Mail Access Protocols

Mail Access Protocols


Once SMTP delivers the message from Alice’s mail server to Bob’s mail server, the message is placed in Bob’s mailbox. Throughput this discussion we have tacitly assumed that Bob reads his mail by logging onto the server host and then executing a mail reader that runs on that host. Up until the early 1990s this was the standard way of doing things. But today, mail access uses a client-server architecture – the typical user reads e-mail with a client that executes on the user’s end system, for example, on an office PC, a laptop, or a smartphone. By executing a mail client on a local PC, users enjoy a rich set of features, including the ability to view multimedia messages and attachments.

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Given that Bob (the recipient) executes his user agent on his local PC, it is natural to consider placing a mail server on his local PC as well. With this approach, Alice’s mail server would dialogue directly with Bob’s PC. There is a problem with this approach, however. Recall that a mail server manages mailboxes and runs the client and server sides of SMTP. If Bob’s mail server were to reside on his local PC, then Bob’s PC would have to remain always on, and connected to the internet, in order to receive new mail, which can arrive at any time. This is impractical for many internet users. Instead, a typical user runs a user agent of the local PC but accesses its mailbox stored on an always-on shared mail server. This mail server is shared with other users and is typically maintained by the user’s ISP (for example, university or company).

Now let’s consider the path an e-mail message takes when it is sent from Alice to Bob. We just learned that at some point along the path the e-mail message needs to be deposited in Bob’s mail server. This could be done simply by having Alice’s user agent send the message directly to Bob’s mail server. And this could be done with SMTP – indeed, SMTP has been designed for pushing e-mail from one host to another. However, typically the sender’s user agent does not dialogue directly with the recipient’s mail server. Instead, as shown in figure 2.18, Alice’s user agent uses SMTP to push the e-mail message into her mail server, then Alice’s mail server uses SMTP (as an SMTP client) to relay the email message to Bob’s mail server. Why the two-step procedure? Primarily because without relaying through Alice’s mail server, Alice’s user agent doesn’t have any recourse to an unreachable destination mail server. By having Alice first deposit the e-mail in her own mail server, Alice’s mail server can repeatedly try to send the message to Bob’s mail server, say every 30 minutes, until Bob’s mail server becomes operational. (And if Alice’s mail server is down, then she has the recourse of complaining to her system administrator!) The SMTP RFC defines how the SMTP commands can be used to relay a message across multiple SMTP servers.

But there is still one missing piece to the puzzle! How does a recipient like Bob, running a user agent on his local PC, obtain this message, which are sitting in a mail server within Bob’s ISP? Note that Bob’s user agent can’t use SMTP to obtain the messages because obtaining the messages is a pull operation, whereas SMTP is a push protocol. The puzzle is completed by introducing a special mail access protocol that transfers messages from Bob’s mail server to his local PC. There are currently a number of popular mail access protocols, including Post Office Protocol- Version 3 (POP3), Internet Mail Access Protocol (IMAP), and HTTP.

Figure 2.18 provides a summary of the protocols that are used for internet mail: SMTP  is used to transfer mail from the sender’s mail server to the recipients mail server; SMTP is also used to transfer mail from the sender’s user agent to the sender’s mail server. A mail access protocol, such as POP3, is used to transfer mail from the recipient’s mail server to the recipient’s user agent.


POP3 is an extremely simple mail access protocol. It is defined in [RFC 1939], which is short and quite readable. Because the protocol is so simple, its functionality is rather limited. POP3 begins when the user agent (the client) opens a TCP connection to the mail server (the server) on port 110. With the TCP connection established , POP3 progresses through three phases: authorization, transaction, and update. During the first phase, authorization, the user agent sends a username and a password (in the clear) to authenticate the user. During the second phase, transaction, the user agent retrieves messages; also during this phase, the user agent can mark messages for deletion, remove deletion marks, and obtain mail statistics. The third phase, update, occurs after the client has issued the quit command, ending the POP3 session; at this time, the mail server deletes the messages that were marked for deletion.

In a POP3 transaction, the user agent issues commands, and the server responds to each command with a reply. There are two possible responses: +OK (sometimes followed by server-to-client data), used by the server to indicate that the previous command was fine; and –ERR, used by the server to indicate that something was wrong with the previous command.

