenames. For V8.6 through V8.9 sendmail an extra letter prefixes the AA. Shown as hour, it is an uppercase letter that corresponds to the hour (in a 24-hour clock) that the identifier was created. For example, a file created in hour three of the day will have a D prefixed (the hour begins at midnight with A).[2]

[2] Programs should not depend on the lead letter actually encoding the hour. It is intended only to ensure that all identifiers be unique within any 24-hour period and as an aid to scripts that need to extract information from log files.

For V8.10 sendmail, the identifier is constructed differently. Each character stands for (in this order, reading left to right): the year (minus 1900) modulo 60, the month, the day, the hour, the minute, the second, and a sequence within the second that starts at a random value. Each is used as an offset into a special array that looks like this:[3]

[3] Omission of the letters y and z is intentional.


Thus, the following identifier:


means the year is 2002 (the g), the month is December (the C), the day is the 9th (the 9), the time is 16:42:57 (the Ggv), the sequence is 11 (the B), and the process ID of the process that created the file was 04136. The advantage to this algorithm is that no two identifiers will ever be the same during a given 60-year period. Although this latest method has stayed the same from V8.10 through V8.12, there is no guarantee that it will remain the same in future releases.

Prior to V8.10, if sendmail could not create an exclusive filename because a file with that identifier already existed, it clocked the second A of the AA to a B and tried again. It continued this process, clocking the righthand letter from A to Z and the lefthand letter from A to ~ until it succeeded:

AA        start
AB        second try
AC        third try
 ... and so on
~Y        last try
~Z        failure

If it never succeeded, the ident became one like the following and sendmail failed:


But this ident was unlikely to ever appear because the clocking provided for more than 1600 possibilities.

All the files associated with a given mail message share the same ident as a part of their filenames. The individual files associated with a single mail message differ only in the first letter of their names.

11.2.2 The Data (Message Body) File: df

All mail messages are composed of a header and a body. When queued, the body is stored in the df file.

Traditionally, the message body could contain only characters that had the high (most significant) bit turned off (cleared, set to 0). But under V8 sendmail, with a version 2 or higher configuration file (Section 17.5), the high bit is left as is until delivery (whereupon the F=7 delivery-agent flag, see F=7, determines whether that bit will be stripped during delivery).

Because the message body can contain sensitive or personal information, the df file should be protected from reading by ordinary users. If the queue directory is world-readable, the TempFileMode option (TempFileMode) should specify minimum permissions (such as 0600) for queued files. But if the queue directory is protected by both narrow permissions and a secure machine, the TempFileMode option can be relaxed for easier administration.

There is currently no plan to provide for encryption of df files. If you are concerned about the privacy of your message, you should use an end-to-end encryption package or an encrypting filesystem (not discussed in this book).

11.2.3 Queue File Locking

When old versions of sendmail process a queued message (attempt to redeliver it) they create an empty lock file. That lock file was needed to signal other running sendmail processes that the mail message was busy so that they shouldn't try to deliver the message too. Current versions simply flock(2) or fcntl(2) lock the qf file. Current-style file locking

The method that sendmail uses to initially create an exclusive lock when first queueing a file is twofold. First it attempts to creat(2) the file with the argument:


If that succeeds, it then attempts to lock the file. If HASFLOCK (HAS...) is defined when sendmail is compiled, the file is locked with flock(2). Otherwise, it is locked with a fcntl(2) F_SETLK argument. Locks shown when printing the queue

When mailq is run (or the -bp command-line switch is given to sendmail), the contents of the queue are listed. In that listing, an asterisk that appears to the right of an identifier indicates that a lock exists on the message:

/var/spool/mqueue/df (1 request)
 ----Q-ID---- --Size-- -----Q-Time----- ------------Sender/Recipient------------
 dB91UPA04168*       0 Wed Dec  8 17:30 <gw@wash.dc.gov>
             note Locks can get stuck

Occasionally, a file will become locked and remain that way for a long time. One indication of a stuck lock is a series of syslog messages about a given identifier:

Apr 12 00:33:38 ourhost sendmail[641]: dB91UPA04168: locked
Apr 12 01:22:14 ourhost sendmail[976]: dB91UPA04168: locked
Apr 12 02:49:23 ourhost sendmail[3251]: dB91XUs04170: locked
Apr 12 02:49:51 ourhost sendmail[5977]: dB91UPA04168: locked
Apr 12 03:53:05 ourhost sendmail[9839]: dB91UPA04168: locked

An occasional lock message, such as dB91XUs04170 in the third line in this example, is normal. But when an identifier is continually reporting as locked (such as the dB91UPA04168 lines), an orphaned lock might exist and should be investigated. Use ps(1) to look for lines that list queue file identifiers:

root      5338 160  -dB91UPA04168 To wash.dc.gov (sendmail)

This shows that the queued mail message, whose identifier is dB91UPA04168, is currently being processed. If the lock on that file is stuck, consider killing the sendmail that is processing it.

11.2.4 The ID Creation File (Obsolete as of V5.62): nf

Old versions of sendmail used an nf file when creating a message identifier to avoid race conditions.[4] But contemporary versions of sendmail create the queue identifier when first creating the qf file. The nf file is obsolete.

[4] Historical footnote: this stems from the days when the only atomic filesystem call was link(2).

11.2.5 The Queue Control File: qf

A queued mail message is composed of two primary parts. The df file contains the message body. The qf file contains the message header.

In addition to the header, the qf file also contains all the information necessary to:

  • Deliver the message. It contains the sender's address and a list of recipient addresses.

  • Order message processing. It contains a priority that determines the current message's position in a queue run of many messages.

  • Expire the message. It contains the date that the message was originally queued. That date is used to time out a message.

  • Explain the message. It contains the reason that the message is in the queue and possibly the error that caused it to be queued.

The qf file is line-oriented, with one item of information per line. Each line begins with a single uppercase character (the code letter), which specifies the contents of the line. Each code letter is then followed by the information appropriate to the letter. The code letters and their meanings are shown in Table 11-6 of Section 11.11.

Here is an example of a version 6 (for V8.12 sendmail) qf file:

${daemon_flags}c u
rRFC822; george@wash.dc.gov
H?P?Return-Path: <you>
H??Received: (from you@localhost)
        by your.domain (8.12.3/8.12.3) id g38DcXCL026713
        for george@wash.dc.gov; Fri, 13 Dec 2002 17:37:53 -0800 (PST)
H?D?Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2002 17:37:53 -0800 (PST)
H?F?From: Your Name <you>
H?x?Full-Name: Your Name
H?M?Message-Id: <200204081338.g38DcXCL026713@your.domain>

This fictional qf file shows the information that will be used to send a mail message from you@your.domain (the S line) to one recipient: george@wash.dc.gov (the R line). It also shows the various headers that appear in that message (the H lines). We discuss the individual lines of the qf file at the end of this chapter.

11.2.6 The Temporary qf Rewrite Image: tf

When processing a queued message, it is often necessary for sendmail to modify the contents of the qf file. This usually occurs if delivery has failed or if delivery for only a part of the recipient list succeeded. In either event, at least the message priority needs to be incremented.

To prevent damage to the original qf file, sendmail makes changes to a temporary copy of that file. The temporary copy has the same queue identifier as the original, but its name begins with a t.

After the tf file has been successfully written and closed, sendmail calls rename(2) to replace the original with the copy. If the renaming fails, sendmail syslog(3)s at LOG_CRIT a message such as the following:

cannot rename(tfdB91brx04175, qfdB91brx04175), df=dfdB91brx04175

Failure to rename is an unusual but serious problem: a queued message has been processed, but its qf file contains old and incorrect information. This failure might, for example, indicate a hardware error, a corrupted queue directory, or that the system administrator accidentally removed the queue directory.

11.2.7 The Transcript File: xf

A given mail message can be destined for many recipients, requiring different delivery agents. During the process of delivery, error messages (such as "User unknown" and "Permission denied") can be printed back to sendmail by each delivery agent.

While calling the necessary delivery agents, sendmail saves all the error messages it receives in a temporary file. The name of that temporary file begins with the letters xf. After all delivery agents have been called, sendmail returns any collected error messages to the sender and deletes the temporary xf file. If there are no errors, the empty xf file is silently deleted. A -d51.104 debugging switch setting can be used to prevent deletion of the xf file.

See Section 11.3.2 for a way to relocate xf files to a memory-based filesystem.

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