The authorization phase has two principal commands: user<username> and pass<password>. To illustrate these two commands, we suggest that you Telent directly into a POP3 server, using port 110, and issue these commands. Suppose that mailServer is the name of your mail server. You will see something like:

telnet mailServer 110

+OK POP3 server ready

User bob


Pass hungry

+OK user successfully logged on

If you misspell a command, the POP3 server will reply with an –ERR message.

Now let’s take a look at the transaction phase. A user agent using POP3 can often be configured (by the user) to “download and delete” or to “download and keep”. The sequence of commands issued by a POP3 user agent depends on which of these two modes the user agent is operating in. In the download-and-delete mode, the user agent will issue the list, retr, and dele commands. As an example, suppose the user has two messages in his or her mailbox. In the dialogue below, C: (standing for client) is the user agent and S: (standing for server) is the mail server. The transaction will look something like:

C: list

S: 1  498

S: 2  912

S: .

C: retr  1

S: (blah blah .......

S: ..........

S: ............ blah)
S: .

C: dele  1

C: retr  2

S: ..................

S: ...............blah)

S: .

C: dele  2

C: quit

S:  +OK POP3 server signing off

The user agent first asks the mail server to list the size of each of the stored messages. The user agent then retrieves and deletes each message from the server. Note that after the authorization phase, the user agent employed only four commands: list , retr, dele, and quit. The syntax for these commands is defined in RFC 1939. After processing the quit command, the POP3 server enters the update phase and removed messages 1 and 2 from the mailbox.

A problem with this download-and-delete mode is that the recipient, Bob, may be nomadic and may want to access this mail messages from multiple machines, for example, his office PC, his home PC, and his portable computer. The download-and-delete mode partitions Bob’s mail messages over these three machines; in particular , if Bob reads a message on his office PC, he will not be able to reread the message from this portable at home later in the evening. In the download-and-delete keep mode, the user agent leaves the messages on the mail server after downloading them. In this case, Bob can reread messages from different machines; he can access a message from work and access it again later in the week from home.

During a POP3 session between a user agent and the mail server, the POP3 server maintains some state information; in particular, it keeps track of which user messages have been marked deleted. However, the POP3 server does not carry state information across POP3 sessions. This lack of state information across sessions greatly simplifies the implementation of a POP3 server.


With POP3 access, once Bob has downloaded his messages to the local machine, he can create mail folders and move the downloaded messaged into the folders. Bob can then delete messages, move messages across folder, and search for messages (by sender name or subject). But this paradigm-namely , folders and messages in the local machine – poses a problem for the nomadic user, who would prefer to maintain a folder hierarchy on a remote server that can be assessed from any computer. This is not possible with POP3 –the POP3 protocol does not provide any means for a user to create remote folders and assign messages to folders.

To solve this and other problems, the IMAP protocol, defined in [RFC 3501], was invented. Like POP3, IMAP is a mail access protocol. It has many more features than POP3, but it is also significantly more complex. (And thus the client and server side implementation are significantly complex).

An IMAP server will associate each message with a folder; when a message first arrives at the server, it is associated with the recipient’s INBOX folder. The recipient can then move the message into a new, user-created folder, read the message, delete the message, and so on. The IMAP protocol provides commands to allow users to create folders and move messages from one folder to another. IMAP also provides command that allow users to search remote folders for messages matching specific criteria. Note that, unlike POP3, an IMAP server maintains user state information across IMAP sessions – for example, the names of the folders and which messages are associated with which folders.

Another important  feature of IMAP is that it has commands that permit a user agent to obtain components of messages. For example, a user agent can obtain just the message header of a message or just one part of a multipart MIME message. This feature is useful when there is low-bandwidth connection (for example, a slow-speed modem link) between the user agent and its mail server. With a low-bandwidth connection, the user may not want to download all of the messages in its mailbox, particularly avoiding long messages that might contain, for example, an audio or video clip.

Web –Based E-Mail

More and more users today are sending and accessing their e-mail though their browsers. Hotmail introduced web-based access in the mid 1990s. Now web-based e-mail is also provided by Google, Yahoo! , as well as just about every major university and corporation. With this service, the user agent is an ordinary web browser and the user communicates with its remote mailbox via HTTP. When a recipient such as Bob, wants to access a message in his mailbox, the e-mail message is sent from Bob’s mail server to Bob’s browser using the HTTP protocol rather than the POP3 or IMAP protocol. When a sender, such as Alice, wants to send an e-mail message, the e-mail message is sent from her browser to her mail server over HTTP rather than over SMTP. Alice’s mail server, however, still sends messages to, and receives messaged from , other mail servers using SMTP.